Do You Own a Tesla, or Does a Tesla Own You?


Tesla makes some awesome cars. Tesla drivers tell Consumer Reports they are more satisfied with their ridethan the drivers of any other cars on the road. Still, the fun folks at Consumer Reports, who gushed over the Model S P85D just a few months ago, only gives the cars an Average rating for reliability.

When your Tesla needs repair — and it will someday — where can you take it to get fixed? Your friendly neighborhood garage? Nope. Your local dealer? Again, the answer is no. There aren’t any local Tesla dealers. Maybe you can fix it yourself out in your well equipped garage? Guess again, electron breath. According to Yahoo, it doesn’t matter whether you are a local car repair facility, a nationally franchised auto repair chain or just an individual owner. Tesla will not give you the tools or data to fix your car, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

This may not be a big deal now, since Tesla’s share of the entire 230 million plus American car market is less than a twentieth of 1 percent, and the company has been generous with free repairs or upgrades so far. But as Tesla continues to pursue its ambitious goal of selling 500,000 cars by 2020, and its older cars accumulate more miles, the economics of eliminating competition on the repair side of the ledger could make the company incredibly wealthy.

Right now ,Tesla charges the following service costs for their vehicles:

  • $600 — Annual Inspection (Every Year or 12,500 miles)
  • $1,900 — Four Years Of Prepaid Service (One Inspection Every Year or 50,000 miles)
  • $3,800 – Eight Years Of Prepaid Service (One Inspection Every Year or 100,000 miles)

If all of Tesla’s current customers opted just for the four-year program, Tesla would benefit from nearly a billion dollars in extra revenue before they engage in any type of repairs. And what does a Tesla driver get for those fees?

The Tesla plan covers only simple wear and tear items, such as windshield wipers, wheel alignments, tire rotations and software upgrades. If you end up with a major issue once the factory warranty (8 years, unlimited mileage) expires, you will have no option other than to pay Tesla to repair your car. While every company has to be viewed as doing right by its customers, Tesla is free to charge whatever it feels like for parts and labor.

One factor that is universal to all new cars is the increasingly complex software that enables all the wondrous things they can do, things like collision avoidance, lane keeping and self-steering technology. Manufacturers think of that software as their property, even though it is installed in your car. They claim their rights are protected by the same laws that protect digital media like songs and movies. Owners are not allowed to access or alter that software in any way.

Tesla has an extra hold over its customers. All of its cars are constantly connected to the cloud, and can self report any tampering or unauthorized access to the car’s software or hardware. In some cases, Tesla can deactivate a car remotely if it feels the car is no longer safe to drive.

Of course, you can always sue Tesla to compel them to release data to you. But before you adopt that as your main strategy, call a local attorney and ask how much of a retainer would be needed to begin legal proceedings against Tesla. Chances are, that will be one of the shortest phone calls on record.

Tesla does not have the resources to do everything itself, of course. It has been adding staff to its service locations and has begun certifying independent body shops to handle structural repairs on its aluminum bodied vehicles. Audi, Jaguar, BMW and other premium car makers do much the same thing. To get certified, a shop has to spend about $40,000 in tools and invest in proprietary Tesla training. Those costs will naturally be reflected in the repair prices it charges.

So what’s wrong with the way Tesla does business when it comes to non-warranty repairs and collision damage? Not a thing — just as long as you understand what the rules of the game are before you decide to park a Tesla in your garage. If you’re the kind of person who likes to twirl your own wrenches and get grease under your finger nails, the Tesla experience may not be the right choice for you.

Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.