Tesla's test drive: Manipulation or circumstance?
Mark Rechtin is West Coast editor for Automotive News.
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- George Orwell said, "Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations."
So what does it mean when a car company carefully orchestrates the media launch of a new vehicle and limits media test drives of that vehicle to 10 minutes on a controlled circuit?
Are members of the business and automotive press complicit in the company's public relations effort? Or is it simply a matter of circumstance that doesn't allow for a more thorough evaluation of a new vehicle?
I wrestled with these questions as I began writing my review of Tesla Motors' Model S electric vehicle. It is impossible to analyze a new product from a few short blocks of driving.
Tesla marked the beginning of Model S deliveries to customers on June 22 at its plant in Fremont, Calif., and offered the media a chance to drive the car.
The cars were the first retail-ready vehicles off the assembly line that week. The company has received driving requests from thousands of global media representatives. Tesla could not accommodate all of them.
So Tesla invited journalists it thought could best disseminate the Tesla story, acknowledging that the test drive would be abbreviated.
Some of those not invited railed about how Tesla only invited journalists who would write niceties. Or alleged, without factual backup, that Tesla was hiding something more sinister -- that its claimed 230-mile battery range was a falsehood.
In reality, there were at least 100 journalists from around the world. It was pretty much the A-list. Sure, some have been soft on the startup, but many in attendance have whacked Tesla on the nose with the rolled-up newspaper of integrity.
Did Tesla manipulate the media by limiting seat time? Of course. Conversely, when Fisker Automotive gave the press an entire day in its just-completed Karma hybrid, it opened itself up to more thorough dissection. Things you would never notice in 10 minutes -- the Karma's thrashy driveline, gaping interior panel gaps and claustrophobic back seat -- became apparent over the course of a day.
So, as of today, no one outside of Tesla knows if the Model S can achieve its vaunted mileage claims that are at least double that of any other EV. They just know it's pretty damn quick and corners flatter than roadkill.
Tesla's parade of interviews, a brief audience with its charismatic CEO and a short test drive given to a few journalists is no different from what Lamborghini does. It's smart PR, a company doing its job of getting the best press it can.
It is more galling when publications that attended the introduction do not give full disclosure. Headlines proclaiming "Exclusive First Drive!!!" as a manner of self-promotion is garishly inaccurate -- first because dozens of journalists were given first crack at the car on the same day, and second because it carries a promise of analysis that cannot be delivered.
When a publication's self promotion aligns with the publicity effort of a company the publication is supposed to cover objectively, the integrity of the coverage must be called into question.
A proper review of the Model S likely will come in a few weeks or months when a publication is given access to properly evaluate the vehicle. This was a teaser. It should be reported as such.
You can reach Mark Rechtin at email@example.com. -- Follow Mark on