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Why Are Tesla Vehicles Not Perfect? It Might Be A Perfect Strategy!

Right off the bat, let me be crystal clear: The following is pure speculation. My thoughts on how Tesla internally deals with quality issues of its products should not be taken for anything else than exactly that — speculation.

Right off the bat, let me be crystal clear: The following is pure speculation. My thoughts on how Tesla internally deals with quality issues of its products should not be taken for anything else than exactly that — speculation. Being a Tesla vehicle owner myself, I would be hard pressed to be entirely unbiased, but I nevertheless try to present personal observations on the issue in an objective manner.

Photo by Jesper Berggreen

First, I will briefly present 3 examples of quality issues that I have experience myself on my Tesla Model 3, compare them with other EVs I have driven on a daily basis (a 2015 2nd gen Nissan Leaf and a 2016 1st gen BMW i3), and after that attempt to bring forth my thesis on Tesla’s quality control strategy filtered from any frustration over the very fact that I use automotive technology in any shape or form that is bound to fault now and again.

Example 1 — Drivetrain Whirring Noise

It is well known that the Tesla Model S suffered from drivetrain malfunctions quite often in its first iterations, which started going out to customers in 2012. All that power, and so little long-term experience. The rate of faults has steadily declined, and one would think this would be a very rare issue on the Model 3 entering the scene of brutal consumer real-world use in 2017. And I have honestly not heard of many cases. But, unfortunately, I was subject to the problem myself.

The day before I was supposed to pick up my brand new Model 3 Long Range RWD in mid 2019, a Tesla service representative called me up to let me know that, while testing my car and getting it ready for delivery, he had observed an unidentifiable whirring noise from the drivetrain at maximum acceleration. Not willing to take any chances, he had ordered a replacement drivetrain. Shouldn’t I just have had another car, you ask? Well, it just so happens that I was one of the lucky ones to get the limited-offer Long Range RWD option in Europe at the time. This configuration was perfect for me. It has the best range and it is cheaper than AWD.

The Model S loaner I had from Tesla service to keep me busy while waiting for my Model 3. Photo by Jesper Berggreen. 

Tesla had not identified the fault at the factory. The local service center got the job of finding and fixing the problem. I got a Model S loaner for 2 weeks. Was this a serious issue? Yes. Was it fixed? Yes. Did I complain? Well, not too much. …

In comparison, the BMW i3 I drove a couple of years earlier had an interesting issue with its drivetrain in my opinion: The motor control system prevented it from being anything that I expect of a real BMW. It just might have had something to do with bolts holding things together properly, but what do I know? What I experienced was a 170 horsepower RWD BMW with 3 driving modes: Eco Pro+, Eco Pro, and Comfort. No Sport mode? really? And what I felt when flooring it was a tiny little lag as if torque was ramping up to prevent things from breaking up. I have never felt this lag in other EV brands. The i3 has proven very reliable, though. I will say no more.

Example 2 — Tail Lights Condensation

A lot of Model 3 owners have this problem, especially in the tail lights, myself included. In fact, I think it’s so common among all brands that many seem not to care too much. However, it does seem to be rare with premium brands out of the German and Japanese auto groups. So, is Tesla really a premium brand when this is so common? I guess that depends on how you weigh, say, acceleration versus foggy tail lights. Needles to say, labeling anything as “premium” naturally sets expectations high, proportional to risk of disappointment.

Anyway, we can probably all agree that moisture building up inside any light housing is undesirable and it’s an eyesore when you have washed and polished your car in anticipation of a Sunday drive with the intent of making people’s heads turn towards this technological marvel you shed a fortune to acquire, be it a Tesla or anything else.

But for almost all problems, there are solutions, and besides getting the tail light assembly replaced on warranty, it is always nice to know what caused the problem and how it might be fixed. The diligent Tesla Gurus to the rescue:

I love this stuff. Logical explanations. The choice is yours — either you get the thing replaced or you fix it yourself. The former sends a message to Tesla quality control, the latter minimizes waste. All good, and there is one tiny detail I want you to note from video in this example before we move on: the part revision number.

Example 3 — Roof Interior Headliner

I have no idea how rare this problem is, but from one of Sandy Munro’s teardown videos on the Model Y, I can only imagine this has given Tesla some pain:

In the video, Sandy notes the difference between the headliner assembly of the Model 3 and Model Y, the former being made of acantara wrap on fiberglass and the latter being cloth wrap on plastic injection molding.

The issue I had, which you easily understand can happen when you see Sandy handling the fiberglass structure, was visible misalignments under the alcantara fabric from cracked fiberglass. I didn’t notice these right away, but one day sitting in the rear seat with sunlight coming in from the side, there was a very visible bump on the B-pillar cross beam, and you know, once you see a fault like that, you just can’t unsee it! I soon after found one more bump at the A-pillar cross beam that had been hiding under the sun visor.

It took Tesla 3 attempts to fix this issue. Probably because of the brittle nature of the material. I can understand why Tesla got fed up with this and decided to build a giant injection mold for the Model Y. Maybe it has changed on the 2021 Model 3 as well? This is just one of those small, albeit difficult, things Tesla do to get prices down in the long term. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

This is where I would like to give Nissan some credit. The Nissan Leaf I had the pleasure of driving for a year was very, very well built. It felt sturdy. And even though it did not have the recycled plastics and bamboo panels that made the BMW i3 so exotic, it gave the impression of being built to last a very long time. I’m telling you right now — had the Nissan offered a 75 kWh battery option in 2017 when the Model 3 came out, I would still be driving Nissan. But it didn’t. So I’m not.

Thesis — Collaborate To Accelerate

Now, the following rant may sound too crazy to some of you, but bear with me and ask yourself this question: If your mission was to maximize the acceleration of the transition of the world to sustainable transportation, and thus make sure all your available resources work to replace GHG emitting internal combustion based transportation as fast as possible, how would you do it?

You could make your customers do some heavy lifting, not because you don’t want your manufacturing business to do it all, but because we are all in a hurry, and millions of customers can be a resource, not a burden. How so? Well, I got this idea watching the video above with the foggy tail light problem and noticing the part number revisions.

Imagine Tesla only realizing this problem with the condensation of moisture inside the tail light when the product arrives in countries with a lot of rainy and cold days. Such a country is Denmark, and I have foggy tail lights on my 19 months old Model 3. Some customers have probably complained about this and had their tail lights replaced already, and thus Tesla will be aware of the problem. Remember, Tesla is very much a data-driven company. Data has intrinsic value. All information exchanged via mobile app, car, and service center is stored and considered a valuable resource.

At some point, the quantity of foggy tail light issues cross a threshold and someone working in quality control will notice, and a decision of whether this issue is of any significance is made. Then the supplier is instructed to fix the problem, which in this case has something to do with the quality of the seal in the lights housing. If Tesla manufactures these housing themselves, this is an easy fix. If not, then it may take more time. It may take a few iterations (part number revisions) before the seal is perfect (or rather: good enough), and considering the thousands of parts making up any vehicle, this could take months, or even years, depending on quantity threshold and priority.

On the surface of things, this seems irrational to the customer. I mean, why not make it perfect the first time around? Because any part just has to be good enough, not perfect! Why? Because good enough is much faster and cheaper than perfect. And this is where the customer comes in to help set the threshold of perfect.

If a manufacturer of any product has an army of quality control personnel working at pre-delivery inspection checking for all possible faults, the product that ships will be perfect. That’s good, right? Yes! That’s very good, and very, very slow, and expensive. According to Teslarati Elon wrote this to his employees with 5 days left of 2020 pushing for the 500,000 unit milestone: “Particular help would be appreciated at end of the line to ensure cars built now are able to be delivered immediately without any further improvements in PDI, as there simply isn’t enough time to do so.”

Think about it. It’s not that Elon Musk does not envision every product he dreams up to be perfect off the line. In fact, he and all his staff do everything in their power to do a good job. However, knowing Elon’s priorities of getting products out the door, you just can’t have it both ways. In fact, had the Model S been perfect, I mean absolutely flawless from day one, there would be no going back. To pull of such a feat Tesla would literally have had to test drive, break, and fix several iterations of the Model S everywhere in the world for several years.

Where would Tesla be at this moment had it pursued perfection above all? The same place some of the incumbents, I guess. Mind you, the old guard of auto manufacturers which have perfected their quality standards for more than a century, cannot afford to fall back on quality. Imagine an Audi e-tron with foggy tail lights and failing drivetrains. Not an option. It’s bad enough Tesla’s competitors doesn’t seem to be able to reach quite the same specifications on power and range. The incumbents will be punished hard by their loyal customer base if they over-promise. Tesla has been forgiven more than once.

In my opinion, Tesla has made use of all available resources, my own included, to advance innovation aggressively. Why? Because that’s the mission of Tesla, and has always been the vision of Elon Musk: Global collaboration on the urgency of bringing forth global sustainable energy and transportation systems. In other words: Saving the freaking planet together!

As I said, the foggy tail lights made this dawn on me. I too had wished for perfection from Tesla based on its practical and financial ability to do so at this point. I kind of take that wish back. Elon has a strategy, and I believe this is it. See you at the end of the S-curve, where things inevitably will be closer to perfection.

Photo by Jesper Berggreen

If you choose to buy a Tesla (even though it might cause a glitch in your quality sensory circuits), feel free to use my referral link to get lots of free miles:

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Written By

Jesper had his perspective on the world expanded vastly after having attended primary school in rural Africa in the early 1980s. And while educated a computer programmer and laboratory technician, working with computers and lab-robots at the institute of forensic medicine in Aarhus, Denmark, he never forgets what life is like having nothing. Thus it became obvious for him that technological advancement is necessary for the prosperity of all humankind, sharing this one vessel we call planet earth. However, technology has to be smart, clean, sustainable, widely accessible, and democratic in order to change the world for the better. Writing about clean energy, electric transportation, energy poverty, and related issues, he gets the message through to anyone who wants to know better. Jesper is founder of and a long-term investor in Tesla, Ørsted, and Vestas.


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