Even if it never gets to court in Britain, Tesla Motors’ 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.
Although the show originally ran in December of 2008, and this would appear to be an argument about ancient history, Reyes pointed to two important facts about the Top Gear segment: a) It’s endlessly repeated in syndication of a very popular show (DVDs, too), and b) It’s available online, 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, whose host Jeremy Clarkson said that the Roadster “doesn’t really 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. “They all want to know, ‘Did you fix those Top Gear problems yet?’” The car was presented as pretty much of a disaster, with 55 miles of range on the track, bad brakes, and eventually an overall failure that required strong men to push it into the garage.
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 last week 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 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.
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 should take a lot of artistic license. But maybe BBC’s top-rated wags shouldn’t have pushed that Roadster into the garage.
Green Wheels: Tesla vs. TV
A lawsuit over an unfavorable review
Jim Motavalli photo