Top Gear vs Tesla: the eco-car loses first round

By Sipho Hlongwane 21 October 2011

In the spring of 2008, Top Gear reviewed a near car – the Tesla Roadster, and declared it to be quick, quiet, but somewhat rubbish on range. Nothing unusual about that, except that this happens to be an electric car, and the owners took grave exception to Top Gear’s portrayal of the vehicle’s performance on the review. This week, a judge ruled that Elon Musk's Tesla had no case for libel. However, before you start leaping about delirium, this isn’t the last shout from Tesla. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

“Now look. Anyone who watches Top Gear hoping to find impartiality, balance and fairness is, we’re sorry to say, a bit thick.” We said that, way back in April 2011, when Tesla Motors first announced that it would be suing Top Gear for the now-infamous 2008 review of their Roadster.

Guess what? The courts agreed with us. Or to be more specific, the Justice Tugendhat said that no Top Gear viewer would have reasonably compared the car’s performance on the show’s airfield track to its likely performance on a public road. The judge handed down judgment on Wednesday in which he dismissed the libel case against Top Gear.

Nobody looks at Top Gear and thinks, “Hmmm. That’s normal life”. But that was the basis on which Tesla wanted the courts to rule on the episode in question. The touchy issue is the range of the Roadster – the makers of the car say it will do 200 miles (320 kilometres) between recharge sessions, but according to Top Gear, the model they tested only managed a measly 55 miles (88 kilometres).

According to the judge, that is hardly surprising, given the way in which Clarkson drove the Roadster on the Top Gear test track. (The usual SA term would be “maniac”.)

“In my judgment, the words complained of are wholly incapable of conveying any meaning at all to the effect that the claimant [that would be Tesla] misled anyone,” he said. “This is because there is a contrast between the style of driving and the nature of the track as compared with the conditions on a public road are so great that no reasonable person could understand that the performance on the [Top Gear] track is capable of a direct comparison with a public road.”

So there you have it, Mr Elon Musk. Top Gear is not to be taken literally.

But it’s not over yet. Tesla is still claiming malicious falsehood in five other statements made about the Tesla during the drive.  “Tesla has accused Top Gear of using ‘staged’ footage to create the impression that the Roadster had run out of battery. The US carmaker also complained that Top Gear characterised a blown fuse as a brake failure, and that the model became immobile as a result of overheating,” the Guardian said. “In its skeleton argument, Tesla says it has seen a ‘continuing impact’ of the 2008 Top Gear episode on its reputation, resulting from its availability on the BBC iPlayer video-on-demand service, DVD, and syndication of the original programme to other broadcasters including the digital channel, Dave.”

Er, would anyone brave enough to face down a lengthy lawsuit like to point out that the idea upon which the Tesla Roadster was based was rubbish to begin with? Strapping 6,831 lithium-ion batteries (if you crack your laptop battery open, that’s what you’ll find inside) together to power a sports car may have seemed revolutionary in ye olde days of 2008, but it looks a bit daft today, what with the advent of the hydrogen fuel stack car and the ten-minute tungsten oxide/vanadium oxide EV charger being upon us.

Look, Musk and his imps couldn’t have known how renewable tech would look in 2011, so we can’t knock him for that. But his case does seem petty. DM

Read more:

  • Top Gear did not libel car make Tesla, court rules, in the Guardian;
  • In Top Gear vs Tesla, car maker loses libel case, in VentureBeat; and
  • Top Gear Chronicles: Tesla comes back, this time with lawyers in Daily Maverick.

Watch more:

Photo: Reuters


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