By on April 3, 2011

Compared to smothering hugs, ample booze and possibly a little deniable blackmail, suing a media outlet rarely is the best way to perform the skillful art of public relations. This is what Tesla is finding out right now.

Most likely after throwing words of caution by its own PR folk to the wind, Tesla decided to bring a defamation suit against the BBC’s Top Gear. According to Tesla’s own blog, Top Gear perpetrated “serious and damaging lies,” such as claiming that “the Roadster’s true range is only 55 miles per charge. “ Of course, writes Tesla’s Communication VP Ricardo Reyes in the blog, Tesla is “not doing this for money. As the world leader in EV technology, Tesla owes it to the public to stop Top Gear’s disinformation campaign and provide the truth. “

Top Gear has its own blog. In it, Top Gear’s Executive Producer Andy Wilman answers with some counter battery fire. Normally, says Wilman, when a suit is brought, both sides keep their respective mouths and blogs shut while “brainy people wearing wigs” (lawyers wear wigs in the UK, at least in court, sometimes … never mind) argue over the matter. “Tesla, however, doesn’t seem content to wait for the legal eagles to settle matters,” says Wilman. “On the contrary, it’s been very busy promoting its side of the argument through the media.”

Tesla’s PR agency PHA Media even contacted the British TV program “The One Show” and invited them to “have some fun with this.” Too bad The One Show is a show of BBC One (hence the name), and it just so happened that Top Gear “accidentally received” the email. Which allowed Top Gear to have some fun with it.

No longer bound to the “pre-legal etiquette of keeping schtum until we get our day in court,” Wilman then provides a point for point rebuttal. The core is that Top Gear “never said that the Tesla’s true range is only 55 miles, as opposed to their own claim of 211, or that it had actually ran out of charge. In the film our actual words were: ‘We calculated that on our track it would run out after 55 miles’.”

That 55 miles number did not come from Top Gear’s “heads, but from Tesla’s boffins in California. They looked at the data from that car and calculated that, driven hard on our track, it would have a range of 55 miles.” (Before lawyers prepare another defamation suit: “Boffins” is nothing bad. In British English, it stands for people engaged in technical or scientific research. At worst, “boffin” could be understood as “geek.”)

Tesla concedes that Clarkson said: “Although Tesla say it will do 200 miles we worked out that on our track it would run out after just 55 miles.”

I guess even a wig-wearing judge will give this one to Top Gear. (Note to Tesla: When quoting from videos, QUOTE VERBATIM.)

As for the rest, if you are interested in a lot of he said, she said, here is Tesla’s blog, and here is Top Gear’s rebuttal.

Again, if Tesla would ask me for advice (I’m sure they won’t) I’d tell them to quietly settle. Each blog on the planet that writes about that stuff will do what we do, and link to Youtube. There, at the times of this typing, the Tesla segment already had racked up 336,139 views. (Not counting other clips of the same segment floating around in various digital formats.) If what is said there indeed is lies, then this is how lies multiply.

Should Tesla win, and the segment is blocked from retransmission, that Youtube flick will become a collector’s item. And what will people remember? That the Tesla is running out of battery mighty fast. Which  Tesla most likely does not want them to remember.

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31 Comments on “Tesla Vs. Top Gear: The War Of The Blogs...”

  • avatar

    Had Tesla put a fast charging connector on the car, like the Japanese Chademo standard one, the issue would be completely moot.

  • avatar

    Stupid, indeed. To go to court 2 years after the piece in question has been aired says all. Tesla should have used the money to tackle range issues. Instead, they are throwing out their money on useless PR people & lawyers. Except for the range problem, they did get an almost enthusiastic review, btw.
    I can’t understand their reasoning, even after reading their blog.

    • 0 avatar

      Is there a range issue?  Doesn’t any car use a lot more gas when run hard on a track than their official fuel consumption numbers

    • 0 avatar

      The lesson behind this little dustup is that Elon Musk should have kept co-founder Martin Eberhard on the payroll. As long as Martin spoke for Tesla, everyone loved the company. He may or may not have been the right person as head of production, but as a spokesperson and visionary he was worth his weight in gold.
      I’m sure Martin could have resolved this amicably, probably by asking for an additional segment with a correction.
      I have some sympathy with Musk about this segment. The problem is not that any facts are wrong, but that the script packed a real emotional wallop, from the car behaving beautifully on the track, being a lot of fun, to the bleak segments when the car didn’t run. I mean, wow. It was like a tragedy in three acts. What was not said, what was just implied, is that this thing has pathetic range and will constantly break down. That emotional implication was not bolstered by the facts, and that’s why Musk went ballistic.
      Unfortunately, emotional manipulation is perfectly legal, and I am confident of that 55 mile range based on Jeremy Clarkson’s, ahem, over-enthusiastic driving. The implications of this segment were indeed fraudulent, perhaps even premeditatedly so, but if we banned all programming that tugged on the emotions in ways not necessarily fitting the facts, there would be precious little television left …
      In the Internet era, the golden rule of public relations is to let problematical material like this die a natural death.  Lawsuits exhume it and make it seem far more important than it is. Heck, I realized this when I ran a small-time BBS in Los Angeles back in 1997. The more you involve yourselves with rebutting jerks, the more like a jerk you appear to be.
      Elon Musk needs to learn that. Or, perhaps, stick to his spacecraft where he has a far less skeptical press …

  • avatar
    The Doctor

    The whole debacle says more about Elon Musk’s business practices than anything else. Top Gear has made more glaring errors about cars from other manufacturers but because those companies are run by grown-ups, they shrug their shoulders and find better things to do than warm up their legal teams.

    • 0 avatar

      Top Gear is about entertainment, pure and simple. They hack up the information all the time to be humorous, which IMHO is cool.
      I think that Elon Musk is going to be the next Malcolm Bricklin. If things get really wonky, maybe he’ll end up as the next John Z Delorean; now that would make “The News” on Top Gear.

  • avatar

    More on the email according to Andy Wilman: “It says: “PHA Media represent Tesla and this could make for a fantastic interview.” And the PHA man’s not finished there. “The presenters could have some fun with this.” He adds. “Matt and Alex could even take the Tesla for a spin and test it out, reaffirming its virtues?” Plenty of respect for editorial independence in that last line there and I wish the chaps from PHA Media all the best in their crusade.”

    That’s mighty revealing. Tesla assumes the media will help spread their EV propaganda.

  • avatar

    Tesla makin’ top gear look good

  • avatar

    what you don’t hear about is how often these suits against media outlets are successful.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    PR flaks shape the stores you see in print and on TV all the time.

  • avatar
    John Fritz

    No one cares what Tesla has to say. Top Gear on the other hand…

  • avatar

    I’m not so sure it’s Tesla that’s shooting itself in the foot here. Fact is: people are suckers for the truth. Showing footage of a car being pushed while making a vague remark about range problems while the car is perfectly capable of running under it’s own power may technically not be lying but it’s certainly manipulative to the point that it is in fact a lie. The same goes for showing a stalled car on the track that’s in fact still in running condition.
    If Tesla gets the message through that Top Gear is less than honest with it’s viewers, those viewers may start to wonder what else it’s lying about. The horrible truth is: about everything! All those items that look so spontaneous and real are in fact carefully scripted in advance and subsequently staged according to the script.  Read allcarselectric’s Nikki Gordon-Bloomfield’s enlightening article about Top Gear’s inner workings here:
    I reckon this is the kind of stuff Top Gear doesn’t like highlighted in the media. Most people probably realize that Top Gear is not about automotive journalism but rather a clown show with cars in it, but nobody likes to be lied to.

  • avatar

    Giant Douche versus Turd Sandwich.

  • avatar
    Greg Locock

    Actual link to top gear blog , the one in the article is just tesla’s

  • avatar

    So the folks at Tesla took Top Gears track data, gave them the 55 mile range, Top Gear is very clear in their quote that under track conditions on their track the car would have a 55 mile range.
    Again, unless Tesla has learned to change the laws of physics, a vehicle under load uses more energy than a vehicle being gently used. Give me a Prius and put it on a high speed handling oval and run it to its top end, you’re not going to get 51 MPG; not even close – but that doesn’t make me a liar for observing that point, and it doesn’t make Toyota a liar for claiming 51 MPG.
    I’ll say this again in closing. Here is the real message. If you write one bad thing about the Tesla S, we – will – sue – your – ass. Tesla has a lot to be worried. The fanbois like to trumpet how the Tesla S will have a 300 mile range, and can be bought for around $58,000 (before government handouts). Both statements, on their own, are true. But $58K will get you 140 miles – you’ll need to push $80,000 to get the more usable range. Tesla has a reason to send a chill to the media – because the S is going to be DoA beyond the uber Hollywood look at me I’m saving the planet types.

    • 0 avatar

      Holden, Top Gear has made the point of your second paragraph as well. To my knowledge, no legal action was taken by Toyota.

  • avatar

    Tesla needs the press. They’re a bit yesterday.
    That Fisker looks a lot nicer now that it’s out than when it was just a concept. And, it goes for EV-er. Ha!

    • 0 avatar

      Not really, the upcoming Model S is actually a lot more practical, not extrovert to the point that it could put people off and even the top of the range 300 miles version is  a lot cheaper than the Fisker Karma .

  • avatar
    Chicago Dude

    Tesla’s stock is up around 13% since they filed the lawsuit.  It could be a coincidence, of course.

  • avatar

    these sort of lawsuits by companies are never a good sign. why wait 2 years?

    Will Tesla sue owners who complain about poor mileage on blogs/review websites?

    I wonder how long it takes before Tesla starts suing short sellers of its stock.

  • avatar

    Once all this legal wrangling is all finished, you know what Top Gear should do?

    Track test another Tesla Roadster.

  • avatar

    I hope they (Tesler) lose and they have to pay all legal fee’s incurred by Top Gear.

  • avatar

    I like Top Gear but I hardly take their car reviews as serious.  The fact that Tesla does causes me some concern about their management. 

  • avatar

    I don’t know about stupid but fact is that people tend to take things serious if they are on TV. A lawsuit like this could be an eye opener for some people not to let the idiot box do their thinking for them.

  • avatar

    Speaking of blogs, I’m curious – how does TTAC compare to other auto sites as far as numbers of comments average per topic? In my very limited research, the comments on TTAC appear to be generally more than a single sentence and more intelligent than most other sites.

    The Russian slapping contest a couple of weeks ago that went on between TTAC and an “unmentioned” site, someone related that their traffic was still higher. Why? TTAC, in my opinion, is the best out there. I go over to Autoblog and their responses often go over 100. Why? That site seems to me to be a cheering section for anything on 4 wheels. Or is it me?

    • 0 avatar

      Autoblog is part of AOL, which drives traffic to their site. Jalopnik is part of the Gawker family of sites, which does the same. While TTAC is part of a corporate family of sites, some of which you’ll see linked to at the top of the home page, our corporate overlords don’t really do much to promote the site. That’s a two-edged sword. Gawker promotes Jalopnik, but then Jalopnik has to run articles crossposted from Jezebel and other Gawker sites (and Ray recently complained that when he’s pitched Gawker on syndicating Jalop’s content to other Gawker sites he’s been turned down). We may not get promoted by VS as much as we’d like, but they leave us alone and let us say what we want to say.
      Still, Jalopnik gets enough traffic that their editors get flown to Vegas to test drive Aston Martins.
      It’s hard to grow traffic to the point where you can monetize a site from advertising. I respect the success that Autoblog, Jalopnik and TTAC have. Considering that he didn’t have something like AOL or Gawker backing him, Farago did a remarkable job turning TTAC into a viable operation.

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