Charged debate 

7 Aug 2011 0 tbs.pm/1274 Article text released under the Creative Commons Attribution license Media copyrighted Report an error in this article

The BBC’s popular and occasionally controversial Top Gear programme has been back in the news again for apparently upsetting car company Nissan; this is on top of another dispute over how one of Tesla’s electric cars was allegedly treated in a previous edition of the programme.

However, judging from the limited feedback given so far by Nissan themselves relating to the feature in question, it seems that other people have been more upset about what they perceive to be a problem with the car test in question (and by definition Top Gear as a programme) than Nissan itself.

The allegations relate to an electric car test that featured two cars – Nissan’s Leaf being one of them – that were forced to seek a lengthy battery recharge in the city of Lincoln where there aren’t yet any official electric car recharge points, hence part of the test featured a protracted (and no doubt partly staged) hunt for an electricity supply.

Put simply, the Nissan Leaf was originally supplied for the test with a fully-charged battery, but its battery was then deliberately drained to a low level – we can assume that the other (Peugeot) car was treated the same way – so that it would be low on power by the time that both cars were shown to be driving into Lincoln.

This is likely to be entirely true, but is it necessarily a bad thing when put in the general context of what the Top Gear production team set out to do, namely to just prove a specific point, as mentioned here in producer Andy Wilman’s blog?

If no claims were made as to the length of time both cars were on the road before reaching Lincoln – apart from a vague premise about a long trip to the seaside – then no viewer could possibly expect to know exactly how far both cars had travelled up to that point, either in terms of distance or how much power had been used on the journey.

But is it essential that we need to know this? George Monbiot may have also made some reasonable points related to these accusations in an online article, but it’s a real shame that the overall effect has been spoiled by the inclusion of previously-debated misconceptions that generally relate to the influence and role of television.

Firstly no matter how much you may hate Top Gear, you have to concede that nobody has yet come up with a scientifically proven direct link between the series and drivers breaking speed limits, and until such a connection can be conclusively proven it’s presumptuous to assume that such a link exists. (Should we ban all movies that feature car chases?)

Top Gear nowadays has to be careful with its portrayal of speed (all performance testing is done on tracks, etc.) because of its high public profile, its BBC connection and the fact that the Daily Express/Mail and some of its readers, the BBC Trust and Ofcom would immediately pounce if Top Gear was to obviously step out of line.

Even if television shows like Top Gear could potentially have a negative influence on driving habits, there’s also a deluge of “Police, Camera, Action”-style programmes that could supposedly help to counteract such behaviour in a more direct context.

So-called ‘boy racers’ may regularly break speed limits for numerous reasons (bravado/impressing mates, inexperience, thoughtlessness, alcohol and/or drugs, etc.) that seem to have little or nothing to do with what’s actually shown on television, and boy racers existed long before Top Gear took on its current format.

(You might as well blame EastEnders for alcohol abuse since it features a pub. And why not take in Coronation Street as well.)

Then there’s the allegations that Monbiot makes in respect of Top Gear allegedly breaching BBC editorial guidelines, especially in respect of the accuracy of factual content, namely, “the truth of the story”.

We have to be very careful to define exactly what ‘truth’ represents in any particular case, because even true facts can be subtly distorted merely by neglecting to include relevant supporting information either through accident or design, never mind whether or not they are significant or specifically relevant to the exact story being told.

Problem is, the mixing of entertainment with factual content increases the risk of misconceptions being spread even when the intentions are good ones and are fully signposted, because nearly all television productions often employ a degree of artifice as a matter of course.

This whole debate relating to just how much televisual artifice is acceptable seems to recur from time to time, and came to a head back in 2008 when broadcasters had somehow become immune to the fact that if such artifice involved competitions or (even worse) premium rate phone lines, the end result could well be classed as fraud or deception.

Since those dark days, the media industry’s consensus seems to be that as long as viewers aren’t ripped off or that there aren’t any significant factual errors, it’s OK to stage certain aspects of television productions, and this is especially the case when filming on location and/or when technical difficulties force producers into having to redo scenes.

(It’s also ironic that Monbiot for whatever reason didn’t mention in his blog piece the only significant factual inaccuracy apparently contained within the electric car test, namely a claim relating to battery durability supposedly made as a ‘throwaway’ comment.)

Therefore entertainment programming with associated factual content like Top Gear will always has an inherent risk attached to them; a risk that naturally increases exponentially alongside gains in popularity, but that’s the price you inevitably pay as a byproduct of success.

If you withdrew all television programmes with factual content just because they also contained elements of artifice, you would end up with a television schedule containing precious little else besides some cartoons and entirely fictional drama series; this applies regardless of whether it’s the BBC, Channel 4 or a commercial television broadcaster.

Even programmes that set out to be entirely factual such as current affairs programming may be compromised in other areas though no fault of their own; questions and debates have to be timed to suit the length of the programme, and complex topics such as climate change ideally require knowledge of quantum physics to be fully understandable.

However with Top Gear there’s inevitably a political dimension which could make things even more complicated, and that’s before we’ve discounted the potential for conspiracy theories. Top Gear Live is a separate series of live arena events that are staged by BBC Worldwide (the BBC’s commercial division) and are sponsored by energy company Shell.

Aside from the money they obviously make from petrochemicals, Shell have invested significant resources into the development and production of hydrogen as a future alternative fuel for powering vehicles, therefore it might conceivably be in their interest to discourage the active promotion of other alternatives such as battery power for vehicles.

Despite what some conspiracy theorists may claim, I feel that it’s extremely unlikely that Top Gear would deliberately set out to rubbish alternative power sources to hydrogen just because it would support Shell’s ‘interests’ to do so. (For one thing, Shell themselves may be confident enough that their technologies will inevitably prove themselves regardless.)

The point being made by Top Gear’s producers with this particular test seems straightforward enough; it’s still extremely difficult to find a suitable electric charging point for a car, and an electric-powered car still has to spend many hours connected to the mains after a hundred or so miles of travelling time. Nobody can deny these basic facts.

And in defence of Top Gear’s claims, there’s also no denying that battery technology in respect of electric vehicles still has a fair way to go before it can do everything that the internal combustion engine can for a similar cost and with the least hassle, plus other alternative vehicle power sources such as hydrogen are still very much in their infancy.

(Easily exchangeable car batteries at minimal cost may be one solution to the charging problem but it would help if manufacturers could standardise on a type of battery just like they have recently been forced to adopt a standard design of power socket used for battery charging.)

Many longer distance car journeys in the real world often involve a route that’s longer than the shortest possible distance by road, either to save time by using less congested roads or to avoid accidents and/or roadworks. (Not to mention the inevitable traffic jams along with occasional scenic detours.)

Therefore if you were replicating any long distance road journey from A to B, it may end up being fairly different from the one that the sat nav suggested in the first place, not to mention more power-consuming than the shortest route made under optimal conditions (no excessive acceleration, etc.).

Electric cars are still best suited for journeys under 100 miles (no travelling from London to Scotland and back in a day, though the train is perhaps best for this sort journey anyway), unless batteries can either be easily and quickly swapped out at minimal cost or recharged/replenished a lot quicker than is currently possible nowadays.

(Not to mention the increased initial cost of purchasing an electric car, the relatively short lifespan of the batteries and their currently expensive replacement costs.)

Plus if you were frantically looking for a charging point before your car’s battery runs out, you might well end up travelling more than 10 miles around a city in a quest to find a place that would actually let you charge the battery for a long period of time, hence a 10 mile circular journey is not only possible but very plausible under the circumstances.

To conclude, unless it was explicitly claimed by Top Gear that both electric cars had travelled a specific (and identical) distance from a fixed starting point that happened to be considerably less than the manufacturer’s quoted travelling range before needing a recharge, then it would surely be difficult for anyone to claim that they had been misled.

But at least there are now some proper electric vehicle charging points in Lincoln.

 

Roger Bucknall

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