By on February 22, 2012

Depleted batteries. Unauthorized GPS tracking. $40,000 service bills. Rejected warranty claims. These are just some of the talking points making the rounds of the internet regarding the alleged “bricking” of Tesla Roadsters.

The story began when Michael DeGusta, who operates The Understatement, a technology blog, reported that 5 Tesla Roadsters have “bricked” – in other words, rendered useless, after their batteries depleted completely. The repair (a brand new battery pack) costs $40,000, and if the battery isn’t replaced, the vehicle is totally immobile. The wheels won’t move, preventing the car from even being pushed.

DeGusta hasn’t named any of the owners, and refers to an unnamed Tesla service tech who relays anecdotes of tracking a dying vehicle GPS, and then dispatching Tesla staff to provide on-site assistance that would prevent “bricking”. DeGusta’s article alleges that Tesla repeatedly failed to adequately warn consumers of the dangers of allowing the battery to deplete fully, that they have been recalcitrant in  fixing the battery under warranty (due to some sly in the warranty itself) and that taking measures like GPS tracking, or using the Roadster’s internal GSM connection to warn owners of low battery levels is being done not in good faith but to protect Tesla’s brand (or, as the pre-web generation would say, reputation). While the “bricking” problem is apparently built in to the battery technology of the Roadster, Model S and Model X, certain EVs, like the Nissan Leaf, are immune from this problem.

DeGusta’s article can be read here – we reached out to him, asking him to put us in contact with anyone who has owned a (or owns) a “bricked” Tesla. So far, we’ve yet to receive a response, but an interview with the involved parties would go along way to shedding further light on the story. The “bricking” problem certainly makes for a great story, but Reagan’s “trust but verify” mantra is essential whenever a story breaks online – it would be irresponsible of us to take this story completely at face value without further investigation. And progress has been slow on that front, as none of the parties have come forward, save for Tesla’s PR-tastic statement claiming that yes, “bricking” can happen.

 

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72 Comments on “Tesla And The Bricked Batteries: What’s Really Going On?...”


  • avatar
    indi500fan

    The “can’t be pushed” comment is interesting.
    Do they need juice to de-activate the park brake system?
    Surprised they don’t at least have a port to attach jumper cables to do that much.

    • 0 avatar
      Charles T

      Might have something to do with a direct linkage between motor and wheel; there might not be a freewheeling neutral setting.

      • 0 avatar
        indi500fan

        Why would an inactive electric motor be so difficult to turn? It’s a rotor on bearings. Even a piston engine (assuming a manual trans / clutch) can be turned over by pushing hard enough.

        This article makes it sounds like the wheels are locked up like some type of park brake or park pawl can’t be disengaged.

      • 0 avatar
        wumpus

        An electric motor is in theory the same as a generator. In practice it will be a rather inefficient generator, and likely eat up any power used to push it. Also, compared to a gas engine the torque (and thus engine braking) is huge at low rpms. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if “it can’t be pushed” is true (for any degree of push that won’t start to crush the car).

        ps. supposed to reply to indi500fan’s post, but no option given.

    • 0 avatar
      confused1096

      That may be exactly what happens. On air brake systems if there is no air pressure the emergency brakes will not disengage. When 18 wheelers are towed, the tow vehicle has to charge the air tanks. I assume there is some work around for serious accidents where this is not possible.

      Perhaps the Tesla has some similar sort of feature.

      /Yes, I know they don’t have air brakes.

      • 0 avatar
        indi500fan

        Investigated a bit on their website — this looks like the issue:

        Transmission :
        Single speed fixed gear with electrically-actuated parking lock mechanism and mechanical lubrication pump

  • avatar

    seems that your last link in the article has been “bricked”

  • avatar
    TOTitan

    I would like a technical explanation as to why a discharged Tesla battery cant be charged. I’ve discharged plenty of laptop batteries without issue, and as I understand it, the Tesla battery pack is made of bundles of similar batteries. Anybody got any ideas?

    • 0 avatar
      Wade.Moeller

      The laptop batteries weren’t completely discharged. The laptop may have used all of the power available in the battery, but there was still a charge.

      AFAIK, any rechargeable battery needs a little starter charge in order to be charged. When that little starter charge goes, you have a brick.

      • 0 avatar
        TOTitan

        Interesting, thanks Wade.Moeller. It sounds like Tesla needs to invest in some software that wont allow this to happen, even if it means automatically turning off all parasitic drains/systems once the battery is approaching brick status.

      • 0 avatar

        @TOTitan: They almost certainly have a similar protective feature in place, but if you hit that floor, then let the car sit for an extended period, it can self-discharge down to a problematic level.

        Not saying this is exactly what is happening here, just saying it’s possible.

  • avatar
    Wade.Moeller

    The linked article is showing a good amount of bias. Tesla owners are told to keep it plugged in. There are various warning systems when you hit the low charge. They warn about charging with an extension cord. Thus the batteries are dying due to owner neglect.

    Yet it’s a total failure on Tesla’s part that the cars get bricked. I’m thinking that the author is one of the owners of a bricked car and he wants someone else to pay for his mistake.

    • 0 avatar
      Wade.Moeller

      Nailed it.

      http://jalopnik.com/5887499/who-is-trying-to-smear-the-tesla-battery-problem-whistleblower

      “Drucker, as has now been leaked, was a one-time Tesla supporter and one of the owners of a bricked Tesla Roadster mentioned in the original article.”

  • avatar
    B.C.

    So … rechargeable batteries need to be charged in a specific manner or they will lose capacity otherwise. And you can’t trust the PR fodder from a car manufacturer. And a cash-strapped startup won’t eat the cost of replacing parts, having drafted their warranties to exclude the specific situation encountered. And Elon Musk thinks he’s Midas. And early adopters wonder why they’re getting the shaft.

    In other news, sky blue, water wet, etc.

  • avatar
    mac

    I would be fascinated if this were the case.

    To be more technical than using the word “bricking” over and over in quotes:

    The Tesla Roadster uses Lithium-Ion battery cells – just like your laptop, cell phone, MP3 player, tablet, camera, etc. Everything uses them nowadays.

    However, the fact that everyone uses them doesn’t mean that they’re inherently safe. Unlike the car batteries and AA cells that most of you are used to, Lithium cells need to be monitored pretty closely. Over-temp, over-volt, and over-current (in *or* out) all pretty quickly result in a “light on fire” failure mode. Under-volt, while not immediately dangerous, damages the cell such that if it is re-charged, it may light on fire unexpectedly at some point in the future while in an otherwise perfectly safe operating regime.

    So, Lithium-based battery packs generally have circuitry onboard that monitors the temperature and voltage of each part of the pack, as well as the current in and out of the pack – hereafter referred to as a Battery Protection System, or BPS. The BPS is ultimately in control of the battery.

    The BPS senses voltage to cut off charging when the battery is full, and also cuts the power to the device when the battery voltage drops low enough.

    “Bricking” in the sense described in the article, occurs when the battery is allowed to drain well below the BPS’s lower limit (for some reason), to the point that the BPS goes “nuh-uh, the voltage is *dangerously* low, it’s not safe to charge up again much less draw current out of”.

    I’m curious how these Tesla’s batteries were allowed to deplete so far. Perhaps the BPS has been programs with a *very* small gap between the “drained battery” voltage limit and “dangerously low” voltage limit, in order to get a little more range out of the car?

    Also, Nissan’s PR team is lying. I’m not aware of any sort of magic device that can conjure energy directly from the aether to counter the fact that all batteries self-discharge over time.

  • avatar
    Darkhorse

    What a wonderful future awaits us for EVs in Obama’s second term. CO2 emissions will decline while most of us will starve because we can’t get to the grocery store in our “bricked” EVs. I hate planned economies.

  • avatar

    It’s interesting Nissan claims this is a non-issue for the Leaf, since they take the fairly simple precaution of using software to prevent the battery from becoming fully discharged.

    I certainly sympathize with the owners and think that, for the sake of brand image if nothing else, Tesla should do something about this issue. However, the thought occurs to me that the low volume production sports car is a different beast from the Leaf, with different rules. I seem to remember our own Jack Baruth talking about self-destructing engines on recent Porsches, which cost in the area of $20k to fix, with no sympathy from the manufacturer. Ferraris, Lamborginis and even Lotuses are notoriously expensive to keep on the road.

    It should take a relatively simple reprogramming of the battery management software to fix this. Hopefully the problem will be fixed by Model S time.

    D

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    I know this will go over with the TTAC editorial staff like a lead balloon but, Jalopnik has this statement from Tesla on the issue published on their website:

    http://jalopnik.com/5887265/tesla-motors-devastating-design-problem

    …All automobiles require some level of owner care. For example, combustion vehicles require regular oil changes or the engine will be destroyed. Electric vehicles should be plugged in and charging when not in use for maximum performance. All batteries are subject to damage if the charge is kept at zero for long periods of time. However, Tesla avoids this problem in virtually all instances with numerous counter-measures. Tesla batteries can remain unplugged for weeks (even months), without reaching zero state of charge. Owners of Roadster 2.0 and all subsequent Tesla products can request that their vehicle alert Tesla if SOC falls to a low level. All Tesla vehicles emit various visual and audible warnings if the battery pack falls below 5 percent SOC. Tesla provides extensive maintenance recommendations as part of the customer experience…

    They also have extensive links to the Roadster owner’s manual with reference to battery care.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert Schwartz

      In other words: “It is not our fault that these people are too stupid to own a our car.”

      There is a winning a strategy.

      • 0 avatar
        APaGttH

        And their analogy is flawed. I can park a car indefinitely (in theory) and not have to change the oil. Yes, eventually it will break down and turn into sludge – but if I flush, drain and fill in place, I should be good.

        The analogy would be more like, “Tesla owners need to be smarter and must realize they need to keep the engine running all the time to prevent a fault with the batteries.”

        The better analogy would be don’t let your gas tank ever go to empty and don’t go more than a week without running the engine for an extended period of time. 99.9% of the world would not buy a car that had those kind of requirements/restrictions.

        And lets remember – recently the lead engineering and director of chassis design both abruptly quit Tesla, just before the Model S is supposed to see the light of day. People don’t quit just months before their baby is born unless they are pushed out or have serious disagreements with where the project is going.

        All in all this doesn’t bode well for the Model S.

  • avatar
    Nooly

    $250.00 Hobby grade radio controlled cars have a low voltage cutoff for their Lithium Polymer battery packs to prevent this very damage. I’m a little unsure why Tesla can’t figure out how to prevent this type of damage from occuring.

  • avatar
    Dr. Kenneth Noisewater

    Or, they could dedicate 30-40% of the battery as a buffer to maintain an elevated minimum state of charge, like the Volt.. Of course, that would impact advertised range somewhat..

    • 0 avatar
      APaGttH

      No, no, no, no, no, the Volt is evil, only has a 25 mile range, will leave you for dead in the Lincoln Tunnel at rush hour, and explodes when you plug it in.

      Shoot, don’t you watch FoxNews?

      30 lashes for even mentioning the Volt as having any superior solution to a Tesla or any other electrified vehicle – or any other vehicle for that matter.

      Everyone knows a 100K mile Yugo driven through upstate New York winters is better than a Volt. I read it from the B&B, so it has to be true!

      Sheeze.

  • avatar
    daviel

    Why hasn’t Tesla said anything? This makes the Volt look like a better deal.

    • 0 avatar
      APaGttH

      They have…

      Statement from Tesla on the issue published on Jalopnik:

      http://jalopnik.com/5887265/tesla-motors-devastating-design-problem

      …All automobiles require some level of owner care. For example, combustion vehicles require regular oil changes or the engine will be destroyed. Electric vehicles should be plugged in and charging when not in use for maximum performance. All batteries are subject to damage if the charge is kept at zero for long periods of time. However, Tesla avoids this problem in virtually all instances with numerous counter-measures. Tesla batteries can remain unplugged for weeks (even months), without reaching zero state of charge. Owners of Roadster 2.0 and all subsequent Tesla products can request that their vehicle alert Tesla if SOC falls to a low level. All Tesla vehicles emit various visual and audible warnings if the battery pack falls below 5 percent SOC. Tesla provides extensive maintenance recommendations as part of the customer experience…

  • avatar
    redmondjp

    As an electrical engineer and a former EV owner, I must concur with the cautionary tale here. Tesla must have done something wrong in the design of their on-board charger if it CAN’T EVEN MAINTAIN a minimum-safe battery charge level if used with an extension cord! Sure, given the voltage drop at the end of a 100′ 16-gauge extension cord, you’re not going to get a lot of energy out, but it should be able to keep the battery pack from flatlining for cripe’s sake!

    This car is still a plaything for the 1%. You can take all of the cars that I have purchased over the past ten years and it still isn’t close to the price of a Tesla battery pack.

    And not being able to freewheel the vehicle with a dead battery, well that just takes the cake!

    • 0 avatar

      In fairness, what ~130k car isn’t a plaything for the 1%?

    • 0 avatar
      asapuntz

      > This car is still a plaything for the 1%.

      the Lotus body kind of telegraphs that, right?

      if people want more of an “appliance” with big-company backing, there’s at least 2 options. Much more vanilla, but exotics tend to require unusual care.

      fwiw, I’ve heard modern diesels can incur serious repair bills if allowed to run the fuel “dry”. some kind of cut-out feature seems in order there too.

    • 0 avatar
      Alexdi

      That was my first thought. You can push over a thousand watts through a 100′ extension cord. How could that be inadequate? Exactly what pace of self-discharge does this thing have?

  • avatar
    Carlson Fan

    “And not being able to freewheel the vehicle with a dead battery, well that just takes the cake!”

    Ever own a Toyota? Reminds me of that wretched Highlander we had that wouldn’t allow the shifter to go into neutral with a dead battery.

    • 0 avatar
      smokingclutch

      If the Highlander is like other Toyotas and Lexus, there is a shift lock override hidden under a little plastic panel.

    • 0 avatar
      Carl in NH

      Hey Carlson Fan:

      So, my Highlander battery dies and can’t be jumped, I get to a store to buy a replacement battery. A hassle, but a straightforward solution for low money.

      Nothing you can do about a dead Tesla except ship the car to them to replace the entire battery pack for 40 large.

      Not the same at all.

  • avatar
    redseca2

    This reminds me of my early 1960′s Mercedes Benz, with one of the first general production fuel injection systems that was virtually all mechanical, two wires to a thermostat and that was it for modern electricity. The owner’s manual stated very clearly, several times, “DO NOT LET THE CAR RUN COMPLETELY OUT OF FUEL”.

    If you did manage to run out of gas, you stood the chance of making your multi-ton teutonic toy into almost a brick, because the vacuum lines would stop having a vacuum, the fuel lines would start having a vacuum, you were a dumkoff and the only solution was to “HAVE THE CAR TOWED TO A CERTIFIED MERCEDES BENZ DEALER” for repairs.

    I certainly know that for the 15 years I kept the car I never let it run low on gas.

    Finally, in the late 1990′s as drove down the Pacific Coast Highway a tiny little red little came on in the instrument pod that I had never ever seen before. Accessing the owner’s manual I discovered that this was the fabled “low fuel warning light” that had been waiting patiently for about 400,000 miles and 35 years to have its’ day with destiny. Needless to say, unlike Tesla, Mercedes-Benz had “programmed” enough warning time into the low fuel warning light so that I could get to a gas station.

  • avatar
    GS650G

    It’s stunning that Tesla didn’t design a system that uncorks the batteries from the car when the charge gets to a low point to prevent or at least slow the discharge. The replacement battery plan costs 12K which is probably the true cost of the battery pack.

    Equally stunning is the idea that this is either the customers fault entirely or somehow related to not topping off the oil in a gas engine. I’ve never heard of a car being neglected by not driving it and merely parking but when 40K is on the line new thinking is called for.

    Tesla is going to have a rough year after this.

    • 0 avatar
      Wade.Moeller

      If you have a 1st generation Honda Insight, you must drive it at least every week. Failure to do so will cause the charges of the individual cells to get out of balance. The battery management system is set to notice this. It will set a code that the battery is deteriorated and the battery will be unusable.

      Of course the battery is 1/10th the price of the Tesla battery.

  • avatar
    redseca2

    These first Tesla cars are simply toys for the well to do and may have suffered for it. How many spent a year in a garage while the owner was at one of their other homes?

    So I would not be surprised if this problem is a result of toys being set aside in favor of the new toy of the month.

    That said, I am going to my camera collection right now to pull the batteries out of my old Leica, the Contax bodies and the medium formats that I haven’t used in years.

  • avatar
    redseca2

    Now in the daily newspapers:

    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2012/02/22/BUJM1NB2MA.DTL

  • avatar
    niky

    While it is expected that some owners will eventually find a way to brick an electric car, despite whatever safeguards the manufacturer puts in, some of those stories are a bit much.

    Note:

    *As a second Roadster owner discovered, the Tesla battery system can completely discharge even when the vehicle is plugged in. This owner’s car was plugged into a 100-foot long extension cord for an extended period. The length of this extension cord evidently reduced the electric current to a level insufficient to charge the Tesla, resulting in another “bricked” Roadster.

    -A 100 foot extension cord that reduces voltage to the point that it can’t charge the car? You’re talking about wire that probably has more oxide than copper in it.

    *A third bricked Tesla Roadster apparently sits in its owner’s garage in Newport Beach, California. That owner allegedly had a similar prior incident with a BMW-produced electric vehicle. He claimed BMW replaced that vehicle, but Tesla refuses to do the same. The owner either couldn’t afford or didn’t want to pay Tesla the $40,000 (or more) to fix his car.

    -Sounds like a local guy who had a “Lemon” Ford SUV, who went and sold it to buy a “Lemon” BMW motorbike… which “mysteriously” caught fire. Any time we’re talking claims and cash-back from two different manufacturers, that raises red flags.

    —–

    It’s likely that Tesla allows the battery to deplete much further than Nissan does, simply to meet range claims. A big no-no. What Toyota showed with the Prius is that very conservative battery use and management keeps those babies happy for much longer than otherwise… a philosophy all hybrid/EV vehicles should subscribe to.

  • avatar
    lw

    I think electric cars are just a fad, but I have to say that expectations are way too high. The mass produced cars that we drive have been improved via thousands of iterations / design changes over decades.

    These small time EV startups have none of these benefits. An extension cord for a lamp should be enough to stop it from bricking, but apparently not in this version of the product.

    The good news is that I can stop saving for a Tesla. Maybe I’ll buy a house instead.. LOL.

  • avatar
    pgcooldad

    So for the price of a Tesla replacement battery pack one could buy a brand spankin new Chevy Volt. A zero miles, technologically advanced Chevy Volt.

    :)

  • avatar
    gslippy

    I believe this as much as I believe most internet sensations. Maybe Elon Musk’s nemesis Martin Eberhard is behind it all. Maybe it’s real, maybe it’s not.

    However, if this has happened, Tesla should take the “Tylenol” approach and admit to a problem, and just replace the battery packs for free.

    Replacing a few million dollars’ worth in battery packs (MSRP pricing, anyway) would buy a lot more than that in public good will.

  • avatar
    CJinSD

    “Tesla provides extensive maintenance recommendations as part of the customer experience.” – Tesla PR

    Sounds like getting bent over for $40K can be part of the customer experience too. Poetic justice at its best.

    • 0 avatar
      lw

      The answer is simple.. A full time electrical engineer to maintain your fleet of EVs! I’ll offer my services for $80k a year plus full room/board and of course a large garage for me to work in.

  • avatar
    oldyak

    This is so much nonsense….
    Do you REALLY think the Tesla owners do any sort of maintenance check/service on these cars? These are ‘disposable’ the people that bought them.
    the whole thing sounds like a bad press release.
    In fact the whole EV vs.ICE thing is a joke for real working people.
    EV is a cool niche..like steam cars..turbine cars..air cars…
    TOO expensive for the average car buyer.
    SPARK PLUGS,DIESEL INJECTORS RULE!!!!

    • 0 avatar
      niky

      No more disposable than a burning Ferrari…

      -

      This issue is way overhyped. I see that other outlets are starting to question some of the other supposed failures, too.

  • avatar
    dvp cars

    ……..it’s going to happen sooner or later anyway, but unless the Tesla people get in front of this issue by tomorrow AM, the mainstream press are going to be having Tesla Toast for lunch.

  • avatar
    vanpressburg

    EV was introduce like a miracle and it is not a miracle at all.
    Where does the energy for EV come from?
    Simple question !
    Germany gave up nuclear energy and is building coal energy,
    but coal is worse for global warming than oil !!!
    All EV are good for environmental green energy lobby and “businessmen” like Al Gore.

    • 0 avatar
      PJ McCombs

      “Where does the energy for EV come from?”

      The difference between ICE and EV vehicles is that with the latter, the energy source at least a variable. If the sources are cleaner in 20, 50, 100 years, the car consuming the juice gets cleaner. Can’t change where the gas in the ICE car is coming from. I don’t want an EV now, but I suspect I will in a couple decades, not least because they’ll be easier and more fun ownership prospects than today.

    • 0 avatar
      Dr. Kenneth Noisewater

      I can tell you where energy for EV DOESN’T come from: oil despots.

      15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers weren’t coal miners or nucular technicians..

  • avatar
    joe_thousandaire

    - “the “bricking” problem is apparently built in to the battery technology of the Roadster, Model S and Model X, certain EVs, like the Nissan Leaf, are immune from this problem.”

    Perhaps that’s because as arse-ugly as I think the Leaf is, it is made by an actual car company and not a billionaire playboy con-artist pumping his stock up to a thousand times the company’s worth.

    Fisker will be dead and buried by years-end, lets hope Tesla follows sooner rather than later for the sake of any would-be investors and purchasers.

    • 0 avatar
      DC Bruce

      My point exactly. Given the complexity that is the modern automobile (even aside from the powerplant)and given that there are a number of companies with tremendous accumulated experience in the construction of automobiles that consumers can actually use, frequently without destroying themselves or rendering their vehicles useless, what genius bought into the idea that some Internet billionaires (who have zero experience making any kind of physical product) could do a better job at this than, say, GM? Not saying the big guys are perfect, but I think the odds of experience favor them over some people who experienced a windfall and now think they are Masters of the Universe.

      • 0 avatar
        jmo

        “what genius bought into the idea that some Internet billionaires (who have zero experience making any kind of physical product) could do a better job at this than, say, GM?”

        What genius bought into the idea that some upstart Japanese loom company could eventually drive GM into bankruptcy? Oh, loom inventor and entrepreneur Sakichi Toyoda…

  • avatar
    FJ60LandCruiser

    Anyone who has built an RC racing truck with a brushless motor knows that those systems have a built-in low voltage cutoff when the batteries are near drained–to keep the motor from destroying expensive LiPo batteries by draining them below the minimal voltage.

    How a high end electric roadster doesn’t have technology on board that protects its batteries from self-destructing but a 100-200 dollar electric motor on something that is nothing more than a toy is pretty lame.

    Maybe Tesla needs a bailout so that its owners can take the money and run.

  • avatar
    Russycle

    Oh Derek, just as I was going to sing your praises for pointing out the atrociousness of using “brand” as synonym for reputation, you go and “reach out” to DeGusta. I hate that expression with a white hot passion.


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