Tesla Motors' website promises that the new Model S sedan is a car "so advanced it sets the new standard for premium performance" while delivering "unprecedented range and a thrilling drive experience." But visiting the Tesla Motors Club forums gives you an idea of what the other side of Tesla ownership is like: doors and rear hatches that open on their own, regular failures of the car's massive touchscreen control panel, persistent problems with the car's trick extending door handles, and powering down randomly.
As Model S owners cope with these problems, as well as the firmware updates issued to fix them, they have become more than just drivers — they are testers taking part in the world's first public beta on four wheels. That may be fine for now considering how new and small Tesla is, but how long can the company keep it up?
If the Tesla Model S were software or a new smartphone, it would still be in some kind of public beta stage. Owners deal with glitches and problems followed by patches and firmware updates that have helped to correct some known issues.
For his part, Elon Musk, aspiring space explorer and CEO of Tesla Motors, said that his company doesn't look at the Model S as a beta, nor does it look at its customers as beta testers. Musk spoke with Jalopnik for this story and said that while he and his people are aware of these issues with the car, many of them — if not all, Musk claims — have been corrected through the latest firmware update, version 4.2.
"We're not trying to outsource quality issues to our customers," Musk said. "At least, not intentionally."
But the Model S is more than just software or a new Android phone. It's a luxury sedan that costs anywhere from about $60,000 to more than $90,000, not including federal tax deductions, and it is something to which owners trust their lives and safety.
Since late September, the Tesla Motors Club forum's "mechanical issues" thread has grown to be more than 130 pages long with some 1,300 posts, and it includes owners complaining about nearly every aspect of the vehicle, including paint, satellite radio tuning, tail lamp housings and windshield wipers.
Musk insists that despite any mechanical issues that have arisen thus far, the car is safe. He said that it was not released to the public until it was capable of receiving a five-star crash test rating. No fires have been reported in any production cars, and no serious injuries have occurred in a Model S or a Roadster. (The latter is also a testament to how few of them are on the roads at the moment.)
Even so, if this were a car from any other manufacturer, the defects reported by these owners would be completely unacceptable. But Tesla is no ordinary manufacturer. They're brand new, building everything from the ground up, leading what they say is an electric revolution.
As of late last year, news reports indicated that Tesla had only delivered about 250 Model S sedans to various customers around the country. Musk declined to tell us how many Model S sedans have been sold. It's hard to tell how many Model S owners post on these forums, but given the volume of posts, it is far more than just a few people. (Although, admittedly, it is possible that only the people with problematic cars are posting, and the others have nothing to gripe about.) Forums on Tesla's own website have threads devoted to "glitches and problems".
But what's interesting when you go through these is the sheer volume and variety of problems that drivers are experiencing. Now, anytime you buy a car that's brand new, it's not uncommon to experience some issues that need to be ironed out. Even our beloved Scion FR-S/Subaru BRZ had some initial niggles with body panel gaps and moisture in tail lamps. But the issues described in the Tesla forums go far beyond that.
Here is what it's like to own a Tesla Model S, in the words of the owners themselves.
The touch-screen center console often doesn't work right.
There are few buttons to be found inside a Model S. Most of the car's functions, even basic ones, are controlled via a massive, iPad-like touch screen console on the dash. If it's not working properly, many of the features are unusable.
Musk said this could be attributed to issues that arose when the car came out of "sleep," or when it is turned off in your garage and operating in a very low power consumption mode. If one of the Model S' 53 processors don't come out of sleep properly, the car experiences functionality issues. The cars have also experienced a great deal of problems with cold weather, which Musk admits gave them a lot of headaches in December.
Musk said that 4.2 has also supposedly fixed the sleep issues. "So far, the feedback we're getting is universally that we've taken care of it," he said.
The trick door handles don't work sometimes, and doors and the rear hatches open on their own.
The Model S has these very cool electric door handles that extend out when you approach the car. The problem is, they don't always work, keeping drivers and passengers out of the cars. This is one of the more persistent problems that owners reported on the forums.
"The handles have been somewhat problematic," Musk concedes. He said his goal was to give the car a totally "laminated" look, and that meant handles that did not stick out. Sometimes the extending handles get stuck, although Musk says a firmware update has solved this problem. We witnessed an owner futzing with his doors in person this weekend, although after a few rounds they finally worked.
In addition, many owners say they've had doors open on their own, which they say is a safety concern.
They experience issues with power and charging.
Sometimes they experience a "limited power" mode with reduced range and speed. These problems seem to come and go.
It has a number of fit and finish issues.
Buy a Tesla, and don't expect the same overall quality and put-togetherness as what you'd get in a modern car. It may be quite nice to look at inside and out, but it has problems reminiscent of the cars that rolled off GM assembly lines in the 1970s and 1980s.
Musk said that some of these problems may be tied to how the cars were transported to dealers.
Some drivers are getting fed up with being beta testers, and even wondering about recalls.
Model S's aren't cheap. It costs $5,000 to reserve one, and they start at $52,000. Most — if not all — the owners I followed on the forum have it as a second car, in addition to a BMW or an Infiniti or something similar. Still, they're understandably disappointed by these issues after paying quite a bit of money for the car.
This last post brings up a good point: Does a recall need to happen? Recalls get initiated one of two ways: either the government (specifically, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) orders them, or the manufacturer initiates them voluntarily. The NHTSA's website lists no active recalls on the Model S at the moment. Recalls are considered necessary when a vehicle doesn't meet federal safety standards or if safety-related defects exist.
Musk said they don't need one. "There wouldn't be anything a recall could fix," he said. "If you bring it in, there's nothing to do to it."
To be fair, many of these owners have a lot of praise for the way Tesla has been handling service. The company offers "Service Rangers" who make house calls on Models S and Roadsters, and several owners reported good experiences with them. And again, the owners say that when the cars work, they are excellent.
I also spoke with Tesla owner Yaroslav Faybishenko, who picked up his Model S and allowed Jalopnik to test drive it over the weekend. (You'll see a review of it here soon.) Yaroslav reported almost none of the issues that forum-goers experienced, but he did say the car suffers in the cold — it loses a "very predictable" 30 to 45 miles of range overnight in 20 degree weather.
He had high praise for it overall, including its fit and finish. "As a car, it feels like the best car ever made. The smoothness of it is like nothing you've ever felt in a car. If you live in suburbia and can charge in your own garage overnight, this is a no-brainer - why would you want to buy anything else?"
This is the other important part of this story: Model S owners never seem remorseful about their purchases — they feel like they're an active part of this electric revolution. To get this far, most of them had to put down large deposits and wait months and years for their car to finally get delivered. They are the true believers and they appear to think it's their duty to help.
Yet despite what Musk says, issues are still being reported by Tesla owners who are on version 4.2. And then there's the most high-profile example of problems with the car to emerge so far, John M. Broder's New York Times story in which he attempts to drive a Model S from New York to Boston, but runs out of power before he was supposed to and is forced to have the car towed. Musk called that story fake, although the Times stands behind it.
If the company seeks to grow and become a major manufacturer, how long can they expect their customers to be beta testers, regardless of how great the car is?
If you're a Tesla Model S owner, please feel free to sound off about your experiences in the comments.
Photos credit Tesla, AP