Tesla Motors’ Devastating Design Problem
Tesla Motors' lineup of all-electric vehicles — its existing Roadster, almost certainly its impending Model S, and possibly its future Model X — apparently suffer from a severe limitation that can largely destroy the value of the vehicle. If the battery is ever totally discharged, the owner is left with what Tesla describes as a "brick": a completely immobile vehicle that cannot be started or even pushed down the street. The only known remedy is for the owner to pay Tesla approximately $40,000 to replace the entire battery. Unlike practically every other modern car problem, neither Tesla's warranty nor typical car insurance policies provide any protection from this major financial loss. Here's how it happens.
Despite this "brick" scenario having occurred several times already, Tesla has publicly downplayed the severity of battery depletion risk to both existing owners and future buyers. Privately though, Tesla has gone to great lengths to prevent this potentially brand-destroying incident from happening more often, including possibly engaging in GPS tracking of a vehicle without the owner's knowledge. UPDATE!
NOTE (UPDATED!): The argument outlined in this story by Michael DeGusta that originally appeared on theunderstatement.com has been confirmed by Tesla. — Ed.
How To Brick An Electric Car
A Tesla Roadster that is simply parked without being plugged in will eventually become a "brick". The parasitic load from the car's always-on subsystems continually drains the battery and if the battery's charge is ever totally depleted, it is essentially destroyed. Complete discharge can happen even when the car is plugged in if it isn't receiving sufficient current to charge, which can be caused by something as simple as using an extension cord. After battery death, the car is completely inoperable. At least in the case of the Tesla Roadster, it's not even possible to enable tow mode, meaning the wheels will not turn and the vehicle cannot be pushed nor transported to a repair facility by traditional means.
The amount of time it takes an unplugged Tesla to die varies. Tesla's Roadster Owners Manual [Full Zipped PDF] states that the battery should take approximately 11 weeks of inactivity to completely discharge [Page 5-2, Column 3: PDF]. However, that is from a full 100% charge. If the car has been driven first, say to be parked at an airport for a long trip, that time can be substantially reduced. If the car is driven to nearly its maximum range and then left unplugged, it could potentially "brick" in about one week. Many other scenarios are possible: for example, the car becomes unplugged by accident, or is unwittingly plugged into an extension cord that is defective or too long.
When a Tesla battery does reach total discharge, it cannot be recovered and must be entirely replaced. Unlike a normal car battery, the best-case replacement cost of the Tesla battery is currently at least $32,000, not including labor and taxes that can add thousands more to the cost.
Tesla Motors' Devastating Design ProblemFive Examples And Counting
Of the approximately 2,200 Roadsters sold to date, a regional service manager for Tesla stated he was personally aware of at least five cases of Tesla Roadsters being "bricked" due to battery depletion. It is unknown if there are additional cases in other regions or countries.
The 340th Tesla Roadster produced went to a customer in Santa Barbara, California. In 2011, he took his Roadster out for a drive and then parked it in a temporary garage while his home was being renovated. Lacking a built-in Tesla charger or a convenient power outlet, he left the car unplugged. Six weeks later his car was dead. It took four men two hours to drag the 2,700-pound Roadster onto a flatbed truck so that it could be shipped to Tesla's Los Angeles area service center, all at the owner's expense. A service manager then informed him that "it's a brick" and that the battery would cost approximately $40,000 to replace. He was further told that this was a special "friends and family" price, strongly implying that Tesla generally charges more.
As a second Roadster owner discovered, the Tesla battery system can completely discharge even when the vehicle is plugged in. This owner's car was plugged into a 100-foot long extension cord for an extended period. The length of this extension cord evidently reduced the electric current to a level insufficient to charge the Tesla, resulting in another "bricked" Roadster.
A third bricked Tesla Roadster apparently sits in its owner's garage in Newport Beach, California. That owner allegedly had a similar prior incident with a BMW-produced electric vehicle. He claimed BMW replaced that vehicle, but Tesla refuses to do the same. The owner either couldn't afford or didn't want to pay Tesla the $40,000 (or more) to fix his car.
A fourth customer shipped his Tesla Roadster to Japan, reportedly only to discover the voltages there were incompatible. By then, it was too late, the car was bricked, and he had to ship it back to the US for repairs.
The whereabouts and circumstances of the fifth bricked Roadster the Tesla service manager expressed knowledge of are unknown.
No Warranty, No Insurance, No Payment Plan
Tesla has a "bumper to bumper" warranty [Page 3: PDF], but the warranty text allows Tesla to hold the owner responsible for any damage related to "Failure to maintain the Battery at a proper charge level at all times" - the meaning of "proper charge" doesn't appear to be specifically defined. Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Vice President of Sales & Ownership Experience George Blankenship, and Vice President of Worldwide Service J. Joost de Vries all became directly involved in at least one "brick" situation, with de Vries stating in writing that since Tesla's documentation and warranty "identify in clear language to keep the Roadster on external power when parked" the decision to decline any warranty or financial relief was "correct and justified".
Unfortunately for current and future Tesla owners who encounter this problem, it's also not covered by normal automobile insurance policies. This makes the situation almost unique in modern car-ownership: a $40,000 or more exposure that cannot be insured. After all, car insurance is designed to protect owners and drivers even when they are neglectful or at fault. The affected customers probably would have been in a better financial situation if they'd accidentally rolled their Teslas off a cliff, as insurance would generally cover much of those costs.
Due to Tesla batteries naturally decaying over time, Tesla offered Roadster customers a $12,000 "battery replacement program". This program is intended to replace a Roadster battery with a new one seven years after purchase. When asked, the Tesla service manager said even if owners had paid in advance for this replacement battery program, they would not be allowed to use it to replace an accidentally discharged battery - they would have to pay the full $40,000-plus cost.
The Santa Barbara owner was also informed that no other financing or payment plan would be made available to pay for the replacement battery, and that he needed to either pay in full or remove his dead vehicle from the Tesla service center as soon as possible.
Tesla Motors' Devastating Design ProblemUnderstated Warnings to Owners
With such a large price tag for a bricked vehicle, it would be reasonable to expect Tesla to go to great lengths to ensure their customers were fully aware of the severity of battery discharge. Instead it seems that Tesla, while working to make it clear their vehicles should always be left plugged in, also appears to have focused on trying not to spook their current and future customers about the potentially severe ramifications of complete battery discharge.
The Tesla Roadster Owners Manual begins with several "Important Notes About Your Vehicle" [Page 1-2: PDF], none of which make any mention of battery discharge. In Chapter 5 of the manual, where vehicle charging is addressed, Tesla states that the vehicle is "designed to be plugged in" and that allowing the charge level to fall to 0% "can permanently damage the Battery." [Page 5-2: PDF] It does not specify that a completely discharged battery may need to be replaced, entirely at the owner's expense, at a cost that could be the majority of the value of the vehicle.
Tesla did begin handing out a "Battery Reminder Card" [PDF] when a Roadster was brought in for servicing. However, the card gently and cheerfully prods owners to "Remember - a connected Roadster is a happy Roadster!" with no mention of the possible consequences of a complete discharge.
There is no warning regarding battery discharge on the actual power port of the vehicle itself, where a gas-powered car often contains warnings about issues like the use of leaded gasoline in an unleaded vehicle. There is also no warning on the power port or in the Roadster Owner's manual regarding the use of extension cords.
What About The Model S?
It's not just the Roadster - Tesla's service manager stated the upcoming Model S definitely shares the Roadster's discharge problem, describing it as fundamental to the battery technology. Another Tesla employee concurred, saying it would be "neglect" to leave the vehicle unplugged when it's parked. This fits with statements by Kurt Kelty, Tesla's Director of Battery Technology, that the Model S uses the same battery technology as the Roadster. Yet on Tesla's Model S "Facts" page under "Charging", potential buyers are presented with only the lenient guideline that "Tesla recommends plugging your Model S in each night or when convenient."
Assuming the Model S has the same battery vulnerability as the Roadster, Tesla's Model S FAQ is woefully incomplete at best. In the FAQ, Tesla explicitly addresses the question of what happens when their car is parked and not charging:
If Model S is parked and not charging, will the battery lose its charge?
Loss of charge at rest is minimal. For example, Model S owners can park at the airport for extended vacations without plugging in.
That's the answer in its entirety - nothing at all about the eventual, inevitable, catastrophic battery failure that the Tesla service manager seemed certain of.
Even the minimal loss of charge statement is highly suspect. The Roadster's owner manual [Page 5-2, Column 3: PDF] states that a fully charged car can be expected to lose 50% of its charge in just 7 days, clearly not a "minimal" amount. As far as leaving the car for an "extended vacation", the manual [Page 5-3, Column 1: PDF] actually states that vehicles left for more than two weeks should not only be plugged in, but plugged into a special $1,950 (plus installation) Tesla High Power Connector that is not generally available at airports or elsewhere at present. Additionally, leaving a Tesla Roadster at the airport for an extended vacation would seemingly invalidate the warranty which says the battery "should never remain continuously unplugged for an extended period of time, regardless of the state of charge" [Page 5, Column 2: PDF] - practically the exact opposite of Tesla's Model S FAQ answer.
The Model S battery could be very different from that of the Roadster. If so, however, this would mean not only that the Tesla employees are wrong, but that Tesla has made radical improvements in these areas but has decided not to actively promote them or even mention them prominently on their website. Barring that improbable scenario, Tesla's marketing appears to be less than entirely forthcoming on this key issue.
Tesla's Unorthodox Prevention Measures
While customer and marketing communication about charging are focused on gentle reminders, behind the scenes Tesla has seemingly been scrambling to try to ensure existing owners don't "brick" their cars.
After the first 500 Roadsters, Tesla added a remote monitoring system to the vehicles, connecting through AT&T's GSM-based cellular network. Tesla uses this system to monitor various vehicle metrics including the battery charge levels, as long as the vehicle has the GSM connection activated and is within range of AT&T's network. According to the Tesla service manager, Tesla has used this information on multiple occasions to proactively telephone customers to warn them when their Roadster's battery was dangerously low.
In at least one case, Tesla went even further. The Tesla service manager admitted that, unable to contact an owner by phone, Tesla remotely activated a dying vehicle's GPS to determine its location and then dispatched Tesla staff to go there. It is not clear if Tesla had obtained this owner's consent to allow this tracking, or if the owner is even aware that his vehicle had been tracked. Further, the service manager acknowledged that this use of tracking was not something they generally tell customers about.
Going to these lengths could be seen as customer service, but it would also seem to fit with an internal awareness at Tesla of the gravity of the "bricking" problem, and the potentially disastrous public relations and sales fallout that could result from it becoming more broadly known.
Coming Soon: More Customers, More Problems
Tesla produced 2,500 Roadsters, but it plans to make 25,000 Model S vehicles by the end of 2013. This vastly increases the possible number of accidental "bricking" incidents. At the same time, the Model S pricing starts at $49,900 (after US tax incentives), broadening the market to households of far more modest means than the owners of the $109,000 and up Roadster. This in turn makes it even less likely that Tesla buyers will have the necessary tens of thousands of dollars to spare if they ever allow their battery to fully discharge.
Tesla has officially stated that "it is impossible to accurately forecast the cost of future battery replacements", but the Tesla service manager said he expected the Model S battery to cost even more than the Roadster's. If true, it would mean that a Model S battery failure could essentially render the car valueless.
Tesla is actively targeting the mass market, with CEO Elon Musk recently touting the Model X as "the killer app for families." But as things stand today, families who fail to keep their car charged could end up unexpectedly forced to continue making payments on an inoperable and worthless vehicle. That would be a killer.
The Bottom Line
Tesla Motors is a public company that's valued at over $3.5 billion and has received $465 million in US government loans, all on the back of the promise that it can deliver a real world, all-electric car to the mainstream market. Yet today, in my opinion, Tesla seems to be knowingly selling cars that can turn into bricks without any financial protection for the customer.
Until there's a fundamental change in Tesla's technology, it would seem the only other option for Tesla is to help its customers insure against this problem. As consumers become aware that a Tesla is possibly just a long trip, a bad extension cord, or an accidental unplugging away from disaster, how many will choose to gamble $40,000 on that not happening? Would you?