Tesla Roadster

The Tesla Bricking controversy could smash Tesla Motors

The controversy over whether a Tesla Roadster can be bricked is building, running the risk of spooking Tesla's customers just as the company is about to start production and delivery of the Model S, and just as customers are beginning to line up with deposits on the Model X.

Yesterday a controversy popped up over the risk of Bricking a Tesla Roadster if it sits idle, parked, and not plugged in for a few weeks. Some subsystems that never turn off will drain the battery pack far enough to render the Roadster an inert hunk of metal and carbon fiber. In the wake of this report we have a duel between websites, possible indiscretions by Tesla Motors, uncertainty over whether future Model S and Model X owners will face the same issue, and public sentiment turning against Tesla.

The issue is that some subsystems in the Tesla Roadster stay on, draining power from the battery, even if the car itself is "off". Because there is no protection against the battery pack being drained completely, this can ruin the battery pack. It's well known in battery pack design that lithium battery cells are permanently damaged if the voltage falls below a low voltage cutoff point, such as would happen if the pack has a constant drain and is not recharged. Tesla has confirmed this can occur, but downplays the bricking risk because they not only warn Roadster owners against this possibility, they also proactively monitor (remotely) the state of charge in all Roadsters to detect ones whose battery pack is dangerously low. One can interpret Tesla's stance as pushing the responsibility on the owner, just as the owner of a gas car is responsible for regular oil changes necessary to avoid damage to the car.

One note in passing. A battery pack replacement wouldn't be needed if the Tesla Roadster contained circuitry to shut everything off before the battery pack state of charge fell too low. If the state of charge fell too low, and automatic protection circuits shut everything off, a service technician would simply be able to force the car into recharge mode. Because the battery pack has to be replaced in these cases, it demonstrates that the Roadster does not have an automatic protection of this sort.

The controversial part of this comes from a story published on Green Car Reports, and a response published on Jalopnik. GCR somehow obtained a letter from Max Drucker, owner of Tesla Roadster #340. In that letter Drucker explained how he had met Elon Musk at the Model X launch party, how he has deposits down on both the Model S and Model X, how he is a great fan of Tesla, but that he is gravely concerned over the risk to Tesla due to the design flaw that bricked his Tesla Roadster. In their response Jalopnik questions how GCR got ahold of that letter, and points out that GCR's article title changed from "Is Tesla 'Bricking' Story Just An Angry Owner's Shakedown" to the less inflammatory "Is Tesla 'Bricking' Story Just An Angry Owner's Warranty Claim."

In other words, Jalopnik alleges that GCR's original editorial stance was that Max Drucker was threatening Tesla with exposure and negative publicity over the incident, in order to gain something. Jalopnik, who is in contact with Drucker, says that letter was private correspondence and the only way for GCR to have gotten it was for Tesla Motors to have given the letter to GCR. Jalopnik also published the entire correspondence chain between Drucker and Tesla, to demonstrate Druckers claim that he's not out to be reimbursed from Tesla, and Drucker is quoted saying ""I have no intention of replacing my battery, I expect nothing from them based on the emails I've received, and I feel like it's important for future Tesla owners to understand what they're getting themselves into."

However, Michael DeGusta (the author of the blog post reposted by Jalopnik) and Max Drucker are long-time business partners. A bit of googling on their names turns up a listing in CorporationWiki showing the two are partners in four businesses. Further down in the results, in a November 2000 article on InsuranceTech.com, DeGusta is described as Drucker's "partner in crime". Eleven years later (today) we have DeGusta writing a blog post, claiming to be an innocent bystander with no interest in the outcome, but in reality his business partner has taken a large loss due to the design flaw described in that blog post. Hence is DeGusta really a disinterested bystander? That seems unlikely. Is he a "partner in crime" to a man who owns a now-bricked Tesla Roadster? Hard to say.

Turning away from the he-said-she-said of this, let's take a look again at the actual risk.

Tesla's stance is that they've warned the Roadster owners what to do, and are monitoring Roadster's to ensure their battery pack state of charge doesn't fall into dangerous territory. However the monitoring began with the post-#500 Roadsters, and since Druckers' Roadster is #340, it wasn't being monitored by Tesla. In Drucker's letter when he stated "I had no idea I was putting the car at risk or obviously I would not be in the position I am in now," and that "I am not in idiot," he is claiming ignorance or he would not have left his Roadster in a storage unit for two months. However excerpts from the owners manual clearly shows that Roadster owners are clearly warned to keep the battery pack charged or risk damaging the pack, just as gasoline car owners manuals clearly warned to perform routine maintenance or risk damaging their car.

A twitter message from DeGusta included the statement "I do think just saying RTFM is unduly dismissive, FWIW". RTFM being geek slang for "Read The Fine Manual," and often refers to manufacturers who dismiss owner claims of manufacturer negligence by saying the owner should have read the manual. How many of us read the owner manual to our cars? And, for that matter, how many car owners ignore the routine required maintenance? Whether or not DeGusta and Drucker really are collaborating to cause Tesla Motors public image damage, their point is valid. The Roadster should be designed with better automatic safeguards rather than relying on owners knowing to do the right thing, because clearly a large number of car owners not only ignore the owners manual, they ignore routine required maintenance. And there is a valid concern over the future Model S and Model X owners, if those cars have the same design flaw.

Do existing Tesla Roadster owners understand this issue? Over on TeslaMotorsClub.com (a discussion forum for Tesla owners) a poll was taken showing 92% of the respondents understand the need to keep an electric car charged up. Some discussion in the poll indicates surprise that none of the Roadster owners with bricked cars had posted on that forum, and that "operator error is not covered under warranty." Others commenting on that poll worry about the effect on Tesla, and hope that Tesla takes some serious action soon to address this issue.

Some of the twitter traffic indicates a negative sentiment growing against Tesla Motors. One writes that this is a "deal-breaking #fail" and "Now glad I don't own a Tesla." Another writes "its not like i’ll ever have the money for a tesla, but man, reading this, I wouldn’t buy one if i did." And yet another writes "Tesla just became infinitely less interesting." The number of these tweets is fairly small at this point, but it could be the beginning of a wave of anger towards Tesla Motors.

Tesla has faced public anger before, and successfully navigated the public relations waters to maintain a positive image of the company, and doubtlessly Tesla's management is already working on a response.

Can this kill Tesla Motors? The company is at a critical point its history where it does not have any cars to sell, and is ramping up a production facility to begin production of the Model S. In other words, the company is spending gobs of money, has little income, and hopes top jump the next hurdle of delivering the Model S to customers. If Tesla can successfully start delivering the Model S, that will bring in lots of revenue, but if the customers get spooked that they might be buying a lemon, the company could be left with a factory for building cars nobody wants. Tesla has yet to say anything more than RTFM. Will that be good enough or will it backfire?

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Comments

Houston we have a problem! I read news on this car literally every day. The Web sites as of 2/23/2012 states: "The Model S battery will not lose a significant amount of charge when parked for long periods of time. For example, Model S owners can park at the airport for extended vacations without plugging in". Which after reading today's article isn't true. 50 percent in the first week is what the Roadster manual stated. I have the money to buy the Model S but unless this is fixed and or infrastructure on mid atlantic area improved, its a dead deal. Specifically, the last charing port in central VA is Richmond. So if I were to take a trip to say the Outer banks, unless I charge up in VA breach (way out of the way) to get to Outer-banks its an issue based upon the drain. Don't take my word for it check ChargePoint smart phone app or website. 1Gremlin registered Tesla forum member using Tesla Model S and Twitter avatar.
You don't need a high level public charger, the auxiliary drain is small so any standard 110 outlet would be fine, so as long as your traveling to a home, hotel or trailer park there is no issue. The misleading part of this beat up is that there is no protection, it's just not true, this is an isolated incident that occurs if you park a car for a few weeks or more after driving the battery down below 5%. The obvious fix is to ensure that these parasitic losses are minimized and possibly quarantine the last 10% of battery charge somehow, it would be much better to progressively turn off systems before the critical point is reached even if that means losing presets, wiping the onboard computer etc, better to be inconvenienced then trash the battery. But surely at some point owner responsibility does kick in and this incident if nothing else will raise awareness and make a repeat less likely. By the way I am told by an electrical engineer friend of mine that the issue is not insurmountable, a quirk of lithium battery chemistry makes a charger incorrectly recognise a fully discharged battery as fully charged and stop charging, however I'm told if you manually trickle charge the battery up to 1-2% of charge you can reconnect to a standard charger and it will become chargeable again. I'm not an engineer myself so I can't confirm or deny but its something Tesla would be wise to look into because they could defuse this issue if they could offer owners for whom this occurs a fix.
Tesla posted a response on their site today, and it addresses something you claimed in your post so I thought it was important to answer. Long story short, the Model S battery and the Roadster battery are different, and they behave differently. The whole message is interesting, but the final sentence is probably the most important: "Model S and Model X will have batteries that can sit unplugged for over a year when parked with only a 50 percent charge. And when that year is up, all you need to do is plug it in."
FWIW I've posted a follow-up article going over Tesla's blog post: http://www.torquenews.com/1075/tesla-motors-says-you-cannot-brick-model-s
I visited the Tesla showroom in DC back in october 2011. The representatives made mention at that time regarding the risk of destroying the battery if left uncharged for several weeks. They were honest, straight forward and stressed the importance of keeping the battery charged. So I had to weight the unlikely circumstance of leaving a clean emission electric car uncharged for several weeks vs. 5 dollar per gallon and up for emission generating gasoline. Shortly after I became reservation # 6,116. This is pure propaganda and if this is the best the oil producers can come up with then I feel even better about my pending purchase.
"Read The Fine Manual" is not what RTFM stands for, the actual use is "Read the F*n Manual". I do understand why you can't spell that out fully on the site but "Read The Fine Manual" makes it sound far more polite and friendly than it actually is.
Tesla bricking problem. Just as we are entering a new era of EV transportation in earnest, we do need to put things in context. The bricking issue is real, and we need to acknowledge this freely. However, this is no different from running an IC without oil. A solution for example is were we have a scenario where the car is connected to a PV based residual charger system and we will never run the risk of being without energy. All these EV related issues need to be seen as follows: We have had 125 years of IC based car manufacturing and development, only for the last 20 years have we been in a position where, in the winter months no-one is concerned about the car not starting, or ruining the engine from frost damage. Before that point there was always the chance that some damage or temporary problem would halt our progress. With the current EV's being at the forefront of the development and in the early stage of this technology, we will soon see better and more sophisticated solutions appear. Lets not be diverted by the nay-sayers and pessimists whose cursory knowledge and bias we can easily defeat with common sense. The facts of the matter are clear and simple; an EV, when driven around does not spread pollution and noise, an IC based vehicle will. The argument that EV's rely on coal based electrical generation is a complete red herring, as there is not a single IC based vehicle capable of being driven around without polluting, whilst an EV can be charged with Renewable Energy from any number of sources. Without Electrical drive-lines and storage capacity this would be impossible, so lets celebrate the advances, work on the technical issues, and look forward to better and better vehicles and systems for all to use. Happy motoring, Gerard
This guy is an idiot, a brat who lived his life not being accountable for his own actions. Anyone who has half of a brain would now how to maintain a battery. Whatever happened to personal responsibility? He's the same type of person who would sue a company for burning himself with a hot beverage.
I have Roadster #12xx and the number of warnings and admonitions about keeping the car plugged in was daunting. And it makes sense. If one wants a lithium ion battery to last beyond a year, it must be maintained constantly. Just ask anyone with a laptop how much capacity is left in their batteries after a year, let alone two. And Tesla's secret sauce is how they manage the batteries to last 7+ years, so that the economic equation for electric cars makes sense. As to this killing Tesla, I'm not sure how that would happen. Electric cars have limitations like gasoline ones. Try ignoring oil changes for a traditional engine and see what that does to the engine and -- if present -- turbo charger. It's just that the limitations are different. Ignore them at your own peril.