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As regular readers know, I’ve been keeping track of the problems of Tesla vehicles, including several cases of spontaneous combustion. Just a brief visit today to the continuing Tesla saga, this time, via Zerohedge.com:

In early 2014, a Tesla Motors Model S that was part of the Edmunds.com test fleet suddenly lost power while merging onto a freeway. The car flashed several warning messages — ’12V Battery Power Low – Car May Shut Down Unexpectedly’ and ‘Car Needs Service – Car May Shut Down Unexpectedly’ — before coming to a stop on the freeway onramp. Eventually a tow truck came to haul the stricken vehicle to a Tesla service shop, where the company replaced its drive unit for the third time.

This was a big deal. Not only is it embarrassing when a media outlet’s car breaks down in such a dramatic fashion, but any defect that causes a sudden loss of vehicle power is typically considered safety-relatedThere was also a grim point of comparison: the GM ignition switch scandal that was just starting to explode into the mainstream media had involved a defect that produced a similar sudden loss of vehicle power. Several months later, on Tesla’s second quarter earnings call, CEO Elon Musk addressed the incident by telling analysts:

‘Well, there’s definitely some genuine issues we have with the car, but they had one of our early production units, and in fact most of the problems that they have encountered there are not present in current cars. We also — I think this may be ending up being counterproductive, but the service team was ultra proactive with the Edmunds car. So they would — they were doing their best to make Edmunds happy, and I think unfortunately that resulted in them changing things up, just on the off-chance something might go wrong.

So that drive unit issue that I mentioned earlier were, the drive units [were] replaced even though it wasn’t a drive unit problem, that happened with them twice. So, unfortunate sort of case, but I don’t think it’s broadly correct.’

Tesla Model S and Supercharger station.
credit: caranddriver.com

Well, that should fix things then, right? Not so much:

Then, in January of 2015, a Model S owned by a French taxi driver lost power while accelerating on a highway. The car threw the same error messages as the Edmunds car had before coming to a stop on the side of the road. The Model S taxi was also towed to a Tesla repair shop, but there its story diverges from the Edmunds story. Tesla didn’t replace the car’s drive unit, as it had with Edmunds, and its service invoice made no reference to the terrifying loss of power the driver had just experienced. In the field designated “Description du probleme: customer states,” Tesla wrote (in English):

“As part of providing peace of mind and a great ownership experience, Tesla vehicles are equipped with telematics systems to provide remote diagnostics support. We have been notified this vehicle has been remotely diagnosed that the Power Switch and Power Supply would benefit from the latest generation components.

But more Tesla customers were having the same kinds of problems, and Tesla e-mailed them:

As part of providing peace of mind and a great ownership experience, Tesla vehicles are equipped with telematics systems to provide remote diagnostics support. We have been notified this vehicle has been remotely diagnosed that the Power Switch and Power Supply would benefit from the latest generation components. 

Here’s a similar Tesla e-mail:

Engineering has identified your car as potentially benefitting from a switch and power supply update. The technicians will evaluate your high-voltage system and determine whether it would benefit from having the latest generation power switches installed. If they determine that it would, we will perform the installation.

This sounds a bit fishy. What’s going on?

Over a dozen owners from around the world also report being contacted by Tesla and told that they would benefit from a contactor update. One owner recounts such a phone conversation:

‘I got the call about a month ago, but they were not specific and required the car to be in the SC for two days, they did not provide details why needed to be changed, they keep insisting that nothing is wrong and is a ‘proactive’ fix.

A former Tesla…

What’s actually happening is Tesla trying to avoid a recall, with the attendant terrible publicity it would cause:

If Tesla ever admitted, in any form of customer communication, that a contactor failure could result in danger to the driver or other motorists it would be required by law to issue a recall on the part. The TREAD Act of 2000, passed in the wake of the Ford/Firestone recall scandal, requires automakers to report any defect to NHTSA within five days of determining that it affects safety, after which it must order a recall. The same law also requires automakers to report to NHTSA:

‘Notices, bulletins, customer satisfaction campaigns, consumer advisories, and other communications sent to more than one owner regarding any defect in its motor vehicle equipment, including any failure or malfunction beyond normal deterioration in use, or any failure of performance, or any flaw or unintended deviation from design specifications, regardless of whether or not such defect is safety related.

So Tesla treated a condition that caused its vehicles to suddenly lose power–I’m sure you can see the potential danger there, gentle readers–as just a routine upgrade situation. And it has, to date, worked.

Concealing the potential for a defect to cause a vehicle stall is well outside the norms of US auto safety reporting. NHTSA has considered such a fundamental loss of performance to have intrinsic safety implications since the 1970s and between 2004 and 2013, some 91 recalls were carried out to address defects that caused stalling. One of these was even for an electric vehicle: in November of 2013, Ford recalled its Focus Electric car for a problem involving a sudden loss of power that was eerily similar to Tesla’s contactor issue.

Why would Tesla not recall vehicles for sudden power loss, when there was no shortage of owner reports of the phenomenon and when both of the automakers who used its drivetrains did? Perhaps because they could. These decisions were made before NHTSA knew that Tesla made owners sign a non-disclosure agreement before performing “goodwill repairs” on defective vehicles or buying them back.

Considering the cost of a Tesla, this seems a bit underhanded. Considering the safety issues involved, it seems criminal.

Had Tesla owners been more diligent in reporting sudden power loss to safety regulators, or if NHTSA safety investigators regularly read the online forums where Tesla fans do report defects, this might have been caught years ago. Because so many Tesla owners are also investors, forums often discourage defect reporting for fear that it might lead to bad publicity. So even though Tesla owners were able to connect reports of sudden power loss to the contactor flaw, their knowledge never made it to the safety regulators.

Apart from many Tesla owners being shareholders, it’s plausible human nature was involved. Who, after spending in the neighborhood of $100,000 dollars for a Tesla is anxious to admit they made a potentially deadly mistake? One might also surmise since many people buy EV’s to earn greenie street cred, they would likewise be loath to publicize the very vehicles that promise to help save the planet might kill them in the process. One has to maintain greenie appearances after all. Fortunately, there are no known instances of this fault causing injury or death–to date.

I won’t be buying a Tesla. I’d have to sell my house and live in it if I did; I couldn’t afford both. But if you can afford one, by all means go ahead, and good luck to you. It appears you’ll need it. As I’ve often said, EVs, even far more expensive EVs than average, just aren’t ready for prime time, and for the time being, gentle readers, we’re all paying to subsidize every one. That’s another bit of swamp draining President Trump might focus on.