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Tesla Motors hauls the lads of BBC’s Top Gear into court
by Kathryn Robbins on April 1, 2011
Since it was reintroduced back in 2002 Top gear has been a cash cow for the BBC. The show that features three witty British guys playing around with high powered cars is seen in more than 100 countries and spawned a line of merchandise that includes t-shirts and CDs. While the lads may get a chuckle out of testing sleek rides, one company isn’t laughing along with them. Tesla Motors claims that the producers behind the show weren’t playing fair when they tested their all-electric Roadster and are suing the BBC for libel and malicious falsehood.
The basis for Tesla’s claim dates back to the taping of a 2008 episode in which Jeremy Clarkson set up a drag race with the electric car going head-to-head with a Lotus Elise. After successfully beating the Lotus in a race, Clarkson and the producers painted the car as a high priced jalopy. Tesla refutes the show’s claims that the car was utterly immobile due to faulty brakes and an overheated motor.
But one single issue had Tesla steaming mad; the range of the Roadster. Tesla promotes the car as having a healthy 211 mile range, but Top Gear said the car could only go 55 miles on a single charge. They included a shot in the segment of four men pushing the seemingly dead sports car into a hangar and featured remarks from Jeremy Clarkson such as “It's just a shame that in the real world it doesn't seem to work." In their filing with the court Tesla claimed that Clarkson’s fondness for the accelerator was at fault for the low number and that neither of the Roadsters used by the show ever went below a 20% charge.
One could claim that Tesla should forget about a show that aired back in 2008, but Top Gear’s global reach has a lot more power that you’d think. Through re-runs (BBC America re-aired the episode in January 2011), DVDs, Netflix’s streaming service, and BitTorrent downloads, the show has staying power and therefore could do real harm to Tesla’s reputation. The suit is meant as an attempt to have the episode shelved permanently and asks for about $160,000 in damages.
Tesla may have a case against the BBC, but the lawsuit seems more like a PR stunt than a chance at redemption. The electric car company hasn’t had the easiest time selling their carefully constructed cars; they aren’t easy to manufacture and the price of the Roadster reflects that problem. A lawsuit against one of the most popular television programs in the world is a cheap way to steal a bit of buzz from hot EVs like Nissan’s Leaf before the launch of their own “Reasonably Priced Car,” the Model S next year.