LA to Vegas and back by electric car: Another unwarranted slam by a NY Times reporter

NY Times reporter Ivan Penn has Broder’d the whole concept of electric cars in an article describing his recent road trip between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Penn, whose beat for the NY Times focuses on alternative energy issues, had as a co-pilot an eVgo employee. You’d think that with expert assistance from a charging station network employee the trip would have been a breeze. But Penn’s writeup slams electric vehicles in almost every paragraph, making it sound like the road trip from hell.

“Broder’d”? That refers to yet another NY Times reporter, John Broder, who took a road trip with a Tesla Model S in February 2013. He wanted to test Tesla’s new Supercharger network by driving from NY City to Boston using a Tesla Model S. Broder ended up claiming to have had a horrible trip, and wrote an article slamming electric vehicles as a result. Within days of Broder’s report a CNN reporter took the same route and had great success, as did a group of Model S owners who did the same a couple days afterward. Like Penn, Broder’s beat was alternative energy and environmental issues.

The John Broder saga:

In that case Tesla used trip logs from the car Broder drove to show that Broder purposely screwed things up. This included driving his car around and around a parking lot apparently looking to deplete the battery pack.

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We have to wonder, what’s going on with the NY Times that they produce such slanted reports?

In Penn’s road trip he was accompanied by an eVgo employee. Presumably that means no subterfuge could be done. But the trip report is more than confusing, and if nothing else describes a stop that should not have been required.

The pair was driving a Chevy Bolt, a car that supports Combo Charging System fast charging. The route was from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, and the article describes stops at the Mall of Victor Valley, The Worlds Tallest Thermometer in Baker, and Whiskey Pete’s Hotel and Casino at Primm.

Commentary on Ivan Penn’s trip as reported in his NY Times article. The underlying map and charging station data is courtesy the PlugShare Trip Planner.

The Bolt has a range of about 240 miles. According to Google Maps, by highway the distance from the Mall of Victor Valley and Las Vegas itself is 182 miles and requires 2 hr 51 minutes to drive. Therefore the Bolt should have been able to easily drive that distance without stopping at Whiskey Pete’s. In theory they could have driven all the way from Victorville to Las Vegas in one charge, but stopping in Baker is wise to ensure a successful arrival in Las Vegas.

The best practice for driving an electric car on a road trip is not to charge to 100% unless absolutely necessary to reach the next destination. That means they should have charged to about 210 miles range at each charging stop. The 210 miles range minus 182 miles distance leaves about 30 miles of safety margin. That’s not quite enough, so stopping for a fast charge at Baker is wise.

Therefore the data should be:

  • Victor Valley to Baker: 99 miles, or about 1 hr 26 minutes driving. Should arrive with 110 miles range. Requires about 1 hour to charge back to 210 miles range.
  • Baker to Las Vegas: 80 miles, about 1 hr 7 minutes driving. Should arrive with 130 miles range. Requires about 1 hour to charge back to 210 miles range.
  • Las Vegas to Baker: 80 miles, about 1 hr 7 minutes driving. Should arrive with 130 miles range. Requires about 1 hour to charge back to 210 miles range.
  • Baker to Victor Valley: 99 miles, or about 1 hr 26 minutes driving. Should arrive with 110 miles range. Requires about 1 hour to charge back to 210 miles range.

This accounts for about 5 hrs 20 minutes of driving time, and 4 hours charging time (at a wild guess). Ivan Penn reported 8 hours driving time and 5 hours charging time. We don’t know where he started from to get to Victor Valley Mall. We do know he took an unnecessary stop at Whiskey Pete’s.

The only rationale I can come up with is “Mojave Desert during the summer”. The heat means a desire for air conditioning. Since the A/C consumes more energy the remaining range after each leg would have been less. But but not so much to consume the equivalent of 130 miles of range. The A/C causes about 15% greater energy consumption, meaning they would have arrived in Baker with closer to 100 miles remaining range, and then arrived in Las Vegas with about 120 miles range remaining.

Why did they stop at Whiskey Pete’s? The article does not say. The stop at Whiskey Pete’s is especially confusing since it is a 6 kiloWatt (Level 2) meaning it is inefficient time-wise to charge at that location. That stop therefore added a lot of charging time which was unnecessary.

For optimum travel time on an electric road trip, you charge using the quickest means available. Namely, DC fast charging. You do not stop at level 2 charging stations like the one at Whiskey Pete’s unless you’re in a desperate emergency situation.

Bottom line is that the reported data about the trip is fishy to high heaven. He had with him an employee of a charging network. They should have been using best practices and had a much easier trip than what Mr. Penn reported.

Ivan Penn Broders the Electric Car

I said earlier that Penn’s article slams electric cars all over the place. Let’s take a few quotes and discuss why I make that claim.

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Most electric cars need to be plugged in after they’ve traveled 200 to 250 miles — a much shorter distance than similarly sized gasoline vehicles can run on a full tank — and charging them can take an hour or more.

Ivan Penn, NY Times

Um, yes, and what does this prove? These numbers are a sign of the rapid improvements in electric cars. My electric car, bought 4 years ago, has a range of 93 miles, and at that time it was the longest range electric car made by a company other than Tesla Motors. Nowadays the typical EV has over 200 miles range. The car companies are promising 300+ miles range within a short time, and they are promising faster recharge time.

Mr. Penn could have used his writing skill to inform people of those trends.

Changing consumer habits is difficult in the best of circumstances, but it is much harder when a new technology makes it less convenient to use something as essential as your car.

Ivan Penn, NY Times

Does he complain this much about charging his cell phone or laptop computer? Both of those required a change of habits as well.

He quotes Eve Hogerheide, a teacher who lives in Sacramento:

“I just don’t know how it would work,” said Ms. Hogerheide, who shuttles two 11-year-olds and a 9-year-old around along with nieces and an exchange student in her Toyota Sienna minivan. “That’s why I don’t take that leap.”

Eve Hogerheide

It is common practice for Journalists to insert a personal quote like this in order to make the article more relatable. He could have found someone who could speak knowledgeably about electric vehicle ownership. Instead he chose this person who is clearly under-informed about the matter.

At best what Mrs. Hogerheide’s statement demonstrates is the amount of education required among our fellow human beings to understand electric vehicle ownership. Mr. Penn could have used his writing skills to perform a service by educating his readers. Instead he presented this quote without comment as part of a trend in the article of presenting electric vehicles in a negative light.

The article also attempts to describe the experience of some other drivers. One is a BMW i3 driver which is described this way:

Her two-year-old car cannot charge as fast as more recent models — for each hour it was plugged in, the car’s range increased by just 10 miles. All told, her i3 travels less than 120 miles on a full charge, though it also has a gasoline engine that can add 66 miles.

Ivan Penn, NY Times

This person has a BMW i3 REX. The “i3 REX” has a small gasoline engine meant to be a range boost. That it has 120 miles range means it was not the initial BMW i3, but the later model with the improved battery pack. The claim that range increases by 10 miles per hour of charging means it was charging at a 3 kiloWatt charging rate. That is extremely odd since eVgo only installs DC fast charging stations, and the BMW i3 has fast charging support. Even if the i3 were charging on a level 2 charger, that should have been a 6 kiloWatt charging rate which adds 20-25 miles range per hour of charging.

According to the eVgo mobile app, that location has two DC fast charge stations each supporting both CHAdeMO and ComboChargingSystem at 50 kiloWatts. However the PlugShare map shows a level 2 charging station owned by eVgo at that location. Such a station supports a 6 kiloWatt charge rate, and at the minimum that BMW i3 should have been gaining 20-25 miles range per hour of charging.

Mr. Penn could have used his writing skills to better explain this. As it is, this creates a lot of confusion and fear and uncertainty and doubt.

Engineers haven’t created batteries that can store as much energy as a gas tank, or be filled as quickly. While costs have come down a lot, batteries remain expensive, adding to the cost of the car, and they degrade over time, which means maximum mileage might decrease.

Ivan Penn, NY Times

That’s a particularly negative way to spin the situation. Another way to describe this situation is that car company engineers are on a path of rapid technology improvement. The costs are coming down rapidly, as evidenced by the fact it is now possible to buy 200+ mile range EV’s from several automakers in the $35,000 MSRP range. Three years ago that was a pipe dream, and now it is a reality. Further the charging speed is rapidly improving, and refueling time will improve as a result.

Bottom line is that’s the pattern Mr. Penn followed all through the article. He presented the negative perspective, putting electric vehicles in the worst light possible. At every step he could have educated his readers rather than giving them the worst spin on the story.

I have written some solid education about electric vehicle charging best practices on GreenTransportation.info. Of particular importance are these three sections:

  1. Learning Range Confidence
  2. Daily Driving and longer trips on electricity – putting range confidence into practice
  3. Autonomy and electric driving freedom

Mr. Penn reports on “alternative energy” for the NY Times, according to his Bio. Shouldn’t he be better informed about this topic than the article demonstrates?

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About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

3 Comments

  1. 1. You put vastly more thought into this matter than did the agendist who wrote the article.
    2. Of course the author had an agenda, because it’s the NYTimes, and the NYTimes is almost never without an agenda. If this hurts your sense of trust in the NYTimes, you weren’t paying attention in the first place — see point three.
    3. Here is an important lesson to take away from this example to apply to all media that you read / watch / hear. You should develop a very strong knowledge base for at least one specific topic. You should then closely read / watch/ listen to how the media source in question covers that specific topic. If the media source in question is regularly wrong, or regularly slants, or regularly ignores some stories but emphasizes other stories on that specific topic, then that media source absolutely should not be trusted to provide useful information on ANY topic. Rest assured, if it screws up your topic, it will screw up every topic. You may have to overcome your hope in wanting to trust the source, but you can do it: overcome that hope. Really. Kick it to the curb. On everything. Because, just like for you, integrity and credibility is the most important asset a media source can have, and if it loses that, then it has nothing.

    BTW: the NYTimes used to regularly have very good local writer Bradley Berman cover EVs. Yet, it appears he’s only had 1 article in the NYTimes in the past 6 years. Given that he is still writing plenty of articles for plenty of good media sources, I really doubt it is coincidence that the NYTimes no longer has him handling their EV coverage.

    • Yes I know better than to trust the NY Times fully. Generally speaking they do a good job of accurate reporting. But in some circumstances they are bought and paid for by certain agendas.

      Such as when Judith Miller and other NY Times folks were in cahoots with Cheney and the other Neocons to lie us all into the Iraq war – which UN Secretary General Kofi Anon later described as an illegal war.

      Such as the current phase of beating the drums of war against Iran.

      It’s not that I am deluded, but instead am calling attention to this for the benefit of others.

  2. I know you are not deluded. But, I want to reinforce the message: the NYTimes has an agenda for virtually each and every topic, and it should not be trusted on virtually each topic for that reason. Sure, Judy Miller, Sure, Jayson Blair. Sure, parts of the Iran story line. But it is deeper. I do not believe that the publisher and editors don’t create the agenda, and then keep working it. Lastly, I once heard a great line on this subject: ‘a newspaper can’t tell you what to think, but it can tell you what to think about.’

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