While Tesla’s car production and sales volumes have grown at an unprecedented pace, the company continues to struggle with the challenges of servicing this massive influx of new customers. As the volume of cars delivered has grown, so have the complaints about long waits for scheduled service, extended delays in having even basic service jobs completed, and the inability to get replacement body and mechanical parts in a timely fashion. While electric vehicles typically require much less maintenance than ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles, and many issues can be addressed via over-the-air software updates, there are times when physical service needs to be performed.
Last month, Consumer Reports dropped the Model 3 from its recommended vehicles list due to owner reports about reliability, and yet the publication also reports that Tesla is the top brand in terms of overall owner satisfaction. Why the dichotomy?
“In most cases, reliability issues will undermine satisfaction,” says Jake Fisher, senior director of auto testing at Consumer Reports. “But when a vehicle has an enthusiastic following, like with Tesla, owners may overlook some issues.”
But just how much leeway will customers — particular customers who are new to the brand — give the company if their service experiences are below par?
This year’s Bernstein survey of Tesla owners exposes a troubling trend. While 87% of Tesla owners who responded to the survey said they “love their Tesla” (up 2% from last year), only 42% of respondents rated their Tesla service experience as “excellent” — a 15% drop from last year. Long wait times for appointments and poorer rates of problem resolution were cited as the most common issues related to poor marks.
Too Many Cars, Not Enough Parts
As a Model 3 owner, I’ve suffered with my own service issues and extended loss of use due to parts delays. A little fender dent on my Model 3 last spring led to the loss of my car for over a month. There’s currently only one Tesla authorized body shop in New York City, and they can only turn cars around as quickly as they can get the parts and do the work. More recently, I had to have the trunk lid replaced on my Model 3 Performance, and that led to another six weeks in the body shop. Again, the delay was blamed on inability to get replacement body parts: a simple trunk lid. And when the trunk lid finally arrived, the existing license plate mount wouldn’t fit on it. Apparently, Tesla made a running change to this part. So, for now, the shop has taped the license plate right onto the trunk using double-sided tape while waiting for the new mount to arrive.
Other Tesla owners have had it far worse. “We had one Tesla Model X in last year. The car had been struck in a front-end collision, causing damage to the steering link,” a service tech (who preferred to remain anonymous) told me recently. “We had that Model X up on the lift for well over two months while waiting for the necessary parts from Tesla, and this is a car that was only a few years old.”
Good Service? Bad Service? It Depends Where You Live
As for the traditional service experience, results seem to vary significantly, depending on the customer’s location. “Service has been excellent in recent months. I brought my Model X to Rocklin (CA) for an airbag warning message and it was fixed in about 2 hours. Loaner cars have been plentiful. Mobile service has also been great. Have used them several times recently,” says Matthew Chan from Davis, California. Tomas in Chicago has also had good luck. “Just today, in advance of next week’s service visit, a tech reviewed my logs, did remote diagnostics, determined a fix in a specific coming software release, and saved me a service visit. They also gave me a personal phone number and email in case I want to check back. This is typical of the excellent service I’ve had since 2012.”
Rajinder S., from San Jose, California, has had mixed results, depending on which service center he visits. “San Jose has the best Tesla service center! They go well beyond what is expected, addressing issues other service centers could not. I had previously gone to Fremont and Sunnyvale Service Centers and had horrible experiences: my brand new Model S with 100 miles on it was at those two centers for two months; they just couldn’t get it right. More than that, communication was horrible. But the techs and service staff at San Jose are great. They fixed an issue with my Model 3 driver’s seat in about 45 minutes.”
Living in Ithaca, NY, Nathanael Nerode has also had mixed results. A Tesla owner since 2013, Mr. Nerode would have to drive five hours to get to his nearest Tesla service center. Fortunately, Nerode purchased an “unlimited” Ranger Service plan (which is no longer offered) when he bought his first Tesla. With the Ranger service, Tesla techs come to you to perform any necessary service. But even that is no magic bullet. “Until recently, service communications have been appalling. I’ve spent hours on the phone having to repeat my story to each new person. And then when the tech arrives, I have to explain it all over again. But those techs that do arrive have been great, at least for hardware issues. Every time I’ve had a hardware problem, it has been fixed permanently with an upgraded, improved hardware component. But software issues are a different story.”
According to Nerode, Tesla’s integrated media player — the software used to play digital music from a USB thumb drive — leaves a lot to be desired. There’s a 92-page discussion about this on the Tesla Motors Club forum. After two and a half years, things have only gotten worse. Not better. Nerode has tried everything he can to get these software bugs fixed, including “executive escalation” … twice. But these requests appear to be falling on deaf ears. I, myself, have noted multiple audio glitches when listening to streaming media on my Model 3. I had been hoping that a software upgrade would make things better, but the glitches remain a year after my initial purchase.
“If something ‘non-critical’ is broken in software, you are screwed,” says Nerode. “They never fix software bugs. They just break stuff in the new releases. I would consider switching from the USB player to Bluetooth, but Tesla is still using a lower quality ancient version of Bluetooth that really isn’t conducive to music playback.”
My own experience at the Brooklyn, NY, service center has been less than positive. My first Tesla Model 3 needed to have its touchscreen replaced. It had been randomly responding to phantom touches, which caused the navigation system to shut itself off repeatedly and the audio system volume to randomly turn itself up or down. On one occasion, this happened while I was double-parked and out of the vehicle, causing permanent damage to the sound system. Replacing the screen only took about a week, as the service center was able to source the part locally. But the service rep said they were unable to reproduce the audio problem, so they didn’t repair it. Meanwhile, I experienced the issue again 10 minutes after leaving. I did not return to have the issue addressed, as this particular service center is inconvenient for me to get to. I just lived with the low-quality audio until I traded the Model 3 Rear Wheel Drive in for a Model 3 Performance.
That Model 3 Performance has had its own issues. While in Autopilot mode, the car won’t reliably change lanes. Sometimes, when I signal to the right, the car begins the lane change, then goes back into its original lane. After that stutter, the car sometimes stays in its original lane or it tries again and completes the lane change via a second attempt. Not only does this make me look to other drivers like a drunken fool, it also sort of undermines my faith in the Autopilot system. During a recent long-distance trip, I saw this failed lane change happen for about a third of the attempted lane changes, but only when changing lanes to the right, never to the left. I captured a couple of these failed lane change attempts via the built-in dash cam, and noted the date/time of the occurrences. You can see what this looks like in the video below.
Also, when I was negotiating out of a really tight parking space, I struck a 1-foot-wide pole in reverse with my Model 3 at very low speed. I thought it looked a bit close, but the proximity sensor said I was still at least 12 inches away. My mistake: I trusted the sensor instead of my eyes. I had hoped that the service center would find some flaw in the hardware and/or software, that they would repair the damage and the sensors and I’d be back up and running quickly. But this was not the case.
The earliest appointment I could get for the Tesla service center in Brooklyn to see the car was more than two weeks out. Checking online now, some of the service centers in the New York City area now have over a two month delay in scheduling basic service. The service center had the car for about 4 or 5 days, said that it found no fault in the proximity sensors (“working normally”) and that it could not reproduce the Autopilot lane change problem. So, they asked me to come and pick up the car immediately. I suggested that they try again to reproduce the lane change problem, as it was pretty common. And I’d really rather have my car fixed before picking it up. They replied, “We would love to give you back your vehicle so that you do not incur storage fees.” They couldn’t reproduce the problem, didn’t fix anything, and if I didn’t come and pick up the car immediately, they would start charging me storage fees. Got it.
When I picked up the car, I went for a test drive with the tech and we were able to reproduce the failed lane change within about 5 minutes of getting out onto the highway. “Oh, that? Yeah, that’s normal,” he said. So I commented, “It’s normal to not be able to complete a lane change in Autopilot mode even though there is nothing in the next lane for hundreds of feet ahead or behind us?”
“Yeah. It’s a beta feature. It’s not perfect. It will get better over time. If it happens a lot, let us know.” But wait … didn’t I just do that?
So, I took the car back and dropped it at the body shop to fix the trunk lid on my own (and my insurance company’s) dime. Lessons learned? The reverse proximity sensor shouldn’t be relied on too literally (trust your eyes!) and this particular Tesla service center is too busy to be able to adequately diagnose and repair “complex” issues — like an Autopilot system that can only change lanes to the left.
I should note that as this article was going to press, a member of Tesla’s “Customer Experience” team reached out to me to say they were taking another look at my Autopilot issue and wanted to help find a solution. I will post an update here if this leads to a satisfactory outcome.
Update: two Tesla mobile service techs came to my house, ran some diagnostics, then disassembled the rear bumper and replaced the proximity sensors and wiring harness. I took the car for a test ride afterwards and am happy to report that Autopilot can now successfully change lanes in both directions.
Better Days Ahead?
In the recent Q4 stakeholders call, CEO Elon Musk acknowledged the service issue and promised to address it:
“I want to note that one of our major priorities this quarter is improving service operations. So really, from my standpoint, when I think about what my priorities are this quarter, it’s improving service in North America. That’s #1.”
Musk has promised to expand the number of service centers and hire more technicians, as well as beefing up the mobile service program to perform basic service jobs at your home or place of business. Musk said they’re also starting to provide a concierge service to pick up your car and deliver it back to you after service has been completed. But this program is only just now starting to be rolled out in select areas.
There have been some signs of improvement, at least in certain areas. “In 2019, the service folks seem to be keeping track of the conversations better, and even handing me off to the correct specialist in a timely fashion,” says Nerode. Like many of the Bernstein survey respondents, Nerode’s opinion on the brand is still positive. “There still isn’t any competition; Tesla cars blow all other cars away. Since I started driving my Tesla, I can’t stand to drive shaking, noisy, smelly gasoline cars any more. Nobody else is making electric cars which you can do road trips with. So I’m going to keep driving Teslas, and I’m still invested in the company, despite my frustration with their service and software.”
Recently, Tesla announced an accelerated timetable to begin building Tesla Model 3 in a local factory in China. It has also unveiled the new compact SUV, the Model Y, which is expected to sell in volumes even higher than the Model 3 in two to three years as it ramps up production. These actions are likely to bring millions of additional consumers to the Tesla brand. Will the service organization be able to keep pace so that these new Tesla owners become Tesla advocates? Time will tell.