Illustration credit Jason Torchinsky

With production of the Tesla Model 3 supposedly coming soon, the automaker’s ability to successfully bring the sedan to production has been the subject of intense speculation. But after a financial analyst published a disaster account last week of how it has taken eight months to repair his Model S, another question has been front-and-center: Can Tesla and its repair network fix these cars in a timely fashion, especially when it’s counting on mass sales of the Model 3?

Evan Niu, a writer at the finance website Motley Fool and a former Tesla employee, detailed his experience in a March 7 post on how his Model S has been in the shop for eight months after being rear-ended. Less than a half-year after purchasing the vehicle, Niu wrote that the vehicle was involved in an accident while his wife was behind the wheel.

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A driver failed to hit his brakes and rear-ended the vehicle at a relatively low speed, Niu wrote. A photo included in the post showed a smashed rear-end, but Niu said it “looks worse than it was.” He transported the vehicle to the only Tesla-approved body shop in his immediate area. The body shop, he said, ordered the parts necessary for the repair soon “after receiving my damaged car.”

That’s when the delay began. After three months, Niu said, the body shop still hadn’t received the necessary parts. (Tesla handles routine service, but contracts body work to a network of third-party shops.) Another five months, and Niu still had no car. All for a fender bender.

Niu isn’t alone in having issues with repair delays for Tesla vehicles.

‘It’s Not Like You Can Shop Around For A Second Opinion’

Tesla owners who spoke with Jalopnik described similar experience, with delays for repairs lasting several months—an issue that can be particularly problematic when it comes to loaner vehicles, which insurance companies typically only cover for 30-45 days.

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It’s typical for any car to be outsourced to a body shop after a wreck, but only certain shops are approved by Tesla to work on their cars. And unlike nearly all other automakers, Tesla does not have a dealer network to conduct other repairs since it relies on a direct sales model, and instead has regional service centers for that kind of work.

These customers’ complaints deal mostly with body shops, but it goes both ways, since some shops say Tesla takes too long to send parts for repairs.

Jon Levy, a 40-year-old attorney in Miami, said he purchased a Model S 70 about a year ago because he was attracted to the environmental benefits of the sleek electric vehicle.

Levy told Jalopnik the accident happened when his car was left at an airport parking lot; while he was away, somebody had backed into the bumper.

“It was fairly perceptible,” he said. “But as I learned from having the car repaired, there’s a whole more that goes under the bumper than meets the eye.” A security guard witnessed the incident, so Levy was fortunate enough that a police report was filed. “Insurance covered the whole thing except my deductible,” he said.

The body shop estimated a roughly $7,500 bill to fix the damage, with a turnaround of seven-to-eight weeks. The problem, he said, was it’s the only Tesla-approved body shop within 30-60 miles of his home.

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“Had I known then what I know now, I would’ve asked them to take the car apart and determine what’s necessary and... put the car back together,” Levy said, as the Model S could at least drive. “Instead, it sat two months in a body shop.”

Levy said he ended up paying out of pocket for a car rental, as well as gas “that I otherwise wouldn’t pay for, and at the same time, paying a premium for the car in a body shop.”

Within the last several weeks, Levy said he vented about the situation on Reddit, which prompted a surprise reply from a forum member who said her husband works at Tesla. The woman asked for his VIN number, Levy said, and asked her husband “if he’d put my order to the top.”

“A week or two later,” Levy said, “the car was done.”

While that’s an optimistic note to end on, Levy said he may have been dissuaded from purchasing a Tesla vehicle in the first place if he had a better understanding of the potential situation he found himself in. (When he purchased his vehicle, Levy said he wasn’t made aware that only one body shop exists in the Miami area.)

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“I’m a 100 percent ambassador for Tesla,” he said. “I love the car, I love everything about it ... But I do warn people in advance who ask me, because I’ve referred a few people to get a car and I’ve just told them, that’s my experience.”

“Something as insignificant as a fender bender can cost me several thousand dollar and two months,” he added. “There’s something wrong with that picture.”

Who’s To Blame?

Soon after Niu’s accident, Tesla President Jon McNeill responded in a post on the Tesla Motors Club, pinning blame for the screw-up on the body shop itself.

The body shop in the OP article did not begin repairs on the car for three months and then ordered more than 90 parts and took over seven months to repair the car. Neither of those are indicators of competence. To top it off, they blamed their performance on Tesla. We know from complaints that the body shop experience needs to get a lot better – and fast.

“Most of the customer complaints about body shops mentioned parts, so we focused on this issue,” McNeill said, adding that backlog has been reduced by over 80 percent.

“Even though we reduced part wait times, we continued to dig into the body shop complaints,” he continued. “What we found was astounding—cars sat at body shops for weeks and sometimes months before the body shops took action and, more often than not, the body shops blaming Tesla for parts delays were the very shops that hadn’t even ordered parts or started the repair.”

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So, Tesla said it’s applying “brute force” to address the issue immediately. An employee will now manage “each car” on behalf of Tesla owners seeking repairs in a third party body shop. McNeill said that Tesla will add over 300 shops to its third-party network over the next few weeks, while eliminating poor performing shops.”

But will that be enough to withstand the potential onslaught of repairs needed when the Model 3 hits full production? Tesla Founder Elon Musk has said he wants the automaker to produce 500,000 vehicles annually by next year. It’s unclear how many third-party shops are in the Tesla network; a spokesperson couldn’t elaborate.

A study conducted on behalf of a major automaker provided a minor flick of insight into what type of consumer is attracted to the Model 3. The study captures only a snapshot of the background of a small number of reservation holders, but the findings suggest the mass-market sedan won’t be a car for Tesla-fanatics alone. It’ll rope in customers who rely on a vehicle just as Dorr described it.

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Obtained by Daily Kanban’s Edward Niedermeyer, the study looked at about 800 Tesla Model 3 reservation holders, electric vehicle owners, and luxury brand car owners. (There’s at least 373,000 refundable reservations for the Model 3.)

According to Niedermeyer, Model 3 reservation holders who participated in the study said they were “more than twice as likely to own a Toyota as any other brand,” and a “significant portion” reported a household annual income of between $25,000 and $49,000 in 2015. (The Model 3 MSRP is expected to be around $35,000 before tax incentives are included.)

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“With the majority of its potential Model 3 customers coming out of affordable, reliable cars like the Camry,” he wrote, “they will not tolerate the level of service Tesla is currently providing.”

Tesla told Jalopnik that experiences like Niu’s are “unacceptable,” and asserted that “service capacity isn’t measured by number of service centers.” Current centers under construction have “up to a few dozen service bays,” the company said, while early centers only had a few. A reported mobile repair service will make “our service capacity significantly more scalable,” the company added. In an investor letter released last month, the company said more than 80 percent of repairs are “so minor that they can be done remotely.”

Five-Month Delay

Indeed, most Tesla owners hold the ownership experience in very high regard. The brand came in first in a Consumer Reports satisfaction survey. Still, the repair experiences for some Tesla owners has left a sour taste about the company.

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“I’m actually not a Model 3 reservation holder probably for that reason right now,” said Tim Dorr, a Model S85 owner in Atlanta. “I was considering it for awhile, but just the long term viability of the car depends on its ability to be repaired if necessary.”

Dorr, 34, said his Model S was taken to a body shop after sustaining “pretty extensive front-end damage” in an accident. There’s only two approved body shops in the Atlanta-area, Dorr said, and the one he took it to had an estimate of over $28,000 in damage.

“They had the car for the past five months,” he said. The body shop said the delay’s primarily Tesla’s fault for fulfilling a parts order—something that’s an obvious sticking point between the automaker and its third-party network of body shops.

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For Dorr, despite the long wait, he had a decent experience with Tesla’s local service center; the estimated turnaround for the servicing was a week, and it was accomplished in “about four days,” he said.

The experience has “definitely made me more of a cautious driver,” he said, “not that i was super reckless or anything—it’s probably more in terms of the driving experience. In, terms of my perception of the company itself, it’s still really good.”

But he hopes the delays are reduced as the company moves toward the Model 3 production date.

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“As cars get more complex, that’s always a more complex problem for any manufacturer,” he said. “But I think the key thing here is beyond just training and certification, and getting people knowing how to do it. Giving them the ability to actually do it is crucial. If they don’t have parts available, they can’t apply those skills no matter how refined or good they are.”