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Tesla feud highlights changing balance of power

A car ahead of its time. A machine unlike any other, springing fully-formed from the forehead of its creator - a brilliant, relentlessly driven entrepreneur.

A car ahead of its time.

A machine unlike any other, springing fully-formed from the forehead of its creator - a brilliant, relentlessly driven entrepreneur. Beleaguered by companies fighting to maintain the status quo, battling negative press at every turn, seemingly beset on all sides by those who would rather see it fail.

Oh, you think I'm talking about the Tesla Model S? Sorry, no: I was speaking of the Tucker Torpedo.

Certainly, there are parallels to be drawn between the negativity surrounding Elon Musk's current all-electric wondercar, and the doomed Tucker 48. The latter is one of the great tragic romances of American capitalism, and one wonders if, had Preston Tucker succeeded, whether we all might be driving around in cars with wild safety innovations and rear-mounted helicopter engines.

Sadly, an imbroglio with the Securities and Exchange Commission, stock fraud trial and other well-publicized woes torpedoed Tucker's hopes and dreams. The media moguls of the time flexed their mighty broadsheets and gave him both ink-barrels: doom soon followed.

Was it a conspiracy? Did Tucker really sail a little close to the wind? The record's a little fuzzy here, but the case can certainly be made that Preston Tucker flew too high, too fast, and the major auto manufacturers of the time clipped his wings.

When John Broder of the New York Times - the unassailable Grey Lady of journalism - wrote up his recent critique of Tesla's East Coast supercharger network, well, here we went again.

The new technology failed, leaving Mr. Broder stranded. Moreover, the entire trip was a nerve-wracking affair of trying to eke out maximum range with the constant spectre of getting stranded on the highway shoulder hovering in the background.

It's a nice car, sure, but not ready for prime time. Nail in coffin.

But these are different days. Media empires aren't what they once were, and the old Mark Twain adage, "Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel," has fallen by the wayside somewhat. Ink might be hard to come by; electrons are not.

And so, Elon Musk took to Twitter and his own blog, pointing out discrepancies in Mr. Broder's story. The Model S, you see, can be set up to track every mile driven, every flex of the throttle, every iota of telemetry. The car tattled, and Musk laid out the (admittedly selectively enhanced) facts.

What's more, the troops were rallied. A group of Tesla owners set out to prove that the trip could be done with ease, and off they went, in formation. As should be no surprise, the owner's group made the trip almost without incident.

Mr. Broder fired back with handwritten notes as to his experiences, but the damage was done. Public opinion, far from lining up behind the cherished institution, swayed towards the upstart EV company. The Times ombudsman issued an article that put so much distance between the paper and the wayward reporter that they might as well have loaded Mr. Broder onto Elon's SpaceX private rocket and fired him into the sun.

The battle for the truth was over, or so it seemed. Mr. Musk wrote, "The bottom line is that the Model S combined with Supercharging works well for a long road trip, even in cold, snowy weather."

Unfortunately, that's not the bottom line. Not by a long shot.

The bottom line is that a reporter set up on a tightly controlled and monitored test that was suggested to him by Tesla in the first place managed to run his Model S out of electricity. Is that a problem with the car, or the network? No, it was inexperience or misuse on the part of the driver.

But it's certainly something that could have happened to any early adopter that didn't fully understand the technology. If you buy a Tesla over something like a Porsche Panamera, range isn't something you can afford to just ignore.

There are other issues too. In my own brief drive of the Model S, the car itself was excellent, but one of the rear door-handles was broken.

And it's not like they threw the keys at my head and told me not to crash it, as normally happens with everything from the Ford Focus EV to a Rolls-Royce Phantom. No, I had a handler riding along, partly to explain the technology, partly, one assumes, to keep an eye on things.

I still loved the car. It's an amazing machine, outstandingly powerful, beautiful, nimble, and better-realized than many new releases from other automakers. It's not without its warts, including problems with the Supercharging stations. One Tesla owner reported running across the Model S group that was charging for their New-York-Times-disproving road-trip and noting that two (later, reportedly three out of the four) of the Supercharger bays were apparently not charging.

The fact is, choosing to buy a Tesla Model S isn't just choosing to buy a car. You're buying into a large-scale experiment, what software developers would call a beta test. There will be issues, updates and software upgrades that might make things work better, but might make things worse. Remember the iPhone 5 and the mapping issues it had?

Tesla isn't of the same era as Tucker. A segment of the public wants a car like this; they want to believe in a high-tech solution to the internal combustion engine.

For the rest of us, the humble gasoline engine will continue to be durable, reliable, more efficient with every passing update, and quick and easy to refuel. However, if you're willing to risk a bit of early-adopter teething trouble, there is an alternative.

Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and automotive enthusiast. If you have a suggestion for a column, or would be interested in having your car club featured, please contact him at Follow Brendan on Twitter: @ brendan_mcaleer.

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