Tesla and its Implications for the Future of of Data Journalism

If you haven’t heard of Tesla yet, it’s the automaker-turned-energy-company that’s revolutionizing the electric car industry — and on a deeper level, how journalists handle and analyze data.

Model S on the left and Model X with falcon-wing doors on the right.

First, for the car.

Today, Tesla offers two types of vehicles: a luxury sedan called Model S and a SUV called Model X. A third vehicle, fittingly named Model 3, is available for pre-order and is slated for a 2017 release.

It’s important to note that these cars aren’t cheap. The most basic Model S will cost you $68,000 while the cheapest Model X runs at $88,800. Next year’s Model 3, the automaker’s first entry-level car, is expected to cost around $35,000 before government incentives. It is also widely regarded to be the first mass-produced electric vehicle as pre-orders are expected to reach half a million.

The cars themselves are a thing of beauty. They’re a mode of transportation, but also a piece of technology.

Being an electric vehicle, there’s no engine. Instead, lithium-ion battery cells power the motor(s). Tesla sells different versions directly to consumers with no middleman or car dealerships based on two main criteria: the size of the battery and the number of motors.

The interior of a Model S. The dashboard shows the doors that are open, speed, remaining range, the current time, date and outdoor weather and music that’s playing. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

For Model S, battery sizes come in 60, 75, 90 and 100 kilowatt hours (kWh). Model X features the same sizes minus the 60-kWh option. In short, two motors is “stronger” than one and the bigger the battery the better.

Reviewing the Tesla models is no easy task because it’s a piece of technology as much as it as a car. With that in mind, some of the perks of owning a Tesla include no visits to the gas station, updates sent over-the-air, free charging access*, autopilot**, and falcon-wing doors***.

An example of a Tesla Supercharger. As of Dec. 5, 2016, there are 751 Supercharger stations with 4,479 Superchargers. Photo via Wikipedia.

The biggest drawback to this, and any, line of electric vehicles is what’s called range anxiety. Like a gas meter, Tesla’s range meter is only an estimate of the remaining miles you have before the car turns off.

Charging stations are less common than gas stations and also take considerably longer. A 30-minute charge gives you 170 miles of range. Outdoor temperature, car speed and weight can all drain battery.

Now what does all of this mean for journalists?

To start, there’s been no shortage of things to write about when it comes to Tesla. Whether it’s countries attempting to lure Tesla to build its new gigafactory on their soil, reviews of the new-ish Model X, or the acquisition of SolarCity, Tesla will be in the news because it’s so different.

But aside from dozens of articles and reviews, Telsa’s impact on journalism has the potential to be great.

For one, journalists might be able to catch up on some sleep, like this guy****.

On a more serious note, Telsa’s affect on journalism won’t be because of it’s fancy gadgets or autonomous driving ability.

Instead, the focus will be on the type of information the car itself can provide.

Since Tesla’s cars are always connected to the internet, they are always transmitting data. Owners can track data like the speed of the car, its route, power consumption and when and where it charged via the Tesla Motors app.

In the event of an accident, Tesla has cooperated with authorities in handing over relevant data.

As more automotive companies manufacture electric cars, an increase of accident reports will be data-driven. In the past, Tesla has refuted claims by drivers in accidents who blamed the vehicle for accidents by showing the driver data (see here, here and here).

Expect more driver data to become public information when more electronic cars hit the road. However, with all the data that will be out there, it will be as important as ever to comb through the data with a sharp eye and not make any assumptions.

In 2013, John Broder of the New York Times wrote a largely negative review of the Tesla Model S that started an altercation between Broder and Tesla CEO Elon Musk.

Broder’s piece prompted Musk to respond with his own findings using the data from Broder’s trip, and Broder published a rebuttal.

While Musk claims Broder drove around in a parking lot to intentionally run out of battery, there is no way to substantiate those claims.

As Taylor Owen of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism said:

“Data is laden with intentionality, and cannot be removed from the context in which it was derived. We do not know, from these data alone, what happened in that parking lot.”

What’s interesting about Musk’s interpretation of the data is exactly that: it’s an interpretation. Musk took the raw data, which he didn’t share, and put in charts that make Broder look like the bad guy. With the lack of transparency, there’s no way to really know what happened — we can only rely on different interpretations.

Broder’s “problems with precision and judgment” meant his trust and credibility went out the window. But for Tesla, it seems as if he attack was a chance for Musk to use it as PR.

This is just one example of what journalists have to decipher when dealing with data. It will be up to the reporter to sift through the data, find what is relevant and present it in an understandable fashion. It’s important that data isn’t fact and that context is just as important. Context is something data can’t provide, no matter how much of it there is. The human aspect is vital.

*Superchargers are only free for cars purchased before Jan. 1, 2017 OR delivered by April 1, 2017. Vehicles purchased or delivered after those dates will pay a small fee.
**“Enhanced Autopilot should still be considered a driver’s assistance feature with the driver responsible for remaining in control of the car at all times.” One driver who died in a crash with his Model S was allegedly watching Harry Potter on his smartphone at the time of impact.
***Only available on the Model X.
****Falling asleep at the wheel is dangerous and not recommended. Telsa has since added an update where the driver must intermittently put their hands on the steering wheel.