By on June 21, 2013

While watching the video of Elon Musk demonstrating Tesla’s new battery swap mechanism that will be installed at the EV company’s ‘supercharger’ stations (Musk prefers to call them “Tesla stations”) I remembered something that Tom Wolfe wrote about air-cooled Volkswagens in his 1968 compilation, The Pumphouse Gang.

[A]ll up and down the coast from Los Angeles to Baja California kids can go to one of these beach towns and live the complete surfing life. They take off from home and get to the beach, and if they need a place to stay, well, somebody rents a garage for twenty bucks a month and everybody moves, girls and boys. Furniture it’s like one means, you know appropriates furniture from here and there. It’s like the Volkswagen buses a lot of kids now use as beach wagons instead of woodies. Woodies are old station wagons, usually Fords, with wooden bodies, from back before 1953. One of the great things about a Volkswagen bus is that one can exchange motors in about three minutes. A good VW motor exchanger can go up to a parked Volkswagen, and a few ratchets of the old wrench here and its up and out and he has a new motor. There must be a few nice old black panthers around wondering why their nice hubby-mommy VWs don’t’ run so good anymore — but — then — they — are — probably — puzzled — about — a — lot of things. Yes.

The reason why it’s so easy to steal a Beetle (or Bus) engine is that they’re mounted from underneath the car. Jack up the Bug, put a floor jack under the engine, remove the four bolts that hold the engine to the bellhousing on the transaxle, disconnect the throttle cable and fuel lines, and roll away the engine.

As you can see from the video, the Tesla S’ battery pack is also mounted on the underside of that car and I’m sure that a Tesla station’s battery swap machine isn’t the only way those batteries can be removed. Dealer mechanics must have the ability to remove and replace batteries as well, using conventional tools, lifts and hoists. I’m wondering what kinds of systems or technology Tesla has implemented in how their Model S battery pack is mounted and connected to the car in order to prevent battery theft. Otherwise, like the owners of Wolfe’s nice hubby-mommy VW’s, some Tesla S owners might come out to their cars to find that they don’t run so good anymore.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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23 Comments on “Will Thieves Target Tesla Battery Packs?...”

  • avatar

    the weight and size difference between an old VW motor and a Tesla battery pack are probably significant. Along with a slight difference in location – the VW motor being in the back of the car with the Tesla battery pack underneath.

    • 0 avatar

      I know this is an old article, but I felt it needs mentioning that the 85kwh battery pack weighs 1,323 lbs. and is roughly 5 ft x 8 ft x 4 in.

      Now tell us how easy it is to steal one.

  • avatar

    There will be some theft as the packs are inherently valuable but here I think Tesla’s deep integration of electronics will limit the theft of packs.

    Among other things that would be relatively easy to integrate would be IDs in the chips that control the packs (both to passively ID and actively disable if ID does not match). Also, even if one got a stolen pack, one would not use it at a quick swap as it would quickly show up as stolen or, if some sort of ID were wiped, as not matching the ID it should have. Which means that, as packs, they would only be useful for a Tesla driver who knew he would ONLY recharge and never swap. Finally, chipped IDs could be encrypted at almost no cost so it wouldn’t be simple to copy a valid ID to a stolen pack.

    To state the obvious, if doors can be locked, I suspect packs can be easily locked as well to avoid more opportunistic thefts. Not prevent all but avoid a quick jack-up job.

    Put simply, if the old VWs had an authentication system to verify that an engine was valid for the car, we would not have seen these quick swap outs. That technology is here and probably costs only a few cents to implement.

    • 0 avatar

      I would think that recycling the quite expensive materials contained within the battery pack would be pretty easy profit pickings.


      • 0 avatar

        My cousin is an elevator contractor in NYC. They had a new elevator carriage stolen from a job site. It was made of brass, weighed a ton, and cost a figure only possible because it was going into a government project. They found it at the local scrap recycler. The thieves sold it for about an eleventh of what it cost, but it was found money for them. In other words, you may have a point.

    • 0 avatar
      schmitt trigger

      You are absolutely correct about the battery packs having electronic IDs buried deep within the battery controller’s bowels, that would require authentication before actually supplying any juice to the host vehicle.
      That would preclude the battery packs from being used as such…but as other poster has mentioned, these packs have some very valuable metals that could be recycled, usually for a nickel on the dollar, but it is still easy money for thieves.

  • avatar

    How do people stop people from stealing their spare wheels off the back or from under their SUV’s?

    • 0 avatar

      There are locking mechanisms, but it still happens. In San Diego, there were/are gas thefts from pickup trucks with big tanks too.

    • 0 avatar

      You people live in some sketch areas, I leave keys in half my vehicles, don’t even pay attention to my spares.

      • 0 avatar
        Japanese Buick

        I have relatives who live in a small town dominated by a large state prison. Everyone leaves their cars unlocked with the keys inside. Because as my uncle explained “If one of them escapes, you don’t want him knocking on your door looking for the keys.” Plus it’s in their best interests for escapees to get out of town ASAP

        • 0 avatar

          thats a good one.
          And u damn well know it should they knock on your door u better have the keys and a few sandwiches ready.
          These are the last people on earth u wanna to say no. Or that’ll be your last word spoken.

          • 0 avatar

            Usually they don’t have weapons if they just escaped prison, Not always the case that one would be prepared for such an event, but given the chance….

    • 0 avatar

      Spare tires go quickly around here unless you have a chain or a locking bolt. Preferably a bolt, as a padlock and chain are no guarantee.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    I would think that stealing car engines from the Black Panthers in 1968 wasn’t exactly the best idea in the world.

  • avatar
    Fred Smith

    Let’s see if they track batteries as closely as NY Times reporters…

  • avatar

    It’s not hard to imagine an interlock system inside the car that would prevent such an opportune removal without breaking into the car and setting off the car alarm.

  • avatar

    Simple: limit Tesla use to the confines of gated communities and/or private, locked garages.

  • avatar
    White Shadow

    There’s no doubt in my mind that Tesla has thought about battery pack theft. That said, I’d be shocked if there isn’t some sort of locking mechanism that would prevent (or at least make it very difficult) the theft of the battery pack.

  • avatar

    My understanding is with this Tesla battery swapping, you have to go back to the station where you left your original battery to have it swapped back in, else you are charged for a new battery pack.

    So, you have to return to where you did your original swap and retrieve your original battery pack.

    It won’t be like exchanging propane tanks at a Blue Rino rack.

  • avatar

    The good news: If this actually ever becomes a problem, then we’ll know that EV’s have *arrived*.

  • avatar

    At least in Vancouver I heard thieves do steal catalytic converters, they worth 150ish. So if they know what to do is relatively quick money.
    These batt may weight a bit but a few hundred bucks for a quick job. That will be enuf for a quick habit fix!

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