Illustration for article titled Confusing User Interface And Poor Communication From Tesla Leaves Driver Stranded On Road Trip

If you’ve ever been within 50 feet of a happy Tesla owner, you’re likely aware that they can be fond of evangelizing Tesla ownership, often with an intensity somewhere between a campus preacher with a bullhorn and a lifelong Scientologist. There’s also a non-spiritual incentive as well: Tesla gives free Supercharger miles to people who refer new customers to buy Teslas. The way Tesla seems to make its customers aware of how many Supercharger miles they have access to seems like it has some significant issues, though, some of which led to one Tesla owner nearly getting stranded in the desert.

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Sometimes Supercharger recharging miles are given as a buyers’ incentive, and sometimes from referrals. Tesla Model 3 owner Seth (not his real name; he requested anonymity) was lucky enough to have both: 1,000 miles given when he bought the car, and 5,000 more from a referral.

Since he’s had the car, Seth has used the miles as needed, and it’s been great, like a conventional ICE carmaker handing you a gas card with a ton of cash.

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That’s why, when he needed to pick up his daughter from Los Angeles last week, Seth first checked his Loot Box, the area in Tesla’s phone app that lets owners know how many free Supercharger miles they have, to be sure he had enough miles to use for the 800 mile round trip.

Here’s a video explaining the Loot Box:

When Seth checked his, he was pleased to see he had plenty of miles for the trip, almost 4,000 miles:

Illustration for article titled Confusing User Interface And Poor Communication From Tesla Leaves Driver Stranded On Road Trip

So, at this point, he’s confident everything will be fine; he has more than enough supercharger miles to get there and back, and he’s plotted out the locations of the four superchargers along the route through the California desert to recharge during the trip. He’s good to go.

After Seth’s first charge of the trip he gets a notice that the credit card he has on file connected to his Supercharger account is no longer good. Seth was aware of this as his credit card had a fraud issue the night before and he’d spoken with the bank about getting a replacement, which would arrive in a few days.

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Seth provided me with the documentation of the fraud alert for his credit card, which is something I suspect anyone with a credit card has had to deal with at some point.

Seth wasn’t alarmed by this, since he was aware of the issue and, more importantly, he could see that he had plenty of Supercharger miles for the trip. I guess he brought cash for the roadtrip-required Combos and Slurpees, too, but I haven’t confirmed that as of press time.

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Illustration for article titled Confusing User Interface And Poor Communication From Tesla Leaves Driver Stranded On Road Trip

After the third Supercharger recharge stop, Seth got a notice that Supercharger access was disabled for his car. He checked his account in the Loot Box again, it still showed well over 3,000 miles, so he’s not too worried. He figures he has a good two hours to go until he needs to charge again, so he’ll call Tesla en route and get it sorted.

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Here’s what Seth learned on that call:

“The Rep tells me she doesn’t know why my miles are not used, and she can’t re-enable my access until balance is paid in full and there is a card on file. I explain my situation (CC canceled, 300 miles from home, no other cards WITH ME, need one more $10 charge to be able to get home - and I have 3895 miles available to me).

She had to go talk to others - I’m on hold for close to 30 minutes. when she returns- same answer. Another team will deal with the referral miles on my account, and can issue a refund later, but that will not be done in time for me to be able to charge to get come.

“Go find yourself a destination charger” she says (in the middle on no-where on the 5 Fwy) or give us another card. Not a single viable option to enable to me to get home. The whole thing transpired over about 6 hours.”

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At this point, Seth is effectively stranded at the Kettleman City, California Supercharger, which is nice enough inside, but still not really a great place to be stranded.

Seth was able to contact his wife and get a backup credit card registered to the account, so he didn’t die out there in the desert, but if he hadn’t had that option, he’d have been pretty profoundly boned.

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A few days later, Tesla’s explanation came: those miles expired because he didn’t use them quickly enough, and while, yes, they are displayed as available in the Tesla phone app, they can’t actually be used. In fact, he was told, those miles expired in December of last year, and yet the app still showed them as available over three months after they expired.

That’s terrible interface design because a good interface shouldn’t lie to you about anything, especially something as important as a car owner’s ability to keep their car moving.

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The miles didn’t change to reflect the proper amount—zero—until two days after the trip was over, and after emailing back and forth with Tesla.

While on the phone with Tesla while stranded, Tesla did not dispute that the app was indeed showing the incorrect number of available Supercharger miles, and Tesla maintained they had “no means” to enable a single emergency charge session.

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I did a bit more research, and it seems that there are a number of other references to issues with Loot Box Supercharger miles, sometimes with Supercharger miles disappearing without notice, sometimes because of unmentioned changes to Tesla’s terms and limits, sometimes just because of confusion about when the miles expire.

It’s kind of a mess, really, and when you’re dealing with something that has the potential to leave people stranded, like the ability to recharge, it’s a lot more than just an inconvenience.

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It would be one thing if these referral points were for Tesla hats and thongs and crap like that, but these are for recharging the car, and as such the people who have them have to be able to rely on the information from Tesla regarding how many they have available.

You can’t blame Seth for undertaking a trip with no working credit card if he had every reason to believe he could recharge nearly 4,000 miles of range with his Loot Box account. If the miles expired, fine, that’s how the system works, but if that’s the case, Tesla cannot expect to deprive someone of miles that their own app was clearly showing were available.

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Illustration for article titled Confusing User Interface And Poor Communication From Tesla Leaves Driver Stranded On Road Trip

Even if a careful reading of the fine print would reveal the expiration date, the app itself absolutely has to reflect an accurate figure of available Supercharger miles, otherwise situations like this, or worse, can happen.

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There’s enough of these issues around, based on articles and forum posts, as well as direct stories from people like Seth, that would make it seem as though Loot Box miles really shouldn’t be trusted or relied upon, especially when taking a trip.

This is a real problem, and, according to Seth’s account, Tesla’s support was poor at best, potentially dangerous at worst. I have reached out to Tesla for comment, though their lack of responsiveness for the past few months make me unwilling to do any breath-holding for them to reply. I will update should they choose to do so.

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At this point, all I can say is that if you have Supercharger miles in your Loot Box on your Tesla, treat them as ephemeral, magical things that could just go away, without any notice.

You’ve been warned, which is more than Tesla has done.

UPDATE: In response to some of the comments, Seth would like me to be clear that he was traveling with plenty of cash, functional ApplePay, and, as we saw, did have access to emergency backup credit cards. The cash and ApplePay would be useless at a Supercharger, and, the bigger issue is still that Tesla owners should be able to believe what their app tells them.

Senior Editor, Jalopnik • Running: 1973 VW Beetle, 2006 Scion xB, 1990 Nissan Pao, 1991 Yugo GV Plus • Not-so-running: 1973 Reliant Scimitar, 1977 Dodge Tioga RV (also, buy my book!)

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