When you spend six figures or so on a car, you expect the exceptional fit and finish of a luxury vehicle, not to mention solid construction. No one’s going to blame you for griping about wood trim that doesn’t match, suspension components that rattle, air conditioning that doesn’t work, a cracked windshield pillar, a car that unexpectedly shuts down, or the myriad other issues Tesla owners have reported.
The online forums where Tesla’s famously zealous fans share videos of Autopilot feats and ludicrous acceleration feature a growing number of threads outlining complaints about the quality of the company’s materials and workmanship. You can read about electrical gremlins, poor panel alignment, rattles, and other problems. “My MX100D’s alignment was off from the beginning,” wrote Tesla Forums user jajabor, who says he owns a top-of-the-line Model X SUV. “There was not a single body panel that didn’t have any issues.”
Quality control problems pose a significant challenge as Elon Musk’s company transitions from a boutique automaker to mass manufacturer and gears up to build the $35,000 Model 3 sedan. Musk wants Tesla, which built 83,992 cars last year, to crank out half a million next year. The Toyotas and GMs of the world move that many cars in a month, but it nevertheless represents a huge step up for the Silicon Valley upstart. Getting it wrong could be a huge problem not only for the company, but for electric vehicles in general.
Mo’ Models, Mo’ Problems
The company insists its record is comparable to that of any other automaker, and it considers reports of excessive complaints overblown. “In the rare cases when a customer does have an issue, we take it very seriously, working closely with each owner to proactively address any problems with their vehicle,” a Tesla spokesperson said in a statement. “The anecdotal issues that sometimes make headlines aren’t based on data and aren’t dissimilar to issues experienced by all manufacturers, but there’s a greater level of interest in what we do.”
They raise a good point. Musk could generate headlines tweeting his grocery list, and Tesla recently saw its valuation surpass that of Ford and GM. “There’s definitely a ‘Tesla effect’,” says Wallace Hopp, an auto industry expert at the University of Michigan. “It’s one of the most valuable car companies now, everything it does is going to get a lot of attention.”
Still, a litany of complaints, a lawsuit alleging its Autopilot feature is unsafe, and the recent recall of 53,000 cars with a parking brake problem make it easy for some to question whether Tesla can hit its growth targets while delivering on Musk’s promise to build the finest automobiles on the road. Don’t forget, Consumer Reports noted in October, 2015, that “Tesla’s reliability doesn’t match its high performance” even if the Models S P85D offered, at that time, the best performance ever recorded by the magazine. Consumer Reports cited problems with the drivetrain, power and charging equipment, and the dashboard touchscreen, plus assorted squeaks, rattles, and leaks.
To be fair, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recalls thousands of cars each week for problems ranging from the mildly annoying to the potentially deadly, and the issue that prompted Tesla’s voluntary recall is not that big a deal. Even a cursory search of any automotive forum reveals griping owners, so Tesla isn’t unusual there, either. But Hopp, who owns a Model S, notes that his own car needed a new computer shortly after delivery.
“I do think that the build quality is not at world class levels yet,” he says. “I love it, it’s an engineering marvel, but it has screwy glitches.”
A New Kind of Car Company
Tesla moves quickly to remedy any problems customers report, and last year it poached Peter Hochholdinger, who ran production at Audi (a company with an enviable reputation for quality) to oversee production of the Model 3. But it’s tough to overcome the challenges that come with scaling up so quickly. Musk wants to increase production at the company’s Fremont, California, factory 495 percent by the end of 2018. He’s got to, if he hopes to meet the 373,000 (and growing) preorders for the Model 3 in a timely manner.
Musk, perhaps the most ambitious man alive (what with the cars, the semis, the rockets, the solar panels, the AI, and the tunneling), reportedly shortened the traditional path to production by limiting the lengthy testing of beta models favored by the old-school automakers. That’s not unusual—engineers across the industry use computer modeling to reduce prototyping. And in another innovation, the first Model 3 sedans off the line will go to Tesla and SpaceX employees who can shake out any problems.
It’s worth noting, too, that Tesla designed the Model 3 with mass production in mind. Musk learned that lesson with the glorious but absurd “falcon doors” on the Model X that lift like wings. They look cool, but led to engineering headaches and production delays. And Tesla is now a proven manufacturer with the clout, and the resources, to work with the best suppliers in the business, which goes a long way toward preventing the sort of problems seen with the Model S.
You can’t overstate the importance of getting this right, both for Tesla, and for electric vehicles in general.
A New Kind of Customer
Musk arguably has done more than anyone to make electric vehicles cool. Before the Roadster and Model S came along, people equated EVs with golf carts. Still, the people buying them have been early adopters willing to tolerate glitches and rattles and the occasional “WTF?” because they believe in the technology, the company, and the man leading it. That won’t fly once Tesla starts moving cars in big numbers.
“When consumers buy a mass-market car priced around $35,000 that will be their primary mode of transportation, the degree of expectation will increase immensely,” Kathleen Rizk, director of global automotive consulting at JD Power, said last month. “We’ve seen that with other well-liked brands, whether or not it involves an electric vehicle.”
Tesla doesn’t need to follow the path of the old-school auto makers, but the Silicon Valley ethos of just build something, release it, and improve it through iteration and software updates, won’t cut it either. Apple and Samsung may have bounced back from products that bent and burned, but automakers don’t enjoy the same latitude. Just look at Fiat—the company is only now returning to the US, some 40 years after being driven out by cars so poorly screwed together that people joked the name meant “Fix it again, Tony.”
This goes beyond Tesla to EVs in general because Musk wants the Model 3 to be the car that pushes electrics beyond Palo Alto and Manhattan to Peoria and Minneapolis in a way that cars like the Nissan Leaf so far haven’t. A reputation for glitches and rattles could set the technology back. Just look at what happened with diesels in the 1970s.
Still, Musk steadfastly believes the future is electric, so he surely understands the stakes for his company and the technology it champions. None of this will be news to him, or to his team of engineers. And you can bet no one is more determined to get this right.