Monday, June 13, 2016
Tesla's Growing Pains: The Wheel-Falling-Off Incident
First, the known facts. On Sunday, Apr. 24 of this year, Pete Cordaro had driven his Tesla Model S about 73,000 miles, making it one of the higher-mileage electric vehicles on the road. The Model S is an all-electric vehicle introduced by Tesla in 2012, and currently retails for about $70,000. While driving slowly on a back road in Pennsylvania looking for mushrooms, he hit a pothole and heard a "snap." The left front hub had separated from the control arm of the suspension system. In simple turns, the front driver's side wheel fell off.
According to a New York Times report of the story, Tesla at first refused to pay for the repair, saying it wasn't covered under warranty. When Mr. Cordaro complained, they picked up some of the tab and asked him to sign an agreement that included nondisclosure language. Exactly what he wasn't supposed to disclose is not clear. The Times report said the language, strictly interpreted, would have prevented Mr. Cordaro from informing the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) about the incident. But Tesla denies this, saying the only reason for what they called a "goodwill agreement" was simply to keep their beyond-the-call-of-duty good deed from resulting in legal action against them. One can imagine lots of other customers with out-of-warranty complaints suing Tesla and saying, "Hey, you did it for him, now you gotta do it for me."
The Times article also reports that there have been numerous other complaints about Tesla suspension problems on the NHSTA website. But the pro-electric-vehicle website Inside EVs reports that most of these complaints are suspiciously similar, and may have been posted by one disgruntled Tesla owner who has adopted multiple anonymous names. The Inside EVs report concludes that the main problem here is not defective suspensions, but an amateurish publicity department at Tesla which has allowed a small, isolated incident to get more public exposure and attention than perhaps it deserved.
Fortunately, no one was hurt when Mr. Cordaro's wheel came loose. If he has really been driving his Tesla for 73,000 miles on icy, salty Pennsylvania roads, his car has probably experienced more rust than you are likely to encounter anywhere in California, the birthplace of the vehicle. And the fact that this is probably the only such incident is only one aspect of a truly impressive thing that Tesla is trying to do: become a major player in the U. S. automotive industry beginning from scratch. It's understandable that they will make a few fumbles on the way.
From literally dozens of U. S. automakers that tried to make a go of it in the early days of the automotive industry, the Big Three—Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors—were the only ones who survived the Great Depression of the 1930s and continued to flourish. The challenges of breaking into an industry whose foundations go back more than a century is enormous. It's made harder by the fact that many states have laws that prevent automakers from selling directly to consumers, which is what Tesla wants to do.
Why is that? The roots of the problem lie in the way early automakers set up their distribution systems. Rather than pay for the expense of sales facilities in thousands of cities and towns, the Big Three sold franchises to private investors who then owned the car-sales franchise for that make in their towns. Initially, the franchise deals were stacked in favor of the auto manufacturers. During slow times, the franchisees were committed to buy a fixed quota of cars from the makers, even if they couldn't sell any.
In reaction, the franchise owners joined together and got state laws passed that protected their franchise status. In particular, these laws made sure cars were sold only through locally-owned franchises, not directly by auto makers, who would otherwise be competing with their franchisees.
Like the similarly-arranged Coca-Cola franchises, these arrangements have enriched franchise owners, sometimes for generation after generation dating back to the 1930s. But Tesla, the new kid on the block, doesn't want to do business that way. Franchises add a middleman that Tesla wants to bypass. And Tesla argues that because electric vehicles represent a threat to gasoline-powered vehicles, current car-franchise owners would have a conflict of interest in selling both kinds of cars.
Despite all these historical handicaps, Tesla is now legitimately regarded as a major automaker, having sold its 100,000th vehicle late last year. On a recent trip to the East Coast, I encountered a Tesla charging station outside a motel in Lexington, Virginia, along I-81. It was a set of half a dozen or so vaguely gas-pump-shaped things, but instead of a hose there was a cable. I had the temerity to unhook one from its stand and look into the end. There were two coaxial-looking connectors about an inch apart, and some smaller connectors at the bottom. According to a Wikipedia article on the "supercharging" stations, they can supply up to 135 kW during a 15 to 30-minute charge cycle that will give a Model S another 180 miles or so of charge. If you assume those cables won't handle more than 30 amps or so, they must run a voltage of several kV and down-convert it in the car to the couple of hundred volts or so that the main battery takes. If I am wrong on these estimates, I will be glad to be corrected by someone who knows more about the charging stations than I do.
Anyway, the challenge of designing and making a new type of car from scratch, and not only doing that but building the infrastructure to sell, service, and supply charging for them, is tremendous. Tesla had federal government help to the tune of a $400 million loan early on, which is not something every company gets, but it's reportedly been paid back and the company appears to be doing well now on its own.
All the same, I suspect Tesla's mechanical engineers will be investing in some rapid-corrosion testing equipment to see what driving thousands of miles on salt-covered roads does to their latest designs. Even one wheel falling off is too many, and I hope Mr. Cordaro's wheel incident will be the last one for Tesla for a long time.
Sources: The New York Times article on the wheel incident appeared on June 10 online at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/11/business/tesla-motors-model-s-suspension.html. The Inside EV article on the same incident is at http://insideevs.com/tesla-issues-response-to-model-s-suspension-failure-allegations/, and cites Mr. Cordaro's original posting of the incident at
https://teslamotorsclub.com/tmc/threads/suspension-problem-on-model-s.69204/. My explanation of the auto franchise issue is based on the discussion at https://www.engadget.com/2014/07/17/tesla-motors-us-sales/.
I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on Tesla Model S, and Tesla's discussion of Supercharger stations at https://www.teslamotors.com/supercharger.