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Tesla to Top Gear in Lawsuit: Stop Punching Us in the Face

Even if it never gets to court in Britain, Tesla Motors' (TSLA) lawsuit against the BBC's Top Gear program for trashing the company's Roadster will have been tried in the media. Both Tesla vice president Ricardo Reyes and Top Gear producer Andy Wilman have now taken to the blogosphere to give their side of the story. Frankly, I sympathize with Tesla on this one.

A mixed review

The Top Gear review isn't a one-sided attack. It actually starts out positive with host Jeremy Clarkson lauding the car's off-the-line performance ("Biblically quick"), range and cost-per-fill-up. But then the disputed part -- Clarkson claims that the car will run out of charge on the test track after 55 miles, followed by a shot of the car being pushed. He complains that the motor overheated, leaving him with reduced power, and that "broken" brakes shut down the second car. The result: Clarkson with no car to drive, and a damning verdict on Tesla performance in the real world.

Tesla disputes nearly all of the bad stuff. As spokesman Ricardo Reyes detailed in a blog post:

  • The company has the Roadster certified at 211 miles of charge, and while it does lose some of that on the track, a claim of 55 miles represents "incomplete analysis."
  • Neither car went below 25 percent of charge, so they didn't need to be pushed.
  • The power brakes on the second car simply popped a fuse, but the brakes remained "operational and safe."
Three years old... but always fresh online
Although the show originally ran in December of 2008, seemingly making this an argument about ancient history, Reyes pointed out to me two important facts about the Top Gear segment:
  • It's endlessly repeated in syndication of a very popular show (DVDs, too);
  • It's available online, on YouTube, and comes up early in Google searches.
That means, he said -- paraphrasing CEO Elon Musk -- that it's like a guy who keeps punching you every time you get up.

Maybe Tesla got over its personal reaction to the show when Clarkson said that the Roadster "doesn't seem to work" in the real world. But for the company, it's more than personal -- it's business. Reyes said that the Top Gear segment comes up repeatedly during investor meetings on both sides of the Atlantic. According to Reyes, "They all want to know, 'Did you fix those Top Gear problems yet?'"

A bad buy?
The Roadster costs $109,000, money you're not going to want to spend on an electric car that blows more fuses than a string of old Christmas lights. But Roadsters have in fact covered more than 10 million miles, and they haven't been all that trouble prone. Owners I've talked to say their cars are reliable, and routinely deliver something close to the 211 miles of range Tesla claims.

Milman says he issued his rebuttal on Wednesday because Tesla has "been very busy promoting its side of the argument through the media." He then proceeds to make a case for the program's editorial integrity, but he also admits that the Roadster wasn't really immobilized, just running on "reduced power." If so, it's unclear why it had to be pushed back to home base.

Reyes also says that Top Gear pre-judged the Roadster, because it found a script with the "doesn't really seem to work" line in one of the test cars. Milman has a defense of that, saying that the car had been put through some test miles before the show, and anyway, its opinion was based on the car being a bad value. But it seems to me that all the evidence should be in before the verdict is delivered. And any casual viewer seeing a car being pushed will conclude that it, well, really doesn't work.

In an unsigned follow-up blog post after Wilman had his say, Tesla posted a similar thought, "Surely they could have come to that conclusion without staging misleading scenes that made the car look like it didn't work."

Tesla has made its point by publicizing the suit, which isn't really about money -- Tesla is asking for a maximum of £100,000 (around $160,000). A settlement is possible, though Tesla probably filed in the British courts because it's much easier to get a libel judgment there.

I'm no big fan of lawsuits, and Tesla should be able to take a joke. Top Gear is a damned funny show, and it has a right to take a lot of artistic license. But maybe BBC's top-rated wags shouldn't have pushed that Roadster into the garage.

Watch for yourself:

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Photo: Jim Motavalli