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Public Editor Slams NY Times Tesla Story, After Overcoming ‘Confirmation Bias’

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"Public Editor Slams NY Times Tesla Story, After Overcoming ‘Confirmation Bias’"

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The verdict would appear to be in on the great road rage (range rage?) feud of 2013.

Elon Musk, the CEO of electric vehicle maker Tesla, may not have done himself any favors picking a fight with NY Times reporter John Broder after his scathing review, “Stalled Out on Tesla’s Electric Highway.”

But it tells you something when, after extensive research, the NYT public editor criticizes the story, especially using the headline, “Problems With Precision and Judgment, but Not Integrity, in Tesla Test.”

I haven’t weighed in before for two reasons. First, I’m with those who think pure electrics really shouldn’t be trying to compete in the “long, fast road trip” category. As Rocky Mountain Institute put it:

… this much ado about range anxiety is a distraction from the real sweet spot and potential of EVs today. U.S. drivers average 13,476 miles per year; that’s 37 miles per day, according to the Office of Highway Policy Information. The most recent National Household Travel Survey by DOT’s Federal Highway Administration puts that number even lower—a scant 29 vehicle miles per day, with an average trip length less than 10 miles.

Second, to be fair to all parties, I’d have to talk to a bunch of folks like, say, “Mr. Broder, Mr. Musk, two key Tesla employees, other Times journalists, the tow-truck driver and his dispatcher, and a Tesla owner in California, among others.”

Public Editor Margaret Sullivan did just that, of course, and while you might think she has a bias in favor of the reporter, she makes a remarkable admission:

I’ve also had a number of talks with my brother, a physician, car aficionado and Tesla fan, who has helped me balance what might have been a tendency to unconsciously side with a seasoned and respected journalist – my own “confirmation bias.”

How rare for any major journalist to acknowledge any such bias. Sullivan’s bottom line on Broder’s reporting is:

Did he use good judgment along the way? Not especially. In particular, decisions he made at a crucial juncture – when he recharged the Model S in Norwich, Conn., a stop forced by the unexpected loss of charge overnight – were certainly instrumental in this saga’s high-drama ending.

In addition, Mr. Broder left himself open to valid criticism by taking what seem to be casual and imprecise notes along the journey, unaware that his every move was being monitored. A little red notebook in the front seat is no match for digitally recorded driving logs, which Mr. Musk has used, in the most damaging (and sometimes quite misleading) ways possible, as he defended his vehicle’s reputation.

Sullivan quotes a long comment (reprinted below) from a NYT reader — “Roger Wilson of Falls Church, Va., a Model S owner himself” — of which she says:

My own findings are not dissimilar to the reader I quote … although I do not believe Mr. Broder hoped the drive would end badly. I am convinced that he took on the test drive in good faith, and told the story as he experienced it.

For those who have been following this story closely, the full comment is worth a read:

“In his article (and follow-ups), Mr. Broder states that he followed Tesla’s advice during his drive. But, if he had taken time to read the owner’s manual beforehand (which, at 30-or-so well-written pages, would have taken an hour), he would have known about:

• “The ‘Max Range’ setting, which would have charged the battery beyond the ‘standard’ range and given him 20-30 miles more range;
• “The ‘Range Mode’ setting, which would have conserved battery during the drive;
• “The section entitled ‘Driving Tips for Maximum Range’;
• “And, the concept of plugging the vehicle in (especially during his overnight stop): ‘Tesla strongly recommends leaving Model S plugged in when not in use.’ and ‘The most important way to preserve the Battery is to LEAVE YOUR MODEL S PLUGGED IN when you’re not using it.’

“Had he employed at least one of these tidbits, he probably wouldn’t have been ‘stalled’ on the EV highway. But, then again, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting a story if he made the trip successfully (and could have only complained about the inconveniences of staying at the charging station longer than he cared to or having to plug in the car overnight).

“In follow-ups, he claims that he was only ‘testing’ the supercharger network. If this had been the case, the story wouldn’t have focused on him driving 45 m.p.h. and being cold (and the infamous picture of the Tesla on the flatbed), but would have simply stated that the two current supercharger stations (which just opened recently) are too far apart and that one might have to rely on non-Tesla public charging stations until more supercharger stations are installed.

“Unlike Mr. Musk, I don’t claim that Mr. Broder ‘faked’ the story, but he certainly didn’t seem to employ the least bit of care or responsibility in fuel management (required of any vehicle, regardless of fuel type). One can only assume that Mr. Broder’s irresponsibility in fuel management was in hope that something beyond ‘inconvenience’ would happen to make the story more interesting. (Otherwise, no one, including me, would have paid much attention to his article.)

“Tesla is not faultless in this, especially since it suggested the test drive. Tesla should have made it very clear that the 200-mile stretch between the two supercharger stations approaches the maximum distance and that all range maximization strategies should be employed.”

Tesla Model S won the 2013 Motor Trend Car of the Year in November 12, with a unanimous vote from the panel of judges. And, RMI notes, “other media outlets—including CNN—have successfully completed the D.C.-to-Boston drive in a Model S with barely a fraction of the issues Broder encountered.” That said, if you like long, quick road trips, you might want to go with a different (or second) car.

But if it’s in your price range, you should take a spin in the Model S!

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46 Responses to Public Editor Slams NY Times Tesla Story, After Overcoming ‘Confirmation Bias’

  1. Phil Blackwood says:

    One Model S owner has driven more than 400 miles on a single charge.

    I leased an all-electric car for 2 years and find all the talk about “range anxiety” way over-hyped. I loved the car, especially the strong torque at any speed.

    At the moment I don’t have a car, but my next car will be a Tesla Model S.

  2. Walter Stockhecker says:

    So basically, an interesting story is more important than an honest story. And how does that not belie a problem with integrity. Obviously the Times is in the cover-up business like all large institutions apparently are these days. PR FAIL!\

  3. Dan Ives says:

    I think Public Editor Margaret Sullivan has generally done an excellent job, and this is just another example of that.

  4. Mike Roddy says:

    Thanks to Ms. Sullivan.

    The Los Angeles Times wrote a glowing review of the Tesla,because we’re serious about cars out here.

    Broder, Tierney, Revkin, and Rosenthal are careerists, who work for Times advertisers, not the public. We are apparently a joke to them, judging from their constant genuflecting to oil company talking points.

    The Times’ reputation is already ruined among people who pay attention. Sullivan needs to tell Sulzberger that their market is trending toward Starbucks racks in Dallas and Terre Haute. The rest of us have wised up to what a horrible rag it has become, except for Krugman and Blow.

  5. Paul Magnus says:

    The guy was asking for it….

  6. Paul Magnus says:

    Stuff hitting walls… everywhere….

    Stock markets fall after US Fed comments

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-21530624

    Global stock markets have fallen after some members of the US central bank suggested its stimulus measures may be increasing the “risks of future economic and financial imbalances”.

    • Paul Magnus says:

      I think this could be it. The big kahuna.

      Ponanza!

      • Sasparilla says:

        The consensus in financial circles is that we still have another year or so of FED easy money policy, but this is the first stirring of debate amongst the FED meetings to talk about it….it won’t be pretty on the market when it stops.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      Once the pushers at the privately owned Federal Reserve take away the banksters 85 billion a month in free QE junk, and the grifters have to go ‘Cold Turkey’, well it won’t be nice. I don’t see it happening under Lew or Bernanke-too much solidarity amongst kleptocrats, too little faith in the ‘magic of compound interest’, anymore. It works both ways, on the up and ‘coming down’. Who would have thought it possible? It apparently doesn’t really take much nous to be a ‘central banker’- no rhyming slang jokes, please!

  7. Paul Klinkman says:

    I’ve been sitting on the EV range solution for maybe 15 years now. Change battery packs at battery pack changing stations. betterworld.com is implementing the solution now.

    • MorinMoss says:

      Unfortunately, Better Place is having something of a setback, pulling out of the US(!!) and Australia, dowsing any hope of proving they could go big.
      This is tragic as I thought it was a great plan and well-executed and that Shai Agassi could sell it.
      But it hasn’t turned out that way.
      And if automakers don’t manufacture EVs with batteries that are easy to remove, the switch station plan may never happen.

    • Omega Centauri says:

      I have serious doubts about battery switching. I think the incentives regarding battery abuse are all wrong, since someone else (a lot of someones), gets the battery you degraded by misuse. The truth is battery chemistry dictates that too fast a rate of charge/discharge, or maintaining a high level of charge for long periods -especially in high heat. It likely requires personal ownership of the battery to care for it.

      • Paul Klinkman says:

        So, would a computer chip on each battery pack or on each car recording high discharge rates and high heat solve this problem? If you tend to misuse batteries, you would be billed for the misuse.

    • malcreado says:

      As much as I wish otherwise, battery switching business model just wont work in the real world. Cars use different batteries and the are installed in different ways. Part of their competitive advantage may be locked up in the battery pack so dont expect manufacturers to start using the same batteries and configurations. Plus it is not like oil filters that are small, cheap, and dont take up much shelf space so you can have all different types at your shop.
      On top of all that the real momentum is on the Plugin hybrid cars. Instead of the EV revolution we are getting a nice plugin evolution; and that aint bad as it moves quickly in the right directions while still giving time for the batteries and infrastructure to catch up.

      • MorinMoss says:

        The Better Place stations are already capable of handling different types of batteries and given the current weight of EV batteries, it makes sense to put them at the base of the vehicle.
        We already have multiple manufacturers making consumer batteries – in a very few common formats.
        Standardising on just a few will bring the price of the most expensive part down relatively quickly and will sell more cars.
        The biggest issue that I see is that, apart from Tesla, every other car maker of note makes huge numbers of ICEs so is it really in their best interest to make BEVs as well.

  8. Joan Savage says:

    This dispute accidentally helped answer a technical question I’ve had about how long EVs hold a charge between plug-ins.

    With the Tesla S it seems to be mere hours. That’s a shock.

    I’d had my hopes up that an EV could be driven to an airport or rail station and left for days without serious loss of range, same as a gas-powered vehicle.

    Call it EV dormancy? Stand-by?

    Given the climate change forecast of more extreme weather with its power outages, an EV that drains out in a day or two – without continuous charging -seems seriously limited.

    • Jack G. Hanks says:

      I didn’t follow the details too closely – is there real evidence to back Broder’s claim that the charge depleted so greatly overnight? I believe Broder wanted his trip to fail, and I believe some of his explanations are flat out lies. Could this be one?

      • Charles M says:

        It looks like the Tesla test car data charts have been removed from their blog, but it looked like the car didn’t lose much charge overnight. Only the estimated range dropped from 90-ish miles to 26-ish (from memory). That must have been due to the overnight temps on the battery pack and it not being plugged in to keep it conditioned/warmed.

        I think only Tesla recommends keeping its EVs plugged in; Nissan doesn’t for the LEAF. I hope it’s only a general recommendation for nights like the one Broder had. I agree it makes ownership less green and more onerous.

      • Omega Centauri says:

        I had the impression it didn’t deplete substantially, merely that the battery monitor/software combination did a poor job of estimating the charge of a cold battery. Once the battery warmed up (which either charging or use will do), the range estimate recovered.

    • Sasparilla says:

      Joan, mere hours isn’t a good takeaway here for normal operation. At 10 degrees Fahrenheit, if you let the battery cold soak all night you’ll get a big falloff (remember Broder had a small charge in the vehicle), but its related to the very low temperature of the batts, otherwise no.

      Broder has been around EV’s enough (and desparaged them enough) to know this condition would give the battery’s range a huge kick down. At higher temps there wouldn’t have been a noticeable difference in range from the night before.

      • Joan Savage says:

        Agreed.

        Broder should have followed the manual. However, he made the kinds of mistakes that are likely to recur in the Northeast.

        It looks like Tesla could re-think design for the colder climes.
        Ironically, a conventional starter battery adapted to low temperature combined with the Tesla’s Li batteries might have altered the situation in interesting ways. Don’t know how much.

        Cars that wouldn’t start on a cold day were common thirty years ago, but since then we’ve gotten used to cars that do start at 10F.

        I like EVs, or more accurately, I want to like EVs, but they seem to be rather delicate creatures that wouldn’t function in a winter superstorm like Sandy.

        • Jack G. Hanks says:

          “It looks like Tesla could re-think design for the colder climes.”

          Why not? Especially since Musk wrote that Tesla’s highest per capita sales are in *Norway*.

        • Sasparilla says:

          The Tesla is designed for cold climates, but you need to have it plugged in during those periods (so it can keep the batteries warm). Batteries in hybrids (NiMH) nor in plugins (Li) don’t like getting down below freezing (they’ll still work, just not nearly as well as at higher temps) and that doesn’t look likely to change in the near to mid future.

          The Tesla has (like most plugins) what is called a TMS to handle cold or hot conditions – which means thermal management system (for the battery) and when the power is there (driving or plugged in) will keep the batteries at a good working temperature, but unplugged that shuts off (or it’ll empty the battery if the car sits for an extended period).

          One EV, the Nissan Leaf, doesn’t have a TMS on its batteries and its range is hammered in very cold conditions even with a plug as it can’t keep the batteries warm.

          http://www.mynissanleaf.com/viewtopic.php?f=31&t=11572

        • Daniel Coffey says:

          I have not been privileged to live in an area where it gets to 10F on a regular basis, but it seems to me that ordinary vehicles with ICE (internal combustion engines) need to have a heating pad in order to start properly. I think it does ask a lot of any vehicle based on chemical reactions – including batteries – to operate in the same manner at a huge range of temperature. It’s not reasonable to expect and distracts from the greater question of how to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There may be some trade-offs. Personally, I like the pluggable hybrid approach adopted by the Volt, as it allows for a wider range of options.

    • jk says:

      I’ve been driving a Nissan LEAF for 20 months. (It’s a 2011, from the introductory year, and I’ve been happy with it, but I know the 2012 and 2013 models already have some improvements.) I usually charge only a few times a week rather than every night and I haven’t noticed any loss in charge when the car sits for a few days. I’m in central Texas, so the battery hasn’t experienced much cold weather–a few freezing days in late autumn. (Of course, heat is a concern here.) My usual M.O. is to look at the range when I get home and plug it in if I think it looks low. You’ve got me curious about it, so I think I’m going to write down the mileage and let it sit for a few days to see what happens. I’ll let you know.

      • Joan Savage says:

        jk,

        Thanks!
        Great idea really, yet if the issue around the Tesla is any indicator, just taking a fresh look at the car manual might yield an answer.

    • Artful Dodger says:

      No Joan, you’ve got the details wrong. The batteries in the Tesla will hold there charge for at least a year. If you fail to recharge them, that’s different.

  9. EDpeak says:

    (Finally a little NYT honesty, even if it had to come from Sullivan)

    CP/JR please cover this finding:
    Major methane release is almost inevitable

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn23205-major-methane-release-is-almost-inevitable.html

    Analysis shows release can be expected at 1.5 C warming. Article says we’ve warmed 0.8 already (pre-industrial to 2005) but then says “Even if humanity stopped emitting greenhouse gases tomorrow, temperatures would rise another 0.2 °C over the next 20 years”

    Wait a minute, drop the phrase “[during] the next 20 years” and without that restriction, it’s more like 0.5C as I recal…putting the warming we’re committed to at 1.3C…so we’d have only 0.2 margin…if we stopped all emissions..which we’re not…and even if we did stop them all, hypothetically, 0.2C is not what I’d like to bet the wellbeing of the planet on, “oops, it happened at 1.3C, sorry, not at 1.5…our bad, sorry”

    Of course even keeping at or under 2C is next to inconceivable in today’s political climate and the foreseeable one…but keeping to under 1.5C? Ok, enough “doomer porn” for now – some numbers would be good to see on CP, Joe, like, what are low end, median, and upper end amounts (translated into CO2equivalent ppm’s) that this release (over varying time periods, different ppm’s) would add, and what temp C increase that would add, to that 1.5C?

    • EDpeak says:

      [In reference to my comment still under moderation, re the New Scientist article " Major methane release is almost inevitable"] Addendum: well, ok, part of answer is “160 to 290″ gigatons co2….so “not that big” the article tells us in reassuring tones at the end, but I don’t know.. over “now to infinity” or just medium term? and that’s just our estimate, while reality could be worse? And that’s not counting other artic feedbacks or Amazon death spiral as another positive feedback, or loss of ‘global cooling’ as another way warming may accelerate, etc etc…like KXL by itself is “small” but in fact it’s huge…just looks “small” when you add it to all the other (many, many) medium to big to huge sources..then “by itself” it’s not that big…is New Scientists’s “reassuring” ending doing the same “logic” trick? Sure sounds familiar…

    • Joe Romm says:

      Coming.

  10. Dan Miller says:

    The Tesla Model S is an amazing car. You can use it for almost any trip, but if you are going on a long road trip, you need to plan a bit in advance. Here in California, there are a network of Superchargers that will “fill up” the battery in less than an hour (they will give you a 50% charge in 1/2 hour) and are spaced to get you to LA/SF, to Tahoe, or Las Vegas. Of course, you have a charger at home that will “fill up” the car in about 3 hours, so every morning you start the day with 240 “rated” miles or 270 if you do a “max” charge. Except for the longest of trips, there really isn’t any “range anxiety”.

    Answering a question above, if left unplugged at the airport (most airports have EV plugs!), the car may lose about 8 miles/day, but a coming software update (all Model S cars have full time Internet connections) will reduce that to less than 5 by implementing a “sleep mode”. On very cold days, if the car is left unplugged, some energy will go to keeping the battery warm so you can lose significantly more charge. But Tesla suggests you always plug the car in at night (like an iPhone) and there are electrical outlets almost everywhere. The car comes with a cable that will plug into 110 and 240 volt outlets. A 110V charge will be very slow, but at least it will counter the loss due to very cold weather.

    The bottom line is that, except for long road trips, you don’t need to think about the battery. It’s even Ok if you forget to charge one night because 240 miles can handle several days of commutes and around town driving.

    And then, of course, is how it drives!

  11. David Smith says:

    So there is a down side to the batteries used in even the best most expensive EV’s; unlimited range has not yet been achieved. There are downsides to every technology. What is the down side to the EV’s competitor tech. Oh, that’s right, business as usual will likely lead to the end of civilization and maybe after a while, extinction of the perpetrators?

    You want balance? Balance isn’t; EV’s are really great, EV’s are stupid and un-American. Balance is; EV’s, at present, offer certain inconveniences and require us to change certain habits and choices, Carbon burning automobiles contribute significantly to global conditions that will kill the collective us.
    It requires a special sort of person to be able to consider this deeply and think there was more than one choice here.

    The problem may not be “Balance” in reporting. Balance could be useful. The problem is fake balance or totally dishonest or distracting balance.

  12. Paul Klinkman says:

    George W. Bush had the same problem — he couldn’t handle an electric. He hopped onto a Segway scooter. It immediately flipped over. He landed on his face and skinned his nose.

    You have to use the key to turn it on, George!

  13. Ken Barrows says:

    I shall repeat the question I posed a couple of days ago:

    Since we’re committed to keeping our cars and not depaving (m)any roads, how much oil (or a substitute)would we need to repave all of the world’s roads by 2050?

    Of course, that may not be a proper question. The citizens of Mozambique and Solomon Islands may justifiably want new roads.

    • Paul Klinkman says:

      I’m not committed to car transit. I want my automated personal vehicles to hang on a couple of cables above road level. Cars will plug into trains for fast intercity travel with a club car option, again running above grade. The streets need to be safe for bicycles.

  14. SecularAnimist says:

    Joe wrote: “I’m with those who think pure electrics really shouldn’t be trying to compete in the ‘long, fast road trip’ category.”

    Why not, when electric cars can compete perfectly well in that category — as Tesla has demonstrated?

    Having said that, I agree that there is a potentially HUGE market for compact, utilitarian, relatively short-range, CHEAP mass-produced electric commuter cars which could meet the daily driving needs of most Americans at much lower cost than the first generation of EVs — and in the not-too-distant future, at much lower cost than conventional gasoline-fueled cars.

    • Daniel Coffey says:

      Yes, and now for the energy to place in those vehicles. I have been harping on the notion of decarbonizing electricity and electrifying transportation to the maximum extent possible and as fast as possible, but this goes with an expansion of large-scale renewable sources which is really, really big. I like really, really big, because it solves two problems at once, but it will require building lots of large-scale solar PV and wind and geothermal facilities. After all, a vehicle takes about the same electricity as an average household, which by reason suggests at least doubling generation capacity from the current state. And we must do this very soon, or it will be TOO late.

  15. SecularAnimist says:

    It is pretty clear to me that Margaret Sullivan had to bend over backwards in order to NOT find that Broder deliberately acted in bad faith in order to sabotage the test drive.

    I appreciated the adage that one should not attribute to malice that which could as easily arise from incompetence.

    But, really, the level of incompetence on John Broder’s part that would be required to explain his bizarre behaviors during the test drive defies credibility — especially since ALL of his “mistakes” (like supposedly not reading ANY of the instructions in the manual? WTF?) were of a nature to make the Model S perform as poorly as possible.

    • Daniel Coffey says:

      I had the same reaction until I read the rebuttal piece. I think that there is some difficulty on both sides when it comes to dealing with a new technology in harsh conditions without proper training or experience. Unfortunately, cars are driven by less than high-tech types who just want to get from A to B – fast and without reading the manual. As to the latter point, who here has read their iPhone manual? Or any manual, for that matter?

  16. Ric Merritt says:

    Broder is not completely blameless, but the contents of this post, and the comments so far, vastly undervalue the extent to which Broder depended on frequent contact *during the trip* with well-placed personnel at Tesla. Whether or not he took an hour or 2 to study the manual and take its lessons to heart, any reasonable person must concede that, having taken on the trip at the suggestion of Tesla (!), it should be a no-brainer that the company would be on the ball in providing reliable information.

    The main blame in not accounting for the chilly weather falls on Tesla, not on Broder. The main blame for the thing becoming a public fiasco falls on Tesla, not on Broder.

    The facts about the battery performance and so forth are not much in dispute. They are what they are. The real judgement needed here is who screwed up the worst. Tesla, by a long shot. Didn’t anybody there figure out that they wanted to coddle this customer? I main, we’re not talking about an anonymous restaurant reviewer here. Didn’t anybody at Tesla take the initiative, knowing the weather forecast? They had numerous opportunities to steer towards a better outcome.

    And, Musk’s vicious reaction went way too far, and ignored numerous mitigating factors on Broder’s side, while conveniently skipping over his own company’s missed chances.

    BTW, people love to argue about numbers of all kinds, MPH, range, or whatever, while ignoring the effect of engine temperature and ambient temperature. The effect is huge. That goes for batteries, hybrids, and plain old gas mileage.

    • EDpeak says:

      “Didn’t anybody there figure out that they wanted to coddle this customer?”

      I’m sure they were aware. How well did they act on their awareness? I can’t be 100% sure but neitehr can you….but you seem to be making a lot of assumptions. We don’t know the details. How you do you know for sure they did not try to “coddle” or be there at a moment’s notice for him? How can you be so sure? Maybe they offered and he refused. I don’t claim to be sure, but neither can you. The fact is, when a NY Times writer like him decides to run teh car in circles over and over again when the charge is near zero, when he’s right next to a charging station, he clearly has plans of his own. This does not prove his motives are this or that, in other matter, of course. But the fact is, if a NY Times reporter also chooses to refuse the “coddling” he will – and you have NO way of being able to rule that out, either.

      http://money.cnn.com/2013/02/15/autos/tesla-model-s/

      So we’ll never know for sure either way but look at CNN’s test-drive, and that speaks volumes about the car’s abilities and about the fact that the company does know how to work with journalists. CNN’s writer who knows a thing or two about cars, wrote “In the end, I made it — and it wasn’t that hard…. ..the Model S provides a pretty amazing mix of smooth and silent performance along with brain-squishing acceleration. So even if you’re not driving from Washington to Boston, it’s an impressive car, all on its own. As for the Supercharger network? Turns out that works, too. “

    • Anne van der Bom says:

      The reaction is more understandable once you see the pattern.

      To bring up the Top Gear shenanigans again, these journalists write scripts beforehand that end in the EV being pushed with a flat battery. Top Gear did it not only with the Roadster, but also the LEAF.

      Yup, that is the kind of climate that the journalists are creating. Look at it as a fierce reaction to a vicious attack.

      And Broder and Top Gear are not the only ones. Many of the more fervent car enthousiasts, aka ‘petrolheads’, are on a crusade against what they see as the greatest threat to their way of life.