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Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk, shown here .with the Tesla Roadster.

You break it that's your problem, says Tesla founder Elon Musk, shown here with a Tesla Roadster with a working battery.

Editor’s Note: Battery-carmaker Tesla has been roiled in controversy as it turns out customers can turn their car into a virtual “brick” by failing to keep the vehicle charged. We asked our intrepid correspondent, Denise McCluggage to muse on the risks of cutting-edge technologies.

New technologies — or new developments in old technologies – require their users to click out of their half-asleep automatic response and be consciously aware of the best way to deal with this new stuff. When the new patterns of response are tweaked to the most appropriate actions then it’s safe to revert to robot mode.

Click Here to Visit DeniseMcCluggage.com

From long ago I recall my country cousins on the family homestead had a hand pump on their kitchen sink. The town-kid in me thought this “new” thing was the cat’s pajamas. But then it was updated to mundane faucets much like we had. Star-shaped with “C” and “H” in the center.

The old hand pump simply stopped its intermittent gushing when whoever was pumping stopped pumping. And when the faucets were first installed I remember my cousins had to sometimes turn back to the sink to turn them off. But not for long. The new twist-off behavior quickly replaced the pump technology in their automation map.

So leap decades ahead and ask Prius owners how many left their new car “on” all night when they first got it. Count the sheepish looks and not the hands. Shows you not everyone had Windows and were thus trained by Bill Gates to push “Start” to shut something off.

Now it seems that any owner of Tesla’s lovely little Lotus-derived Roadster, which is dependent entirely on lithium-ion batteries for its motive force, need to examine their automatic responses to a vehicle’s needs or suffer some egregiously costly consequences.

Range anxiety doesn’t relate just to distance any more but to time as well. If left too long without an incoming charge a Tesla will become, gasp, a brick. What’s too long? Depending on juice level when you park the car “too long” can be as little as a week.

“Brick” is not exactly a term an owner is keen on associating with his $100,000+ car. Yet brick is a Tesla Roadster’s destiny if the person in charge of its well-being is ignorant of battery technology and fails to realize that inattention and time can turn his car into an oblong lump incapable of even being towed without draconian measures.

In brief, if the batteries in the Tesla are allowed to discharge completely they are useless. As in dead. Dead as in they cannot be recharged. Furthermore the car with the useless dead batteries cannot even be rolled out of the way, onto a truck, into a garage. It is a brick. A big costly brick. And replacements for these prematurely deceased batteries cost $40,000. Furthermore that cost is not covered by any warranty from the company or any existing insurance policy from anyone. Tesla, it seems, is not bending over backward to please wayward owners who didn’t pay attention to the owners manual.

The facts of brickdom in a Tesla Roadster has been reported in the plural (maybe five known bricks) by blogger Michael DeGusta who is actually on a waiting list for a different Tesla model, the Model X SUVish one. DeGusta is aghast. He thinks the company is less than adequately active in warning owners of the dire consequences of not providing their parked Tesla Roadsters with a juice source to suckle.

But John Voelcker of Green Car Reports, in an “aha” sort of story headlined “The Tesla ‘Bricking’ Story Might Just Be An Angry Owner’s Warranty Claim,” writes that the company insists that warnings are “prominently” called out in warranty and owners literature. In other words, read your manual. Who knew it could be that important.

A Tesla owner named Max Drucker apparently did not know and now he’s trying to shame Tesla into taking responsibility for his own shortcomings – or so I gather that’s Voelcker’s defense of Tesla. I am, however, unused to seeing a belittling word like “just” in association with a $40,000 loss, so I checked to see what it was that Tesla told its owners. And I’m with DeGusta on this: the words are there but the incredibly grim, horrible, disastrous results of ignoring the words are not all that clear. Not even as clear as the pidgin-Japanese warning with an electronic gadget I ordered recently. In capital letters with margins replete with red skull and crossbones I was warned “NOT DROP THIS BOUGHT ITEM IN WATER!!!!” I understood such forbidden action would put me out $4.99 plus shipping. Tesla folk, facing a $40,000 loss, got no red skulls.

In a Tesla communique issued since the bricking splashed the internet it is correctly pointed out – the meandering purpose of my piece here – that, in short, all technology has its no-nos. Users should learn them. For instance, Tesla says, a conventional gasoline engine must be provided with adequate oil or it will be destroyed.

Oh-oh, Tesla people, a confusion here. You are ignoring the difference between active and passive risks.

Permit me another personal anecdote to point out how I learned this lesson. In my days of occasionally riding motorcycles and frequently racing sports cars I recognized that conventional wisdom held these pastimes to be perilous. I acknowledged the dangers, chose to reduce their possible impact on me and accepted them. In those heady days I also tried sport parachuting, then truly new on the sporting scene. I knew immediately as I stepped out of the small Cessna into unsupportive air I was in alien territory quite different from my familiar pastimes. Thusly: for me to be at serious risk in racing something had to go wrong – a tire down, a piston thrown, another car running into me. In this new sport I was dead as soon as I left the plane and something had to go right to save me. A silk umbrella had to blossom properly out of my chest and back pack and I had to avoid being re-introduced to earth’s surface in the midst of a large body of water.

The dry oil sump is analogous to the risk of racing and the parachute jump, by golly, is the Tesla. To destroy the gasoline engine someone has to actively drive it when there’s no oil in it. To ruin the Tesla it simply has to sit unattended past its Charge By date. To keep a Tesla from meeting its natural sad destiny someone has to act. Has to provide it with a reliable, adequate supply of electricity. And keep doing it. Operative words “adequate” and “keep doing it.” One Tesla was bricked while plugged in and thus believed to be safe. Except its charge had to traverse an over-long extension cord and by the time it reached the Tesla it wasn’t strong enough to feed the Tesla. Alas, time has its way and — brick.

Message: even a fully charged Tesla Roadster if you do not keep the electricity coming will – over time – go to brick. Another Tesla having been shipped to Japan could not be connected to the grid there (duh) and completely ran out of juice and time and died a $40,000 death.

“Active” and “passive” have other meanings and I think it is Mr. DeGusta’s point that Tesla is too passive in this matter of costly battery deaths and should show more active interest. The company points out that the Roadster 2 had software constantly monitoring its SOC (state of charge) and if the SOC is too low you’ll get an automatic SOS by e-mail. (So a quick flight home from a Nepal mountain top costa less than bricked batteries. As long as your iPhone or your Sherpa gets the message.)

The question arises: Why is normal use with the Tesla so close to abnormal disaster? Some have suggested that Elon Musk, Tesla’s man at the wheel, wants bragging rights for the highest range numbers for a battery car and thus leaves little safety margin. Possibly. But he must realize that adverse publicity for any electric vehicle hurts the entire field of EV transportation. In my experience only a few car buyers are people keen on specifics. Most deal with generalities and half-understood answers to vague questions. And all they know now is that they heard something bad about electric cars. Pull a face. Not for me thanks! That’s why the battery fire of a test-wrecked Volt, actually inconsequential to the real-world use of a Volt, created such a ruckus. The folks with a politically-motivated anti-electric agenda are still kicking this football all over their playground.

Nonetheless, attention must be paid. As the point of this piece peeks out here and there: new technology requires new awareness.

If you are considering a Leaf, Mitsubishi “i”, Tesla or other plug-in car that is dependent entirely on electric power then you must acquaint yourself with the ways in which it differs from the old hand pump at the sink. Update your software regularly, check out user sites on the web to learn about quirks the official sites might ignore and keep your mind open. If you are not prepared to do this then wait a few more cycles of discovery before you get the diamond lane denizen you crave.

Based on recent news Tesla requires more attention than most both because of its lordly price and its poor history of customer service. And its battery pack design. Though both the Nissan and the Tesla rely on lithium-ion batteries Nissan uses a more conventional pack (once dissed as “primitive” by Tesla’s Musk) while Tesla uses a clever, though scarcely breakthrough, arrangement of some 6800 batteries more at home in a laptop. The Leaf, Nissan reports, has a designed-in safety floor in its battery system. They say its batteries will not discharge beyond this floor and thus cannot totally discharge. Though a touch of skepticism even here might be protective.

The type of lithium-ion batteries Tesla uses have been known when in the more familiar setting of a laptop to burst into flames on more than one occasion. Maybe this penchant prompted Tesla to develop a sophisticated monitoring system to keep the multitude of mini batteries operating properly without the risk of inopportune combustion. However the monitoring requires that the batteries are always on. And always on means at least a slow discharge is always happeing. In that on-going discharge lurks the risk, as some Tesla owners have been horrified to discover, of the heartbreak of bricking.

In the reported bricking episodes it appears to me that Tesla has come across in as unduly defensive and less than sympathetic. Righteously it has pointed out how many warnings are scattered through the Roadster literature. Yet this, at the same time, points up the strange inadequacies of those warnings. Particularly given the severity of the consequences.

It’s likely Tesla will face some litigation from irate brick owners, which has some poetic justice given the litigious nature of Elon Musk (not – by the way – my favorite character in the car biz.) Recently an English court ruled against him in his suit against the TV show Top Gear. The show’s typically taunting review was less that benevolent toward the EV from the US. Musk’s main complaint was that a crew was shown pushing the Tesla away from the test track to a garage with the implication that the car had run out of charge earlier than Tesla’s forecast. That this would irreparably harm the Tesla rep in the public’s view was, I gather, the crux of Musk’s unconvincing claim.

Oh my. When the bricking reports burst upon my computer they prompted in me a thought tinged with amusement and – I sadly admit because it is unbecoming — a touch of Schadenfreude (see not-my-favorite above.) It was my smug little notion that the reason Musk knew the batteries were still charged in the Top Gear Tesla was that the car was being pushed by a handful of guys. It takes a bleeding crane to move a bricked Tesla.

 

 

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