I’m going to make an assertion here. Any car enthusiast is, by definition, a fan of the BBC show Top Gear. Unless of course, such a person hasn’t seen it, and to that individual I say, check it out on BBC America sometime, you’ll love it!
The show has gained so much international acclaim that the franchise has spawned an Australian and US version. The reason the show is so popular is that it’s pure entertainment. Take the most exotic cars, throw in a few well known celebrity guests, undertake any number of “do-not-try-this-at-home” antics, then combine it all with some well-crafted videography, and you’ve got a winning formula.
But remember, it’s really all just entertainment. It’s not about being fair and balanced.
This is because any story they tell only works providing it meets one of two imperatives – excitement or humor – preferably both at the same time. Enter the Nissan LEAF, and the producers decided to serve the humor imperative.
You see, they can’t help themselves from banging on about an electric vehicle’s limited range, and it’s just too funny to watch the host, Jeremy Clarkson, running out of battery power in the middle of a small English town. There he is, bemused at the lack of abundant charging stations, while helplessly holding the plug in his hand, on a grass-bank, by a canal. Really, he’s the idiot – but he’d like you to think Nissan is.
Nissan however, were not amused. As this piece details, the company claims the show deceived its viewers – the telematics system on the car had been wirelessly updating Nissan as to how the Top Gear were using it – and this revealed Top Gear ignored a system of safeguards to prevent them running out of power. Meanwhile, the producers retorted by saying the show was merely highlighting the limitations of a battery vehicle’s range – for the sake of amusement? Now, range is a disadvantage of today’s EVs of course, but it doesn’t help that Top Gear started out with less than a 40% charge before running into their alleged dead battery! But no matter, when you’re filming an entertainment show, why travel 100 miles to extend the range before capturing the point you want to make?
Of course, they don’t treat all cars this way. A regular super-car on the show, the Bugatti Veyron, is never subject to such ridicule. Only awe. And it is indeed an impressive beast. It’s the fastest production car on the planet, develops over 1000 horsepower and squeezes out 253 mph on the track. But if you drive it at that speed continuously, you’ll get 12 minutes of driving time before you run the tank dry – Get that? 12 minutes driving range and you’re out of juice! Strange – we never saw Clarkson wandering around a test track with a confused look on his face, holding an empty gas-can wondering where on earth the gas station went to! This car of course, works for the show because its just sooooo exciting! No humor necessary.
Which leads me to this article by James Murray, in Business Green. He makes the point that the show’s main failure is that it treats the electric car as if it has to be judged against the conventional wisdom of what we expect a car to be – as opposed to judging it as something new and different – something that offers distinct alternative attributes and function. Top Gear could have taken the high-road and recognized things like the fact the LEAF can cut fuel bills, improve urban air quality and reduce our dependance on foreign oil. Just as it could recognize the Veyron as insanely impractical, obscenely thirsty and wholly irresponsible.
But man! what a boring show that would be.
Editor’s Note: This is actually the second time Clarkson and the Top Gear crew have been caught faking a dead battery with an electric car. They did it this spring with Tesla and have since been sued for it. It’s frankly reprehensible to me that someone supposedly interested in the future of transportation would behave so dishonestly.
For a closer look, here’s a short video of the new UK show “fully charged”: