Cars break down.We all know this is true. As someone with decades of experience driving barely-operable shitboxes, I have lived this truth many times over. One saving grace of dealing with broken down cars is that they’re almost always still able to roll, the bare, absolute minimum you can expect from a car, and as such were at least able to be pushed out of harm’s way. This isn’t the case with electric cars, though, and I think this is a real problem. A recent scary incident with a Tesla on the highway reminded me why.
Here’s the incident with the Tesla, recounted via tweets by the owner:
If you didn’t read through the thread, I’ll summarize here: the Tesla owner was driving their Model S P85D on the highway, when the car begins to beep and warn that he needs to pull over immediately due to some power issue. Immediately after warning, all controls lock up, and the car comes to a halt, in the middle of a six-lane highway, leaving him no time to try and steer the car onto the shoulder, out of traffic.
The car will not budge from this point; it won’t go into neutral, the parking brake won’t release. It’s no longer a vehicle, it’s an immobile bit of sculpture blinking its hazard lights in the middle of the highway.
The driver was, thankfully, able to get to the shoulder, and thanks to some nearby Caltrans workers, was able to get the car coned off to help direct traffic around it, which was extremely lucky.
About 45 minutes later, a tow truck finally arrived. It’s also worth noting that Teslas (and nearly all other EVs) require a flat bed-type tow truck, so it’s not like just any tow truck would have done the job.
Also, based on this tweet, it looks like the tow driver didn’t get the car rolling, either, and just pulled it up, with the rear wheels still locked, onto the bed:
This particular incident involved a Tesla, but this is really an industry-wide problem with EVs. Every EV has some way to get the car into neutral, but based on the research I’ve done so far, all of the major EVs sold require the car to be at least partially functional to access the controls to get it into a tow or free-rolling mode, as these are usually accessed through the cars’ center-stack touch screen.
For Ford and Tesla, the procedures definitely require the touch screen to be functional, which means at least some 12V or main battery power must be accessible:
For the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Bolt, it appears that when these cars lose both main battery power and/or 12V battery power, the cars automatically shift into neutral, at least from what the owners’ manuals seem to say:
This seems like a better solution, even if it does require blocking wheels, but looking around at forums for Leaf owners and Bolt owners there seems to be issues getting the cars into neutral as well, especially if the 12V battery is discharged.
The ability for a car to just freely roll seems like an important maintenance and safety feature, and from what I can tell, it’s not something the current state of EVs handles well at all.
All EVs should have a mechanical, unpowered, easily accessible emergency way to get the drivetrain disconnected from the wheels so the car can be moved if dead. I don’t necessarily think this is easy to engineer—if it was, I suspect at least a few EVs would have such a setup—but I do think it’s important.
The incident with the Tesla driver is a perfect and alarming example of why this is important. If something fails on your car, you should at the very least be able to get it somewhere safe, where its not posing a danger to you or other drivers.
With combustion cars, there’s almost always a way to get the car into neutral. Sure, it’s possible to have a transmission crap out so badly it locks the wheels, or a brake issue where the wheels lock, but compared to all of the other reasons a combustion car might choose to break down, they’re comparatively rare.
Besides, EVs like that Tesla will lock up by design; they way they’re engineered is why they don’t default to neutral and instead go into park and set the brakes. The fact that the Leaf and Bolt don’t seem to do that (at least not by default) suggests that it is possible to fail into a neutral state.
I think this could be important enough to merit some sort of mandated requirement, a regulation that states that all EVs must have a mechanical way to get into a free-wheeling state regardless of the condition of the battery or drivetrain.
While we’re at it, we should mandate that all doors and trunks and whatever can be opened from the outside even if the main and 12V batteries die. Tesla Model 3s don’t have emergency releases for the rear doors, for example.
These requirements feel like the absolute basics: if your car dies, you should be able to push it to safety, or even tow it, at least for short distances without causing major harm. And, you should be able to open the damn doors and hood.
EVs are absolutely going to be on the roads in greater and greater numbers from here on out. Now is the time for us, as owners and drivers, to make clear what our minimum requirements are of these machines, and I think a guaranteed way to get into neutral has to be part of that.