Tesla’s Brickmobile: Holy depleted batteries!


By Eddie Childs

Tesla’s response in its company blog last Friday to the so-called “bricking” controversy — whereby the company’s earlier Roadsters become inert “bricks” upon complete battery discharge — undoubtedly contained some compelling points, even if said response seems to lay most of the blame with owners and not with the car’s design.

It stated that, in exchange for not having to worry about gasoline or oil changes, the only trade-off is that the company asks that its customers keep the car charged.  It went further to say that if one were to drive their car without changing the oil, for instance, that you’d have to replace the engine as a result.

However, a degree of incongruity exists in this analogy. As some people have observed, an oil-depleted engine destroys a car during active and sustained use of the vehicle; whereas “bricking” occurs under a set of circumstances that are the exact opposite, i.e. when the car is at rest.

Arguably, then, the level of vigilance required is higher, the margin for error is narrower, and the consequences are more devastating and costly. That is, unless you just happen to own your own personal money bin; in which case you’d probably be Scrooge McDuck, and whoever heard of an anthropomorphic duck driving an electric car anyway? That would be ridiculous.

Congratulations! You Now Own… a Brick

Issues of owner “negligence” aside, the degree of fallout from letting a Tesla battery fully discharge still sounds like a pretty serious design flaw; at least, to anyone who’s ever let their laptop battery accidentally run out. And Tesla’s policy of charging $40,000 for replacing a depleted battery (as opposed to the $12,000 price tag on replacing a worn-out battery that’s under warranty) has only exacerbated the problem and invited ire from the blogosphere.

This was purportedly what happened to owners of five of the company’s 2,200 all-electric Roadsters, each of which costs a cool six-figure price at retail. To recap: In order for a full battery discharge to occur, the owner has to leave their Tesla sitting unplugged long enough for the car’s always-on “parasitic systems” to fully drain the battery. Once the battery is completely depleted, it becomes about as functional as a brick, and the owner’s only recourse lies in replacing it. This problem is compounded by the fact that the Roadster’s wheels lock up as well, making the car all but impossible to move.

According to Tesla’s literature, the battery of a charged Roadster can hold its charge for just shy of three months. There’s an additional (allegedly “understated”) addendum explaining that Roadsters sitting unused for beyond a two-week timeframe need to be hooked up to the car’s proprietary $2,000 charger.

Accidentally unplugged power cords, extended power outages, tripped circuit breakers, Acts of God (think a Katrina-caliber hurricane or a zombie apocalypse), faulty ground fault interrupters, or a extension cords running too long to maintain the current — these are all conceivable situations in which a Tesla Roadster could have its battery depleted without the owner’s knowledge. And despite what Tesla has said on its website, you can forget leaving your Roadster sitting in an airport parking lot during an extended trip overseas. Looking for some peace of mind while you’re taking a long vacation? Nothing to see here, bub. Keep moving.

Orwellian, yet Environmentally Sustainable?

With a Tesla, when the battery completely discharges and “bricks out,” the battery pack must be replaced to the tune of $32,000, plus labor and taxes. Neither Tesla’s warranty nor any car insurance plans reportedly will cover this expense. For worn-down batteries, Tesla offers a $12,000 replacement policy, but bricked batteries (even those under warranties) apparently don’t receive the luxury such coverage, for some inexplicable reason.

There is, at least, some indication that the folks at Tesla comprehend the severity of the bricking issue, however. According to TheUnderstatement, Tesla has begun tracking battery statuses using a remote system of GPS-enabled monitoring, and this technology will attempt to contact owners or the company itself (at least in one case) when the owners couldn’t be reached. Supposedly, Tesla has instituted this monitoring largely without telling its customers (again the source of this being TheUnderstatement), despite language in the company’s blog that says owners can “opt in” to this program with the Roadster 2.0 and beyond.

One might wonder exactly why Tesla hasn’t developed a smartphone app instead that interfaces with the car to send the owner a push notification when the car is running low — it would likely be less invasive, require less resources than those it would take to physically call the customer, and would inspire fewer “Big Brother” allegations, but perhaps this is beside the point. The company seems hell-bent on making this an issue of consumer maintenance as opposed to calling it a design flaw, so why should anyone expect such functionality? Oh yeah, how much did this car cost again?

Batteries: An Unsolicited Science Lesson

Just as a basis for comparison — your average, cheapo lead-acid car battery costs approximately $85, runs for half a decade, and generally it’s rechargeable until it croaks from absolute infirmity. The nickel-metal hydride batteries found in hybrid cars cost more than $2,000, and in day-to-day usage, they never fall below 20 percent or get charged higher than 80 percent. In this way, they retain an almost-indefinite functionality for at least a decade, which is the median lifespan for most vehicles.

By all accounts, the always-on electrical subsystems are the root cause of the battery’s propensity to slowly discharge when the car is left inert. The Tesla and its electric car competitors use a lithium-ion battery similar to the one in your laptop or smartphone. An unconnected device will keep its charge for many months.

In yesterday’s response blog, Tesla has claimed that its newest cars — the Model S sedan, which will be shipping this summer — can hold their charges for a year when left sitting at 50-percent power. It reportedly achieves this by entering a “deep sleep” mode that slows the loss even more. The blog also says that the “Model S will not allow its battery to fall below about 5 percent charge. At that point the car can still sit for many months. Of course you can drive a Model S to 0 percent charge, but even in that circumstance, if you plug it in within 30 days, the battery will recover normally.”

Presumably, this means that bricking won’t be an issue for Tesla’s newest vehicles (note that the depleted battery must be recharged within a 30-day period, or it probably bricks). This has yet to be put to the test, however; but if it’s accurate, then the “bricking” controversy should (more or less) be a non-issue for anyone who purchases Tesla’s vehicles in the future.

So if you were an early adopter and you were one of the people on the waiting list for the first couple generations of Roadster? Sorry, but it seems like you’re out of luck — unless, of course, Tesla changes its warranty-covered battery replacement policy. Good luck with that one.

*This article was originally written for CHARGED Electric Vehicles Magazine, but was cut from the issue in February 2012

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