Tesla is looking unstoppable. First it made electric vehicles cool with the original Roadster, then it took on the luxury market with the Model S and X. The Model 3 is contesting the premium mid-sized market effectively, and the Model Y could be its biggest seller yet. There’s now talk of a small Tesla for China, that could then go head-to-head with the Volkswagen ID.3, and the new Roadster will give hypercars a run for their money – literally. But the disruptive American electric giant, which was briefly the most valuable car company in the world, has an Achilles Heel – its cars have a problem with production quality.

As we reported a few days ago, Tesla ranked lowest in the influential J.D.Power owner survey, racking up 250 problems per 100 vehicles where the average was 166, although the brand is not officially ranked due to not meeting survey criteria. There had been a hope that Tesla had overcome the issues of earlier cars with the Model Y, but there are still reports of serious quality problems, such as the saga that this user on Reddit went through.

There’s also a known fault with the flash storage in Model S examples produced before April 2018. A second-hand purchaser in the UK had his car completely stop working with its wheels locked due to this failure. In this case, there is a defect with the Media Control Unit writing too many files to its Flash memory storage, which rapidly wears the storage chips out so the car can no longer load its operating software. In the case of the UK owner, his car was on warranty so was fixed free of charge. But there are some users encountering this issue out of warranty and contemplating legal action as a result.

These are just a few recent examples from a long list including ill-fitting panels, scuff marks on allegedly brand-new cars, leaking battery cooling, wheel alignment issues, misaligned front boot and rear tailgate latches, door-handle problems… and so on. One website has even collated a few of the most popular complaints into a top 25 list. But that doesn’t seem to have stopped the desirability of owning a Tesla. Even the UK Tesla Model S owner mentioned above claims to remain very happy with his purchase. Tesla did have his car back, all fixed, in a couple of days, and this was during the coronavirus lockdown in England.

But it’s not good customer service that has won Tesla so many fans, and it’s definitely not its generic exterior designs. It’s something else entirely. Tesla is sometimes called the Apple iPhone of the car business. When the iPhone came along, people were still mostly using their cell phones to make actual voice calls. The iPhone changed that game and now we’re spending most of our smartphone time on social media. We think back to voice telephony in the same way we view horses and carriages in period drama – a quaint practice from a bygone era.

The fact is that Tesla is not just a car manufacturer competing against other car manufacturers. It has totally shifted what modern vehicles are. Traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) automobiles come out of the factory and then essentially remain the same until they hit the scrapheap. Some people change the wheels, maybe add a body kit, or even tune the engine a bit. But most people don’t.

Teslas are different. For example, when the company launched its V3 Superchargers with 250kW ability, the only car that could take full advantage was the Model 3. The premium Model S remained limited to 150kW. Then a software update enabled 200kW, and this has recently been further updated to 225kW. This is hardly an isolated case. At the end of last year, Tesla released a $2,000 software update for the Model 3 Dual Motor Long Range called Acceleration Boost, which dropped the 0-60mph time from 4.4 seconds to 3.9 seconds. It’s still unclear whether the increase to a 400-mile range for the Model S Long Range Plus will be a software update, but Tesla has increased range with previous updates, such as the 2020.4 firmware in March 2020 that increased Model S range from 373 to 390 miles and Model X range from 328 to 351 miles. And then there are the regularly improved autonomous features, which would warrant an entire separate article.

This is a very clear edge for a Tesla owner, who can buy a car now that may well be even better in a few months. Competitors have begun to catch on that they are lagging behind in this area. Mercedes-Benz recently announced a partnership with NVIDIA to produce “software-defined vehicles” that can be upgraded or reconfigured in this way. Unfortunately for Mercedes, Tesla is there already, with one central computer controlling everything and a coder’s attitude to car making, where software is central. German manufacturers have traditionally had different chips controlling different systems, causing significant problems, as former head of Audi R&D Peter Mertens recently complained.

Coming back to where we started, Tesla does have a quality issue, and this (along with the continuing premium pricing of EVs) is currently stopping it from achieving a complete slam-dunk of the industry. But only a bit. The feeling that when you buy a Tesla, you’re buying into an upgrade path rather than a snapshot of current vehicle design is hard to resist. And that means that a lot of people are willing to put up with a bit of lackluster finish or a warranty-covered fix, in return for driving a slice of the future.



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