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What Goes On Underneath Your Tesla Can Hurt You

Figure 1: Snow on a roof. All-time biggest snow year on record, approaching 900 inches. Alta, Utah. April 2023. Photo by Elizabeth McDonald.

Background (skip these first three paragraphs if you’re familiar with my background): I’m a huge EV fanboy and have been driving electric cars now for 8 years. I also have solar panels on my house, so I can brag that I am driving on sunshine. I previously owned 3 Nissan Leafs. I now own a dual-motor Tesla Model 3 Long Range with 93,920 miles on the odometer. I paid $6000 extra when I bought my car in October 2019 for Full Self Driving. I just got the download for the big FSD Beta V11 software upgrade. I will be reporting on it in my next article. Having dual motors mean that both the front and rear axles are powered, so you essentially have an all-wheel-drive or 4-wheel-drive car.

I teach alpine skiing at Brighton Ski Resort in Utah. It is 18 miles up to the end of Big Cottonwood Canyon. On big snow days, the canyon is restricted to 4-wheel-drive cars and cars with snow tires by big signs with flashing yellow lights at the bottom of the canyon (see Figure 2). With my two-wheel-drive Nissan Leaf cars, I had barely enough battery to make it up the canyon on clear roads and would always need to park at the bottom of the canyon on snow days. I thought that with my 4-wheel-drive Tesla, I could drive up the canyon in any kind of weather. This would be a luxury for me compared to the two rear-wheel-drive cars that I drove in the winter to ski resorts in Wisconsin, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and Colorado in an earlier life. We considered it a total luxury when we were driving our VW Bug with a rear engine over the drive wheels. Too bad the heater was too weak to keep the windshield clear.

What I didn’t know was that this past winter would be the biggest snow year of all time (see the snow on a roof at Alta this year in Figure 1). The previous record was 745 inches in 1995. This year, Alta and Brighton have hit 880 inches, and one good storm in the next 6 weeks will put us over 900 inches for the year. I was correct that even with only good all-season tires, I would be able to drive up the plowed canyon road on any day. What I failed to understand was that my Model 3 has only 5” of clearance, and with continued snowfall during the day chewed up and packed by other cars, my car would be high centered in the parking lot. On two occasions, it took help from other skiers and the parking lot attendants to get my car moving enough to make a run for the parking lot exit. My 2019 Tesla Model 3 has only fiberboard aeroshields under the car. What I didn’t realize was that I was literally scraping the front aeroshield off the bottom of my car in the deep, compacted snow.

Figure 2: Traction warning sign. Brian Head Canyon, Utah. April 11, 2023. Photo by Fritz Hasler.

On another occasion two years earlier, I was driving in intense rainfall which turned out to be causing flash floods in North Carolina. I didn’t see 12” of water in a low spot which I hit at 40 mph. In this case, I tore the rear aeroshield off the bottom of my car.

What can you do to avoid these situations? As for the deep snow, I plan on leaving my car at the bottom of the canyon on those really big snow days. As for deep water, I will listen more carefully to the weather report and avoid driving through deep water.

What can you do to beef up the bottom of your car to make it more durable? First, Tesla has upgraded the fiberboard aeroshield on newer Model 3s, and in my case installed an upgraded plastic version on my car. A reader of my earlier article (see below) suggested installing aluminum skid plates under the car and raising the car up a couple of inches. This would have kept me from damaging the bottom of my car and would help getting out if the snow wasn’t terribly deep.

From Peter Jorgensen in the comments section of one of my previous articles: “Hey Fritz, have you considered getting the 1.75″ lift from Mountain pass performance? It’s pretty cheap and it’s worked really well on my model 3 when we get these big Utah snow falls. You would have 7.25″ of clearance with that. They also make aluminum skid plates to replace the fiber. It’s pretty much on par with a stock Subaru Outback at that point. I had Ahns custom and vinyl install my kit in south Salt Lake. They did a good job.”

Thanks so much for the suggestion, Peter! However, since I am too broke to even get true snow tires, I will just limp along with my current situation.

What if I was driving a Tesla Model Y? The Model Y has 6.6” clearance, so it can handle a little deeper snowfall. What about the Model S? There are discrepancies in the various figures I see, but the Tesla Model S has a minimum clearance of 4.6”, which is adjustable. It can be raised to 8.1”. The minimum clearance for a Model X is only 4.3”, but it can be raised to 8.1” or 13.7” depending on which report you believe. Would someone please confirm the correct number? Also, tell us what the aeroshields are made of on your Model Y, S, and X. The Tesla Cybertruck when finally released is supposed to have a minimum clearance of about 5”, but you will be able to dynamically raise it to 16”. You will finally have a Tesla that you can safely drive off-road. Note: Looking at Ford F-150 and Chevy Silverado electric pickup trucks I see that have been lifted, there is plenty of clearance for the body, but the axles and particularly the differentials still have quite small clearances. I think only next-generation electric SUVs and trucks with hub motors on each wheel will totally be able to solve this problem.

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Arthur Frederick (Fritz) Hasler, PhD, former leader of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization & Analysis Laboratory (creator of this iconic image), and avid CleanTechnica reader. Also: Research Meteorologist (Emeritus) at NASA GSFC, Adjunct Professor at Viterbo University On-Line Studies, PSIA L2 Certified Alpine Ski Instructor at Brighton Utah Ski School.


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