Tesla, Elon Musk, and the future of electric vehicle repair

Tesla, Elon Musk, and the future of electric vehicle repair

A brand-new Model 3 delivered in desperate need of repair, due to a faulty computer, an inoperable wireless phone charger, and a missing USB port. A supposedly fixed Tesla returned unfixed, and with something spilled on the car, damaging the paint. A dead mouse and rat poison discovered in a Tesla’s front trunk after a trip to the local service center.

These are just a few of the issues about Tesla service that customers have flagged in complaints filed with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Through a public records request, Recode obtained details about more than 1,000 complaints about Tesla, including more than 120 customer reports that discussed specific problems with service, delays, and parts. These reports reflect a growing frustration with the company over its approach to maintenance and repairs — discontent that’s echoed everywhere from Tesla owner Reddit posts to online forums for Tesla shareholders to the more than 9,000 reports that the company’s customers have sent to the Better Business Bureau. The complaints point to all sorts of problems with the experience of owning a Tesla vehicle, including an inadequate number of service centers, limited stock of replacement parts, bad communication, poor manufacturing quality, and long wait times for repair appointments.

Part of the frustration is that EVs are supposed to be easier to maintain than internal combustion vehicles. They don’t need oil changes, have fewer moving parts, and use regenerative braking, which means brake pads last longer. Tesla even says that it “designs every Tesla vehicle with the goal of eliminating the need for service.” Among car owners who do need service, however, Tesla drivers tend to visit service centers at nearly the same rate as the owners of premium gas-powered vehicles, such as Lexus or Audi, according to data the consumer research firm J.D. Power shared with Recode.

Tesla’s approach to service is also frustrating some customers. While automakers like Ford and GM enlist a network of thousands of dealerships and independent mechanics to fix their vehicles, it appears the vast majority of Tesla repairs tend to be completed by Tesla technicians employed or authorized by the company. Tesla warns customers that damage or failures caused by technicians who aren’t Tesla-certified won’t be covered by the company’s warranty policy. In the past, Tesla has also opposed legislation that supports the right-to-repair movement, which advocates for making it easier for people to repair their own devices and equipment.

Meanwhile, Tesla’s manufacturing output has historically increased at a significantly higher rate than the number of Tesla service centers, which, again, the vast majority of current Tesla owners rely on. The number of cars Tesla produced grew 68 percent in the first quarter of this year, compared to the same quarter last year, but the number of store and service locations grew by only 20 percent. Meanwhile, Tesla’s mobile service fleet — this is made up of Tesla mechanics that travel to a location of the customer’s choosing to complete repairs — grew by 35 percent. During the company’s annual stockholders meeting earlier this month, some Tesla investors questioned when the company would increase its current service capacity, which they say can’t support the number of Teslas on the road.

“Service has been a problem, but it has not affected sales in the least bit,” Rich Benoit, who runs a YouTube channel focused on Tesla repairs, explained. “So Tesla will not focus on this service issue until they see a decline in sales. So this really isn’t a problem for them.”

Recode reached out to Tesla with a request for comment about these complaints and to ask about the state of Tesla service. The company, which disbanded its public relations team in 2020, did not respond.

Electric vehicles are still relatively new, and many mechanics don’t have much experience fixing them. By contrast, since internal combustion vehicles have been around for over a century, it’s no surprise that there’s already a well-developed infrastructure for repairing them. Plenty of people still encounter issues with their gas vehicles, but they certainly have more options for getting them fixed. Overall, it’s difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison about what ideal service should look like for EVs, compared to internal combustion vehicles, since the cars — and the way companies repair them — work differently.

That said, major criticisms of Tesla’s service model have been around for years, and it’s not clear that the situation is getting better. While CEO Elon Musk has long promised to expand service coverage, it seems as though Tesla’s focus on manufacturing — and selling more cars to more new customers — still comes before fixing the cars that people have already purchased.

More Teslas, more service

Tesla says that vehicles should be serviced on an “as-needed” basis, depending on environmental conditions and how often the car is used. Certain tasks, like rotating the tires and checking the brake fluid, however, are supposed to be completed on a specific schedule. In addition to the benefits that come with electric vehicles having fewer moving parts, Teslas are largely operated by a computer — you can control almost everything from a giant touchscreen connected to the dashboard — so the company can do a significant amount of diagnostic work remotely. Some updates and repairs are even completed via over-the-air software updates.

Based on customer feedback, service does not seem to be Tesla’s strong suit. Back in 2019, more than 20 percent of Model 3 owners surveyed by Bloomberg were unhappy with the timeliness of service. A Bernstein survey of people who owned Teslas in 2018 found that while people loved their cars, issues with the company’s maintenance and repair offerings didn’t seem to be improving. The fact that Tesla advertises that its cars require less service might explain some of this frustration.

“The customer should have fewer visits to a service department per year, right?” said Christopher Sutton, vice president of automotive retail at J.D. Power. “But what we’re seeing is that, at least for now, it’s about the same.”

Shoddy manufacturing could be contributing to the high demand for Tesla service appointments. J.D. Power listed Tesla toward the bottom of its June initial quality survey — which measures how well new vehicles are built — and the company’s cars were second-to-last on Consumer Report’s 2021 reliability rankings.

Several complaints to the FTC raise similar concerns, though it’s worth noting that the agency said it did not independently verify these complaints and redacted the names of customers. One Tesla owner from California told the agency that last October their new Model 3 required an immediate trip to a service center to fix issues with the car’s body panel. Another complaint accused the company of delivering their car with a coolant leak and then failing to address the problem promptly.

Tesla vehicles stand outside of a Brooklyn showroom and service center in New York City in August 2018.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

“Tesla has not in good faith tried to fix this factory coolant leak,” the complaint reads. “They delivered a brand new vehicle with a major defect and after six months have failed to fix the coolant leak. They continue to delay attempts to fix it. This issue could permanently damage the car computer, motors, or battery and represents a danger to the driver.”

A limited stock of replacement parts can also draw out the service process. One owner of a 2016 Model S said that the company told them their touchscreen system had been recalled in February, but that the parts needed to fix the issue weren’t available. Another complaint came from a hospital worker who said they brought their Tesla to a service center after its tire was punctured on the road in early 2018. Most Tesla vehicles don’t come with a spare, and the service center had no tires on hand at the time.

“I had a full day of patients to see at different hospitals and had to cancel on them because I had no reliable transportation,” the Florida-based customer said. “I love the car, but I’m done with customer service. Last Tesla I will buy.”

A major problem seems to be Tesla service centers don’t have enough capacity. Complaints to the FTC and many threads in Tesla forums specifically mention lengthy treks to the nearest service center and weeks-long wait times, and also call out Tesla for canceling pre-scheduled appointments. The EV blog Elektrek reported earlier this summer that Tesla employees who weren’t trained to repair cars were being enlisted to fix vehicles.

“Booking service at the centers is often a month or so out, as every time I’ve needed service they’ve been booked out for weeks, if not months. And it’s difficult to get real answers,” explained Jason Fenske, who posted a video about his experience with Tesla service. Fenske, a YouTuber who focuses on cars, says he loves his Tesla, but argues that service is harder to schedule compared to his experience with Subaru.

Despite customers and shareholders’ concerns about service, the problem may only get worse as Tesla builds and ships more vehicles. The company manufactured nearly half a million cars and SUVs in 2020, close to a million new vehicles in 2021, and aims to produce 2 million more by the end of 2022. There’s also significantly higher turnover at Tesla’s service division, compared to its manufacturing division, according to research from Snow Bull Capital, which collects data on Tesla’s job postings.

Fixing the future of EVs

Tesla is well aware of challenges with the service side of its business and has consistently promised that things will get better.

Back in 2018, Elon Musk said that improving service would be a priority. Musk told a customer on Twitter in 2021 that the company would “expedite” opening new service centers, and this June, tweeted that Tesla was working on service in North America. He added that the company’s goal was to fix two-thirds of the vehicles brought in on the same day.

Elon Musk speaks at the Tesla Giga Texas manufacturing “Cyber Rodeo” grand opening party in Austin, Texas, on April 7. Tesla welcomed throngs of electric car lovers to a huge party inaugurating the “gigafactory,” which is the size of 100 professional soccer fields.
Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP via Getty Images

Now, according to Musk’s latest tweets, Tesla wants to employ techniques used by Formula-1 pit crews to fix as many cars as possible within an hour. Musk expressed a similar goal in 2015 after he hired F-1 engineer Kenny Handkammer to direct Tesla service (Handkammer now leads service for Lucid, one of Tesla’s main competitors).

The growing number of Teslas on the road — not to mention the fact that many Tesla vehicles are getting older — will likely stretch the company’s existing service capacity even further. Major carmakers have nearly 10,000 dealerships nationwide, and there are thousands more independent mechanics, as of last year. Tesla has about 160 service centers in the US, according to Tesla’s website.

Some independent mechanics who have experience repairing Teslas say they’re picking up the slack. Benoit, who runs the Tesla YouTube channel, operates an EV repair shop, and says he’s seeing an uptick in demand for repairs, including a rise in appointments for Model 3s. Carl Medlock is also the owner of an EV repair shop who worked for Tesla for nearly four years, and says his business has doubled in the past year. He explained battery and power train issues are his most common repairs.

“We have 103 appointments for Tesla Model Ss from 2012 to 2013 with bad batteries,” Medlock told Recode. “I won’t take any more appointments because I haven’t even started the first one.”

It’s hard to compare Tesla with companies like GM and Ford, since legacy automakers use different approaches to fixing their vehicles. But while EV service might seem like a Tesla-specific problem right now, the same issues could emerge as more companies’ electric vehicles hit the road. Lucid and Rivian, two Tesla competitors that started selling vehicles last year, are already mimicking Tesla’s approach by combining mobile service fleets and their own service centers. J.D. Power notes that overall service satisfaction for EVs is still significantly lower than for internal combustion vehicles.

“Things are getting better for sure. [Tesla does] focus very much on the over-the-air updates very, very frequently, and they’ve got that really nicely under control,” said Martin French, a managing director at Berylls Strategy Advisors, an automobility consulting firm. “If you look at how quickly Tesla put up a manufacturing plant, I think once they’ve got an idea of how to solve the service abilities, it will come very quickly.”

Time is of the essence: The Teslas people already own are getting older, and many more of the company’s vehicles should hit the road within the next few years. All of those cars will need service at some point. But whether or not those cars will get those repairs quickly, correctly, and easily remains to be seen.