“Russell Graves” and “Tesla” are ideas that perhaps should not occupy the same sentence. Russell is a mechanic. When things break, he fixes them. I know several people like Russell. Their philosophy is if the engine in your Buick dies, you go to the junk yard, buy another one, and slip it into the engine compartment over the weekend. Problem solved. Same thing for balky transmissions, frozen calipers, and other mechanical ailments.Russell has recently written a controversial blog post in which he claims Tesla is building what he calls “throwaway cars.” He doesn’t mean to suggest that Teslas are not built with quality components or that they don’t hold up to real world use. His thesis is that a car is only repairable if the cost of the repair makes sense compared to the overall value of the car. His concern is that when things start to go wrong with Teslas as the years and the miles go by, the cost of repair — once they are no longer covered by a warranty — will be prohibitively high. As a result, people will just walk away from their cars rather than fix them.
Much of Graves complaint with Tesla is that is makes it difficult if not impossible for repairs to be made by anyone other than a Tesla service center. There are no certified independent garages who are willing to work for less than what the factory store charges. Imagine if we all had to take our cars to a factory dealer every time something went wrong. Imagine there were no AutoZones or Pep Boys willing to sell us repair parts for less than the dealer charges. Imagine there were no recycling yards with perfectly good engines and transmissions just waiting for a chance to continue serving mankind. What do you think would happen to the price of auto repairs under those circumstances?
Graves says don’t even think about the hardware. What about all those sensors, display screens, and computers lurking within the dashboard? Tesla will not even allow a customer or a repair facility to access its service manuals unless the owner can prove he lives in Massachusetts. That it the only state which has passed legislation requiring manufacturers to make their service manuals accessible to the public. The rate starts at $30 per hour and goes up sharply from there. A year’s worth of access is 3,000 bucks.
Over at Teslarati, this story created a storm of criticism for Graves. Most of the comments suggested a person stuck in an internal combustion mindset is simply incapable of comprehending the difference between a conventional car and an electric automobile like a Tesla. Are they right?
The other component to this issue is the question of who owns the software inside the car you have the title too and pay the monthly loan payment on. Tesla and most other manufacturers take the position that the software in your vehicle belongs to them. You, the owner, merely have a license to use it. You may not alter it; you may not even access it. This issue cane to the fore just this week when Tesla owner Jason Hughes caught Tesla trying to download new software to his car that removed some features already installed.
At first, Hughes thought he was being punished for tweeting about a new 100 kWh battery due to be unveiled soon, but it later turned out Tesla was simply imposing restrictions on its AutoSteer program due to some people in the world doing stupid things with their cars and posting videos about it online. Hughes is a person who downloads every software update and examines it to see if it does things he doesn’t want it to. If it does, he refuses to install it in his car.
But that raises a sinister corollary. If Tesla, in its own unfettered discretion, decides a car is not safe to operate, it can deactivate it wirelessly over the air, leaving the so-called owner with little or no recourse. If you repair your car yourself, Tesla can require you to bring it to one of its service centers at your own expense and pay a Tesla technician to inspect the repair. If it turns out you did a good job, great. But what if the service center decides your repair doesn’t meet factory approved standards? What do you do with you Tesla after it has been disabled? And better yet, what do you tell the bank when your next monthly payment is due?
The truth of the matter is that both Graves and the Teslaphiles are correct. The world is changing. Cars are becoming more like computers and less like mom’s Buick Regal. Tesla is like a benevolent dictator. As long as everyone goes along and does everything as prescribed in the Gospel according to Elon, everything will be fine. But will there be a place in the future for those of us who grew up with a Chilton manual and a six point socket set?
Elon Musk says the company is trying to make its drive units last for 1,000,000 miles. But what happens when one fails with 231,000 miles on it and the service center wants $10,000 or more to replace it? What then? Russell Graves may not have a degree in engineering, but he is smart enough to see there may be some bumps in the road for mighty Telsa once the cars have been on the road long enough to rack up some serious miles.
Tesla lives and dies on customer satisfaction and positive word of mouth. What happens if a significant number of disgruntled owners find out they own expensive cars that can’t be repaired for a reasonable amount of money? Uh, oh. Palo Alto, we have a problem.
Photo credit: Tesla Motors