Blogger Says Tesla Is Building Throwaway Cars


“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.Tesla Service CenterRussell 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

About the Author

I have been a car nut since the days when Rob Walker and Henry N. Manney, III graced the pages of Road & Track. Today, I use my trusty Miata for TSD rallies and occasional track days at Lime Rock and Watkins Glen. If it moves on wheels, I’m interested in it. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.

  • Jason Willhite

    Steve, great article.
    I am pro-Tesla, but this article I think reveals some irony – Tesla is fighting the dealerships so that they nor their customers have to be at the mercy of the dealerships. If Tesla keeps its repairs, upgrades and control all to itself, Tesla would now be forcing its customers to be at the mercy of Tesla. It’d be like substituting one dictator for another IMO

    • Steve Hanley

      That is a excellent point, Jason. Thanks for that insight.

      And btw, I am pro-Tesla myself and a huge fan of Elon Musk, particularly when he talks about the urgency of stopping the use of fossil fuels. I am not a candidate for a Model S or Model X, but I could imagine myself with a Model 3 one day.

      • Jason Willhite

        Yeah, I’m thinking about signing up for the Model 3 shortly after they reveal it, since it’s the only one I can afford. I just can’t imagine waiting the 1-2 years for it. That’s going to kill me.

    • bioburner

      Tesla is not the only company “Controlling” spare parts availability. We had a 2011 Leaf. The battery was going bad. We contacted our favorite repair shop about getting it replaced and the Nissan dealers refused to even acknowledge that there was even a battery in the car, let alone sell an outside shop the battery thus forcing me to go to the dealership.

    • Marcel

      Maybe there are people out there who like to replace or fix the parts themselves. But most people don’t understand much about their gasmobiles anyway and don’t even know they need to check oil, tire pressure regularly. Even with my gasmobiles, I always went to the “official” service place. I don’t see why that should change with my Tesla… The guy has a fossil fuel mindset, but what if EVs do end up being far more reliable than gasmobiles? What if a lot of the parts he thinks will break down will last very long in the first place?

      Actually one of my gasmobiles required a major part replacement in the engine, it cost more to replace the part than the car’s value. It happened to quite a few people I know as well.

      Also, most people in this part of the developed world don’t keep their cars for too long. Add the subscription-based model where you don’t own a car but UBER or another company’s autonomous cars take you wherever you want, will those issues really be that relevant?

      I sincerely hope Tesla shows that it is possible to build high quality long lasting cars, kind of like Mac computers. At the end of the day, it’s subjective but I don’t like or have time to mess with complex things, much prefer a high quality reliable product that has a lower potential to break down than a shitty product designed to fail and to be repaired by the average Joe. Also on the personal preference note, I can’t imagine keeping a car longer than 3 years and never have.

      • t_

        Russell is right. Now all the Teslas are new. But after 10 years? Change of brakes for 3000 $??? Change of some bolt in the suspension for 4000???

        • Steve Hanley

          Yup. You get it!

        • AaronD12

          That is exactly what the legislation to prohibit car manufacturers from owning dealerships was designed to eliminate. There was price gouging when manufacturers owned dealerships.

          So, what keeps Tesla from doing that today? Public opinion. We, the consumer, have a much louder and stronger voice than we used to have when this legislation was put on the books.

          To say that all Teslas are new is incorrect. There are Roadsters that are now 8 years old — very close to the 10 years you mentioned. Are the Roadster owners being gouged? Not from what I’m hearing.

          • Jim Smith

            they knew what they were getting into when they bought the cars. If you do not like Tesla’s sales and service model, simply do not buy one. If their service and sales models do not work in the market place, they will have to make a decision, change or go out of business.

          • t_

            Yes, Jim, this is the great power of the consumer. You do not like it – you do not buy it.
            It is normal when the car is new and in warranty period, that the car maker allows you to service it only in authorised services. This is a two – way deal. But after that I do not find it normal, so I am not so sure, that I want to have one. I’ll rather wait and see what happens.
            Here is how Tesla lost (at least for now) one Model 3 buyer. Bit this should be theit concern, not mine. Other car makers are catching up.

        • Marcel

          You’re just assuming prices. Suspension and brakes are pretty standard.

          • Steve Hanley

            Might I respectfully suggest you inquire at your local Tesla store what the cost of a complete front end brake job (pads and rotors) for a Model S is? I’m thinking you better be sitting down when they tell you.

            For the record, I just did pads and rotors on my Civic yesterday. Total came to $67. I’m willing to bet the Tesla price is 10 times that – or more!

          • t_

            Please, take a look at their site. They offer “service plans” – annual checks and change of some parts.
            Indeed I assume. What I can say is that I assume it won’t be cheap.

        • Mac1177

          Those are brand new insurance prices, Every single vehicle on the planet started with high parts prices and as the time goes by, the parts get cheaper. This is not new. At least not to intelligent people.

    • Jim Smith

      yep. and if you do not like that, simply do not buy a Tesla

      • Jason Willhite

        Yup, true. I still want a Tesla tho

    • Mac1177

      Yes, it is terrible that TM has done every single repair/upgrade at no cost to the owner. Also, the maintenance is almost zero. Electric motors last a very long time. Some have run for more that 50 years. All cars now have computers, electronics etc that no one but a trained FACTORY tech can even look at, or test. So this whole article is just dumb.

  • Jim Smith

    this is the beauty of free markets…if you do not like what Tesla is selling, simply do not buy one.

  • Lex

    Let’s not forget we’re talking about “Exotic” cars so far, there are probably 120,000 or so today. And already there are “spare parts” cars (though usually due to a sad end).

  • Eric Zucker

    Tesla has avoided the dealership model for two reasons.

    First, it’s a new set of skills and tools needed to work on high voltage, high power circuits. Traditional dealers are highly skilled (should be) maintaining ICE engines, transmissions, clutches, gearboxes, oil filters, spark plugs, carburetors, catalytic converters, exhaust pipes, mufflers, radiators, and what not.
    A Tesla has none of the above. What could a dealer really do beyond replacing tires, shocks, brake discs and pads, windshield wiper fluid and blades ?

    Second is the money side of things of course. A dealer makes lots more money selling and servicing an ICE than a Tesla. It’s his comfort zone, it the customer’s comfort zone, why sell an electric? Tesla sales would simply never have picked up.

    There is no alternative yet for Tesla but to create a parallel ecosystem.

    When (not if, when) there are EV specialized shops out there, they will be able to service your Tesla. There is a major need for standardization in the EV world just like in the ICE world. Today every manufacturer builds his own, tomorrow price pressure and economies of scale will drive EV makers to standardize and reuse shared components – be it chargers, DC/DC converters, electric A/C compressors, and who knows even drive units maybe.

    It’s an industry still in its infancy.

  • neroden

    FWIW, large portions of the software in a Tesla are actually *pirated*. They’re under the GNU General Public License and Tesla is violating the license.

    Tesla’s going to have to open up its repair manuals sooner rather than later.

  • Tesla has always gambled on battery futures with customer money: