In several articles this year, my colleagues and I covered some of the problems with Tesla service and repair that lead to extreme repair bills for customers. After I discuss some of them, I’m going to go over an industry-standard repair practice that Tesla could adopt, and perhaps improve upon, that would solve this problem.
In my case, I was test driving a Model Y when one of my passengers couldn’t hold lunch down, resulting in Tesla’s employees telling me that the whole seat might need replaced. Tesla’s service centers don’t repair or replace small components in many cases, so there was a chance I could be billed for the whole row of seats, merely because a small amount of vomit went into one of the seatbelt clickers. In most other vehicles, a seat belt clicker can be replaced for far under $100. For people raising a family, puke and other messes are just about inevitable, so big repair bills for a small mess isn’t a great thing.
I compared this to the Death Star in Star Wars Episode IV. In that film, the protagonists exploit a weakness in a giant space station’s heat exhaust system, allowing a small fighter-plane-like spacecraft to blow up a space station the size of a moon, in just one shot.
I never heard back from Tesla about this, nor has anyone made an insurance claim over the incident, so they must have either figured out how to fix it, or didn’t want any more bad publicity. The fact that I was threatened with a big bill over something that would normally cost around $30-50 to fix is still insane, though.
My colleague Jo Borrás found an even bigger Death Star-type weakness when he discussed a $16,000 repair bill a Tesla service center gave one Model 3 driver. The driver ran over some debris in the road, like we all do sometimes when it can’t be avoided. Unfortunately, the debris broke a plastic panel on the bottom of the vehicle and slammed into a coolant connection to the battery pack, breaking it. At the Tesla service center, they determined that it was part of the battery pack, and that the entire pack would need replacement. Why? Because service centers don’t open battery packs, and can only replace them.
This would have totaled the vehicle, as the pack replacement cost exceeded half the cost of comparable replacement, but the car’s owner decided to seek out a second opinion. He sought the help of Rich Benoit, who runs the Rich Rebuilds Channel on YouTube. Benoit owns Electrified Garage, an independent EV repair shop, and despite the distance, the owner had his car towed across states to get a better repair estimate from Rich.
It turned out that the battery pack’s thermal connection could be repaired for only $700. Electrified Garage figured out that they could repair the cracked tube using standard plumbing methods, as the pressure in a Tesla’s coolant system isn’t very high. With the crack repaired and new coolant put back in the system, the car ran just as if nothing ever happened.
Like Jo, my colleague Steve Hanley went into detail about the wider issue of Right To Repair. Many manufacturers other than Tesla do what they can to get in the way of independent repair shops or the owners themselves servicing and repairing their products. This, in turn, has led to a whole movement against those practices, with a quickening tempo of government action developing. Consumers, in many cases, simply want access to computer interfaces and the ability to get parts from somebody other than the original manufacturer, as well as the ability to have independent mechanics and repair shops be as effective as possible.
Manufacturers are often resisting this, making copyright and safety/integrity arguments against independent repairs and computing access. They’d have a point if their locked-down products weren’t causing real financial harm to consumers that’s entirely avoidable.
If you want to learn more about Tesla’s poor treatment of people who want to repair their cars independently, I’d recommend you check out this video below at Rich Rebuilds. It’s pretty awful the way they’ve treated someone who was once a big enthusiast and supporter.
How Tesla Can Solve These Problems, Increase Customer Satisfaction, and Improve Its Image
Before we discuss the logistical changes needed to avoid high repair bills for relatively minor issues, we need to talk about a philosophical shift that needs to happen at Tesla. The fundamental problem is that the company wants to control the vehicles, when the company really should treat the vehicles more like something that the customer owns.
There are reasons that Tesla gives for not doing this, but what it needs to understand is that cars simply are not software. They’re cars, and people have been accustomed for generations to having control over their own cars. The idea of not having control is not only alien but offensive to most vehicle owners.
Tesla needs to get solidly behind the Right to Repair movement, stop abusing the owners of salvage-titled Teslas, and provide whatever independent shops, owners, and anyone else needs to perform their own repairs. Anyone can go to the parts counter at other manufacturers’ dealers and buy a part for a vehicle, no questions asked, and that’s an industry standard that Tesla should adopt.
I can see why Tesla would want to take a modular approach to vehicle repair, and that’s something that it can continue to do. To have every service center digging deep into things like battery packs, drive units, and complex interior assemblies would add a lot of cost and complexity at the service center level, and it makes a lot of sense to avoid that.
To keep repair costs from ballooning out to the costs of whole new assemblies, Tesla can take another page out of the “legacy” auto playbook: refurbished and remanufactured parts.
For example, when someone comes in with a damaged battery pack, Tesla could order in a remanufactured pack instead of demanding the customer buy a new one. Then, send that damaged pack to another location where it can have whatever minor internal repair it needs to be ready for the next customer who needs a pack. Instead of paying $16,000 for a new pack, a customer could pay only a fraction of that for a remanufactured assembly, especially when you consider that they’re feeding the whole rest of their pack back into the remanufacturing effort.
The remanufacturing could happen at the factory, at a dedicated facility, or at a third party remanufacturing company that already does this kind of work, and could even be a little profitable for whoever does it.
If Tesla can do all of this, or even most of it, that would make a huge difference to its customers. Hell, I might even buy one!
Featured image: Tesla skateboard chassis, including motor. Photo by Kyle Field/CleanTechnica.