California automaker Tesla Motors [NASDAQ:TSLA] may only be a decade old, but in its short life it has managed to do a lot. It has challenged the way we think about transportation and energy. It has smashed electric car stereotypes. It has proven that electric cars can be fast, sexy and fun. And it has built a loyal fan base of owners, shareholders and enthusiasts, all keen to see it kick fossil fuels (and the traditional automotive industry) to the curb.
But while Tesla is managing to revolutionise the auto industry with its over-the-air software updates, fresh approach to sales and service, and impressive autopilot capabilities, its latest car — the $80,000+ Tesla Model X crossover SUV — is suffering some early build teething problems that yet again raise the spectre of poor quality control.
What’s more, while some owners are willing to talk about the various problems they’ve had with their Model X to date, many more appear worried that speaking out with any problems will hurt Tesla’s brand image. In reality however, keeping quiet may be the wrong move.
As Consumer Reports detailed last week, one Tesla Model X owner by the name of Michael Karpf flew to the Tesla factory in Fremont, California earlier this month to pick up his brand-new Model X P90D, a car that set him back an eye-watering $138,000. Planning on driving it back to New York, Karpf had planned on enjoying a leisurely road-trip back to the east coast, making full use of Tesla’s free-to-use network of Superchargers.
Yet before he embarked on his cross-country drive, Karpf had a series of problems with his brand-new premium electric car. First, one of the massive falcon wing rear doors didn’t want to close properly at first, then failed to sense an overhang, causing the door to make contact with the overhang and denting the bodywork. Later on, the driver’s door failed to properly open and the driver’s door window didn’t wind down properly until it managed to dislodge the chrome trim piece that was preventing its normal operation.
Then there was the massive touch-screen display which was constantly freezing.
Karpf reports that the faults were all quickly remedied, first at the Tesla Fremont facility and then later at the Santa Monica Tesla Service Center.
On the road trip, more issues were experienced too. Karpf reports the Model X’s massive single-piece windscreen — a unique design feature to Model X that gives the car an airy, light feel — was susceptible to double images at night, making it hard to judge vehicle distance and objects. Then, when passing through Lake Tahoe, Karpf reports that the heating system on his Model X was struggling to keep the cabin warm.
Karpf’s experiences with his new Model X aren’t entirely unusual it seems. Visit any online forum devoted to the luxury car, and you’ll see hints of unhappiness among Tesla owners and hopeful reservation holders. Double-vision at night seems to be a common fault, with some owners complaining that issue — caused by the curvature of the different layers that make up modern automotive laminated glass — makes their Model X almost impossible to drive at night.
Front window issues seem to be common too, as do the inability of the falcon wing door sensors to correctly identify and react to obstacles. One owner reports parking her Model X in a parking garage only to have the falcon wing doors slam into an overhead beam offset to the car. Others say their falcon wing doors either fail to properly rise and fall, or leak in the rain.
Front door issues seem to also common, with some customers finding that their car’s front door latch mechanism isn’t working as expected, while paint quality and finish defects are also causing concern among some owners.
The laundry list of Model X problems, which also include autopilot glitches and more benign issues like uneven panel gaps, seems to be greeted by many Model X owners as an inconvenience rather than a deal-breaker. With Tesla service centers working hard to remedy problems as they arise, those who have experienced quality control and more serious faults with their new Model X cars report that Tesla is expeditious in repairing cars and that the repair quality is acceptable.
But while forums are full of Model X owners speaking out about the poor quality control, there’s also a troubling undercurrent of hardened Tesla fans who are asking owners to refrain from posting their problems online. Fearful that any negative press will cause problems for the brand, some even suggest that publicly discussing problems with the luxury Model X shouldn’t be encouraged.
Instead, a handful of owners (a minority, we’ll admit) even go as far to suggest such issues be discussed in a closed-room ‘member-only’ forum where verified Tesla owners can access the data about ongoing problems but not the general public. Why? To ensure that any information is kept away from prying members of the press keen to orchestrate Tesla’s downfall.
Or at least, that’s the impression we’re getting.
Such fears may be borne from the noblest of intentions — namely to ensure that Tesla continues to innovate and drive the electric car revolution — but as many Tesla owners posting in online forums like the Tesla Motors Club note, insulating the general public from Tesla’s ongoing quality control issues only harms the brand. It implies that Tesla isn’t ready to behave or be treated like a big boy automaker. We — along with plenty others in the automotive industry — think it is.
Not discussing problems with Model X harms Tesla in the long run. Moreover, it harms would-be buyers. Imagine if you will, a first-time electric car buyer used to other premium brands who opts for a Tesla as their electric car of choice. As any good buyer should, they research the brand and the car beforehand, weighing any negatives of ownership against the benefits as part of their buying process.
If they’re unable to properly evaluate the impact that quality control issues like those listed above might have, they won’t be able to make a fully informed buying decision. And while someone may still opt to buy a Tesla Model X knowing what the common faults are — every car, Tesla or not, has a long list — someone who doesn’t know what those faults are will feel disenfranchised and let down by the brand if they buy blind, no matter how exemplary Tesla’s after sales and service is.
Keeping quiet about such issues isn’t just bad for would-be buyers either: it’s bad for Tesla. While Tesla has a good reputation when it comes to identifying and remedying problems in its vehicles (the recent Model X precautionary rear seat recall is an example of this) it’s important that the company remains as transparent as possible about any issues it is experiencing. Publicly discussing those issues can help ensure that transparency remains.
As Consumer Reports notes, every single car, no matter what its target market, fuel source or price point, suffers early-adoption teething problems during the first year of manufacture. Indeed, it’s been the magazine’s advice to readers for many, many years not to buy a car when it’s still within the first year of manufacture. Instead, Consumer Reports recommends, buyers should wait for the second or third year of production before buying the latest and greatest car, since it gives automakers time to fix any lingering issues not picked up by exhaustive pre-production testing.
Tesla is no exemption to that rule, as it proved twice before Model X launched, first with the limited-production Tesla Roadster and more recently with the Tesla Model S. Pretending they don’t exist, or ignoring such issues won’t help either Tesla or the market as a whole on its transition towards zero tailpipe emissions. That said, the initial, agonizingly slow Model X production rate, combined with the length and breadth of Model X problems since launch suggest that, as might be expected with such an advanced vehicle, Tesla’s issues could be more than the industry norm.
In order to ensure that the majority of Model 3 reservation holders — some 400,000 worldwide — convert their reservation into an order, Tesla will have to ensure it ups its game before Model 3 rolls off the production line. And while Tesla has said it will prioritize existing Tesla customers when fulfilling those Model 3 orders — something we note will have the added benefit of ensuring that Tesla’s most forgiving customers will be the ones most likely to suffer any quality control or design issues with early Model 3 cars — we think it’s in everyone’s interests to be open and honest about ownership experiences, regardless of what the badge on the car says.
Ask yourself this: as a new car buyer, would you rather have potential issues with a car hushed up by existing owners, or would you rather hear about the problems and how quickly the automaker in question resolved them?
Especially given Tesla’s expeditious reputation regarding repairs, we think every reader, without question, would find the second option more reassuring than the first. After all, why give Tesla special treatment just because it has never produced a gas-guzzler? By doing so, the electric car world risks more harm than it does good.
Instead, advocates, fans and electric car owners need to work with Tesla — and other automakers — to ensure that the electric cars hitting the roads are as reliable as possible. Making excuses for an electric automaker works when it’s a niche product, but it won’t work for the mainstream market. And while the automotive world is full of coverups like the dieselgate scandal, Tesla’s fans shouldn’t be complicit in downplaying issues that Tesla needs to fix.
You can also support us directly as a monthly supporting member by visiting Patreon.com.