Last week, New York Times reporter John Broder decided to give Tesla's (NASDAQ:TSLA) Model S Sedan a test drive from Washington, DC to Boston. The Times had already conducted a test drive in California last September that was relatively positive. Broder was motivated to give it a shot on the East Coast because Tesla had just installed charging stations that made the trip possible.
The results -- sad to say -- were not encouraging for Broder. He never made it to Boston.
What went wrong
The Model S Sedan had an estimated 265 miles per charge, and the charging stations were 200 miles apart. In theory, this should have given Broder enough energy to make it safely to each charging station.
In practice, however, it was a different story. The car's range display began falling quicker than it should have been when entering New Jersey. Attempting to eek out all the miles he could, Broder significantly reduced his speed -- he was going 54 miles per hour in a 65 zone -- and turned the heat off inside the car. This is especially important to note, as it was around 30 degrees outside at the time.
Given these changes, Broder made it to the second charging station in Milford, Connecticut before running out of juice.
The problems continued, however, that night and into the next day. When Broder parked the car for the night, it said he had 90 miles of range left -- which was more than he needed. When he awoke the next morning, however, the range dropped down to 25 -- likely due to the cold weather. Eventually, this led to him needing to get towed.
When the story hit the presses, the stock dropped3%.
Was it really Tesla's fault?
No sooner had the Times story been published, however, than Tesla CEO Elon Musk had pointed out three errors Broder had committed which made his trip more difficult than it should have been.
Among those errors, which Tesla was able to monitor because of agreed-upon tracking logs of the car's behavior, were: the car was not fully charged at each station, Broder had gone above the speed limit, and he had entered Manhattan during rush hour.
Bloomberg also published several tweets by Musk, stating: "NYTimes article about Tesla range in cold is fake," and, "Vehicle logs tell true story that he didn't actually charge to max & took a long detour."
In the end, one analyst following the company said the problems were likely due to operator errors in charging the car. It seems to me that the "long detour" Musk referred to was -- embarrassingly -- when the car had to be towed.
But here's the real problem
Even if we give Tesla the benefit of the doubt, the entire incident points out how long Tesla has to go before its Model S -- or any other electric car -- can be a viable option for the average American.
Consider: Even though Tesla pays for the charge at their installed stations -- these charges take about an hour. In order to obtain ideal mileage, certain restrictions need to be taken, like lowering one's speed, and turning off the heat; though it's never fun to be in, getting caught in rush-hour traffic could pose serious problems for drivers.
It's completely understandable that the first big electric car company would have issues like this. But it's also understandable that these kinds of restrictions -- plus a price tag that's north of $50,000 -- give the average American driver headaches.
I have no doubt that Tesla will eventually address these concerns -- improving its technology, educating its drivers, and building out charging stations. But it's important for investors to realize where Tesla is on the innovation curve below.
Right now, Tesla is in the Techies stage, and probably making inroads into the Visionary crowd. In order for an investment to really pay off, however, it needs to eventually reach the Pragmatists. That's not to say the company won't make it. Elon Musk is one innovative guy. But investors need to be aware of where the company is before jumping in headfirst.