Tesla Tackled Mass Production for Cars as if They Were Software and That’s Biting It Back

Tesla produces cars as if they were software but there are things an OTA update will not fix 10 photos
Photo: Tesla
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Philippe Chain was the VP for quality at Tesla when the Model S was released. In an article written for MondayNote on July 12, 2020, the former Tesla executive described a dialogue with Elon Musk that demonstrates that Tesla approached car manufacturing as software development. Effects of that mindset are emerging: they tend to hurt Tesla in the long run.
If you never had the chance to read Chain’s article, it details – among other things – his request to test the Model S for at least 1 million miles before releasing the electric sedan. As the former Tesla executive remembers in his text, German automakers probe their cars for 10 million miles over at least two winters to put them into production. Musk said Chain could test the EV but that this would not change its presentation schedule.

Concerned, the former VP for quality asked what Tesla would do if they discovered any issues with the Model S. Recalls? Musk said yes and added that OTA (over-the-air) updates would cover the rest. That’s probably the origin of Tesla’s “deliver now, fix later” policy. The problem is that cars are not software and Tesla seems to have completely ignored that tiny detail.

Software can be fixed with updates. It may become even better and more reliable than it originally was with them. This is something Tesla fans often claim about their EVs. However, cars are physical and mechanical goods that benefit from manufacturing.

Mass production is what allowed more people to have access to products that were once unattainable to most people, such as automobiles. By producing them on a large scale, the price drops. The negative side is that any error will be repeated hundreds or thousands of times in a way that no software update can fix – even if it may help to conceal it.

If cars are not correctly assembled, they will present issues. Without enough testing, issues will hide, nurturing heavy bills that will eventually rear their ugly heads from that. If the warranty is still up, the automaker handles the costs. If it is not, we already know who pays: you.

The first sign that Tesla ignored the negative sides of mass production is the current state of its Service Centers. Praised by early adopters as one of Tesla’s main qualities, they helped to create the illusion that Tesla is a luxury brand. It is not: being expensive does not equate to being luxurious, even if the company once offered premium services. That’s long gone, now.

Tesla Service Centers are now a massive headache for the company’s customers. That all began when Tesla decided to build the Model 3 without making sure that it would have enough maintenance spaces to keep these cars running properly.

Just ask April Gillmore about that. Her Tesla Model 3 Performance was delivered without the inside brake pad of the left rear wheel. She tried to book an appointment with Tesla, and the closest available time for that was three weeks after she realized there was something wrong with her car. Aware that it could be severe, Gillmore took her Model 3 to an independent shop and realized what was wrong by her own means.

With more vehicles than they could handle, service quality in Tesla Service Centers dropped as fast as an EV can accelerate. To make matters worse, the quality control that Fremont lacks also increased the amount of work Tesla Service Centers would normally have if assembly issues were not so common. Many people refused deliveries because of them.

Superchargers are also facing this planning blackout. Tesla’s goal is to increase delivery numbers as much as possible, but the supercharging network was not expanded to cope with the increase in sales. The result is ever more crowded fast chargers in holidays. Even if that was considered into the equation, testing wasn’t.

If it were, MCU screens would not have leaked a yellow goo that made many owners have to replace them either under warranty or out of their own pockets. They would also have received larger eMMC cards instead of the 8 Gb they had. Either that or Tesla would not have relied on constant logging, which made these cards fail and demanded the MCUs be replaced as if they were worn parts. Al Prescott, Tesla’s former vice president of legal, even named them as such to try to dodge the recall NHTSA obliged the company to perform. It didn’t work.

Talking about recalls, two recent ones and a defect that will probably turn into another mandatory repair show how much Tesla vehicles miss proper testing and quality control.

Tesla’s most affordable vehicle had almost all its units recalled apart from those made after September 30, 2020, in Fremont and after December 27, 2020, at Giga Shanghai. That’s 536,353 cars so far: we’re still waiting for the numbers in Europe and some other markets.

To put that under adequate perspective, Tesla celebrated making 1 million cars in March 2020. It would have produced around 1.9 million vehicles from 2009 – when it started delivering the Roadster – until 2021. The Model 3 recall alone represents more than a quarter of everything Tesla ever produced.

The problem emerged with something as trivial as using the trunk: opening and closing the lid stressed a coaxial cable and made its core break in some units. That prevented rear camera images from reaching the ICU – the Model 3 and Model Y central computers, also installed in more recent Model S and Model X units.

Tesla fixed that problem when it refreshed the Model 3 on September 30, 2020. That suggests the company knew about the coaxial cable issue but decided to recall that only a long time after learning about it.

The Tesla Model S problem relates to a misaligned frunk latch. In other words, it has to do with assembly problems that were not detected and prevented in Fremont. So far, 138,706 units are involved in the recall in China and the U.S. Again, many more Model S units are certainly affected in Europe, and we still have no idea of how many. Tesla may have assembled a car in the wrong way more than 200,000 times.

The potential recall we talked about involves heat pumps. Some Model Y heating systems failed in the winter of 2020, and now Model 3 and Model Y units are getting the same issues again. We have already told you the story of some of these customers that lost heating in temperatures below -30ºC (-22ºF). The white-hat hacker GreenTheOnly showed a video of Russian Tesla customers getting the same problems. We know that China-made Model 3s also present it, which suggests this is another design problem that was not fixed due to insufficient winter testing.

Tesla has a list of other chronic issues that could be related to “deliver now, fix later.” Suspension parts breaking up, battery packs that were voltage-capped with OTA updates, windows that shatter spontaneously, and failing air suspensions on the Model S and Model X are the ones that come to mind in a quick memory exercise.

Anyone genuinely concerned about the company’s future should see these signs and ask its management to change course regarding planning, testing, and quality control. We have already written about how Tesla centering all its future factories and products around the 4680 cells was a pretty bad sign.

The American EV maker is the world’s most valuable car company, but what if it has to fix almost all the cars it has ever built, as it did with the Model 3? What if all Model Y units have to replace the heat pump? Or a battery pack? For those more concerned with stock prices than about the customers involved in all this, it is always worth reminding that market caps can change in the blink of an eye.
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Editor's note: The gallery presents images of Fremont, Tesla's only factory in the U.S. so far. The number of Model 3 units involved in the recall did not bring the American cars sold in China. The number has been corrected to reflect that.

About the author: Gustavo Henrique Ruffo
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Motoring writer since 1998, Gustavo wants to write relevant stories about cars and their shift to a sustainable future.
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