Tesla Motors Defends its Range

This post is part of a blogging series by marketing students at the Presidio Graduate School’s MBA program. You can follow along here.

By Federico De Silva Leon

The electric vehicle (EV) is here to stay despite the many challenges it has faced, from the technology being ahead of the infrastructure to support it, to widespread skepticism from users, governments and competitors. But the EV has come a long way, and now a slew of new models are entering the market. They include recent models such as the Nissan Leaf, the Chevy Volt (although not pure electric) and of course Tesla Motors’ Roadster, a fully electric sports car, launched in 2008. The automakers are focusing their marketing messages on the role that EVs play on issues such as national security and the reliance on imported foreign oil.

Why are EVs here to stay?

Because finally the automakers, including Tesla, are tackling one of the most significant barriers to adopting EVs: battery capacity and the impact on the EV’s mileage (range).

Tesla has done a good job at taking range anxiety out of the equation with its Roadster, which gets 245 miles on a single charge. Using common lithium-ion batteries that are densely packed—found on many of today’s laptop computers—the Roadster can finally compete with many internal combustion engine vehicles, including sports cars. But this performance continues to be questioned by some skeptics, like BBC’s Top Gear television show, where an episode aired more than 2 years ago focused on the Tesla Roadster battery range.

According to Tesla, this popular car show has done great damage to the reputation of the young Silicon Valley car company, putting into question the Roadster’s mileage. This not only has the potential to hurt Tesla as a company, but can continue to play into the fears of weary consumers of EVs. This could put a dent on the current excitement for EVs, which appear to finally be swinging the pendulum towards cleaner, safer and more efficient modes of transportation. Because Tesla’s marketing strategy is almost exclusively through new media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and its website), it does not have the same clout as other car companies that can quickly squash rumors by running major TV, radio and print advertising.

So Tesla finally has done what many other companies do in such cases; On March 30, 2011, the company went on the offensive and filed a lawsuit against the popular BBC program. Tesla claims that the show, which has an international audience of more than 350 million viewers around 100 countries, continues to have significant negative impacts on the view of the Roadster.  Tesla claims that the show faked a scene where the Roadster, which had taken part in a road test, ran out of energy and had to be pushed into a garage. Ouch!! So, the lawsuit, if successful, may not be just for the benefit of Tesla, but it may be good for all of us in the long run, as the EV industry goes onto create new high tech jobs that can lessen the environmental impacts associated with our current modes of transportation (we’ll leave the issue about battery pack handling out for now).

The negative image created by the show must continue to be such a problem for Tesla that it felt compelled to launch this lawsuit, long after the program was tapped. Plenty of people on the internet have criticized Tesla for taking such action, stating that it should not be suing someone just for saying negative things about its products. And while we can argue that a law suit is perhaps not the best way to spend resources and tackle an issue like this, it does however go some ways towards stopping false rumors about one of the most sensitive issues for potential buyers of EVs: range anxiety.

In the end, is it not in our collective interest to move away from price-volatile and dirty fossil fuels and embrace new forms of transportation such as EVs? As much as I dislike the fact that Tesla is taking action against a television show, I’d say to go ahead and stop false rumors now, so Tesla can continue to work on providing the rest of the masses with lower-priced electric vehicles, not just pricey Roadsters, as its strategy calls.