The anatomy of EV disinformation

How useful consumer information on BEV winter range is twisted by a globally renowned newspaper

The anatomy of EV disinformation
The front page of the Times indulging in some pure FUD over EVs

The Times of London is one of the most storied national newspapers in the world. So how and why does it risk its reputation by becoming one of the the UK's most prolific — alongside several of its more low-brow rivals and its main contender for 'serious' right-leaning journalism The Daily Telegraph — distributors of fear, uncertainty and doubt (Fud) over EVs?

The why is something EV inFocus has covered before. Respected UK motoring journalist Quentin Willson suggested last year that Times columnist Giles Coren had admitted to Wilson that he had written a much-shared EV hit piece purely for the clicks.

“He said to me, ‘Look, Quentin, the reason why we do these stories in the Times about electric cars is they get so much attention, so many comments and so many clicks.' And that perhaps gets us nearer to the reason why we have this backdrop of anti-EV hysteria is that it is newspapers, in a time of falling advertising, getting clicks,” Wilson said back in September.

The case for the defence

Interestingly, despite Willson noting that Coren's article received 7,000 comments — the most the Times has ever received on a single article — the author took to social media network X, formerly Twitter, in response to the initial EV inFocus story to deny he had deliberately gone hunting for eyeballs.

"Define 'click bait'," he wrote. "It was just a dull true story about my shit electric car breaking down and ruining Christmas. And being a nightmare to charge if you do not have off street parking. So I sold it. Click bait is Russell Brand, sexy pics, celeb goss. Not dreary car moans.

"It was not remotely sensational. It was one of the most boring columns I have ever written. And I’ve got another electric car now anyway. A better one (i3). I just do not risk leaving London in it. And I write about it and support EV," he continued.

Not unsurprisingly, a journalist is sensitive about being accused of writing content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page — which is the dictionary definition of clickbait.

Whether one chooses to believe Willson's account of what Coren told him or the columnist's robust social media self-defence might be influenced by today's copy of the Times (see main image).

The case for the prosecution

The paper's transport columnist has clearly read this article from last week in the UK's B-2-C What Car? magazine. The piece is an informative look at how some of the BEVs on sale in the UK perform in winter conditions and subject to more 'realistic' driving, relative to the worldwide harmonised light vehicle test procedure (WLTP) range OEMs are obliged to publish.

The WLTP measures the range of a car travelling at an average speed of 28.8mph in summer temperatures from a 100pc to 0pc state of charge. It is entirely common knowledge that, just as an ICE vehicle's fuel economy is negatively affected by both temperature and way of driving, WLTP numbers are nigh on impossible to achieve in real-world conditions.

According the the US Department of Energy, fuel economy tests show that, in city driving, a conventional gasoline car's gas mileage is c.15pc lower at 20°F than it would be at 77°F. It can drop by as much as 24pc for short three-to-four-mile trips.

While the DoE caveats that cold weather effects can vary by vehicle model, it warns to "expect conventional gasoline vehicles to suffer a 10-20pc fuel economy loss in city driving and a 15-33pc loss on short trips".

It notes that "the effect on [heavier] hybrids is typically greater — with fuel economy dropping c.30-34pc under these conditions". Hybrid fuel economy typically decreases by 20-40pc in city driving and 25-45pc on short trips, it finds.

For BEVs, the DoE warns that fuel economy can drop by 39pc in mixed city and highway driving, and range can drop by 41pc. But it notes that around two-thirds of the extra energy consumed is used to heat the cabin and, when the cabin heater is not used, BEV fuel economy is only 8pc lower at 20°F than at 75°F while driving range is c.12pc lower.

In short, cold weather impacts how far you can travel if you have a fuel tank, a battery or both, and there is no mystery about that. Indeed, just as an example, on the UK website of Sino-Swedish EV pure play Polestar, there is a dedicated section on real-world range vs WLTP, explaining clearly to potential customers that "the certified WLTP range is not always achievable in real life", suggesting instead that "it does help to compare between different car makes and models".

And that is exactly the purpose of the What Car? article, giving consumers useful information about testing it had done on a range of BEVs under what it sees as more realistic driving conditions and during the winter. It then compared performance against WLTP numbers and, also, for certain models, against a similar test it had performed on the same vehicles during summer conditions.

It is no surprise that BEVs driven under more challenging conditions in lower temperatures meant distances travelled lower than published WLTP ranges — by anywhere from 21pc to 37pc. Any other result would have anomalous.

What was the Times' take on the findings? "Flawed tests 'mean electric cars can't travel as far as claimed'," blares its front-page headline.

"Drivers have been warned," it continues in its first paragraph. But there is no hint of any warning in the measured comments that follow from the editor of What Car? on the widely known shortcomings of the WLTM number and how a more stringent test would be beneficial both for consumers and the OEMs obligated to publish them.

That is how FUD works. Take a useful piece of consumer research, distort it through sensationalism and spin, get readers. And, depressingly, given the c.1,000 words just written, it works!

There are perhaps a number of things broken here: the traditional media revenue model; the way we as an audience consume media and the tactics that encourages; the attitude of many of those on the right of the political spectrum globally towards our climate crisis.

Unfortunately, the adoption of BEVs are all too often caught in the crosshairs of these dysfunctions. For those of us who see the future of personal mobility being electric, we cannot single-handedly fight the algorithms or the decisions of embattled media executives.

But we can state our case honestly, based on evidence, and respectfully of those who do not (yet) share our view. And every little will hopefully help to a situation where disseminating FUD about EVs is no longer a winner for media outlets, because the argument has already been settled and there are not enough ICE defenders left to click to care about.

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