Ball Joints Out of Whack at Tesla and Daily Kanban

TTAC Staff
by TTAC Staff

by Mark Stevenson and Bozi Tatarevic

A day after former TTAC editor-in-chief and current Daily Kanban blogger Edward Neidermeyer hit out at Tesla regarding suspension failures and Tesla’s supposed customer bullying through a goodwill agreement on Wednesday, the electric vehicle manufacturer hit back.

According to Neidermeyer’s post, a 2013 Tesla Model S owner on the Tesla Motors Owners forum experienced a ball joint failure at around the 70,000-mile mark, and the owner referred to Tesla for a fix. The automaker offered what’s commonly known in the industry as “goodwill assistance,” which covered half the $3,100 total cost of the repair, as the Model S was out of warranty.

However, the vehicle owner and Neidermeyer took exception to part of the written goodwill agreement as it seems to include a non-disclosure clause, which Neidermeyer contends could dissuade other Tesla issues from reporting issues to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and subvert the federal vehicle issue reporting process.

Is Tesla silencing its customers via threat of litigation? And is this ball joint issue even a problem in the first place?

Pass the ball joint

At the center of the story is the detailed failure of a ball joint from a 2013 Tesla Model S.

The report of upper ball joint failure started in a thread on the Tesla Motors Club message board titled “ Suspension Problem on Model S,” where the poster — known as gpcordaro — stated that his left-front hub assembly had separated from the upper control arm and rendered his car inoperable.

After an inspection performed by Tesla employees, the EV manufacturer informed him that the “ball joint bolt was loose and caused the wear” and deemed the damage “not normal,” the poster states. He also posted pictures of a severely rusted ball joint that had separated from the control arm.

The joint appears to have become contaminated at some point, causing the damage. The ball joint’s condition is consistent with water and salt contamination and usually the result of a torn or missing ball joint boot.

There are multiple ways that the ball joint boot could become damaged, ranging from a manufacturing fault that may not have sealed it properly to abusive driving in adverse conditions.

Modern ball joints usually last in excess of 100,000 miles unless they are manufactured improperly or exposed to extreme conditions. Damage can usually be detected by a clunking sound when going over bumps or by a shimmy in the steering due to the gap inside the socket. Continued driving on such a ball joint will result in the metal further wearing away and a failure similar to that described by the poster.

The failure of the Tesla’s upper ball joint requires further investigation to determine whether it is a systemic issue or an isolated one. The design of the ball joint and how the suspension is loaded all play a role in whether failure is imminent in salty conditions.

A similar case of failure in the 2000 to 2003 Dodge Durango and Dakota models resulted in a recall after the NHTSA stepped in. The determined failure in that case was the result of using a two piece ball joint that could separate and come out of the socket. It was fixed by replacing it with a one piece design. DaimlerChrysler stated that it would conduct the recall at the request of NHTSA but would not consider it a safety defect.

gpcordaro explained in the forum thread that his Tesla was driven on a rutted dirt road in Pennsylvania, in addition to paved roads covered in salt and brine during winter months that he’d likely traverse with the car. It’s possible that driving on a rutted road would cause damage to the ball joint boot, rendering it useless.

Considering his vehicle was out of warranty when the ball joint failed, the Tesla owner was on the hook for the repair, but the case was sent to Tesla management for goodwill consideration.

Uppercut with lower ball joint

Tesla released a Technical Service Bulletin (TSB) for the lower control arms on the Model S that instructed its service centers to add wedge-lock washers to lower ball joints in order to tighten them up and prevent premature wear of the ball joint and knuckle. Daily Kanban tied this TSB to the failure described by gpcordaro and stated that Tesla might be following a GM-style path of using TSB’s instead of recalls to resolve safety issues.

While the TSB shows that control arms and knuckles might be damaged to a point that they need to be replaced, Tesla noted that it considers it a non-safety-related issue. The TSB requires further investigation as it may indeed pose a safety risk if the knuckle or lower ball joint break.

However, the TSB is completely unrelated to this particular failure. It details lower ball joint issues, and not the upper ball joint that’s described by gpcordaro.

Goodwill isn’t just for Volkswagen diesel owners

In the last few months, we’ve heard a lot about goodwill in relation to Volkswagen’s diesel emissions scandal. However, there’s another kind of goodwill that’s more prevalent and not as often discussed.

Goodwill, in dealer and repair shop circles, typically consists of performing maintenance and repair work for free, or providing a financial benefit to a customer experiencing a recurring issue. A repair shop, dealer, or manufacturer may offer goodwill for common issues that arise outside of the warranty period for a particular model to maintain or increase customer satisfaction. It’s handled on a case-by-case basis, and usually takes customer loyalty into consideration.

In the case of this Model S, Tesla made a goodwill offer to cover half the cost of the ball joint repair — with strings attached.

It’s not uncommon for a goodwill offer to be extended with a conditional agreement. A simple Google search will turn up results for boilerplate templates that include certain conditions in exchange for accepting the offer. Those conditions exist because sometimes consequences arise from performing goodwill repairs.

However, the Tesla goodwill agreement includes something else entirely: a non-disclosure clause:

The Goodwill is being provided to you without any admission of liability or wrongdoing or acceptance of any facts by Tesla, and shall not be treated as or considered evidence of Tesla’s liability with respect to any claim or incidents. You agree to keep confidential our provision of the Goodwill, the terms of this agreement and the incidents or claims leading or related to our provision of the Goodwill. In accepting the Goodwill, you hereby release and discharge Tesla and related persons or entities from any and all claims or damages arising out of or in any way connected with any claims or incidents leading or related to our provision of the Goodwill. You further agree that you will not commence, participate or voluntarily aid in any action at law or in equity or any legal proceeding against Tesla or related persons or entities based upon facts related to the claims or incidents leading to or related to this Goodwill.

It’s that non-disclosure clause that Neidermeyer argues undermines NHTSA’s ability to act on defects since, as he puts it, the clause “represents a potential assault by Tesla Motors on the right of vehicle owners to report defects to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s complaint database, the auto safety regulators sole means of discovering defects independent of the automakers they regulate.”

NHTSA Communications Director Brian Thomas, when speaking with Neidermeyer, explained, “NHTSA is examining the potential suspension issue on the Tesla Model S, and is seeking additional information from vehicle owners and the company.

“NHTSA learned of Tesla’s troublesome nondisclosure agreement last month. The agency immediately informed Tesla that any language implying that consumers should not contact the agency regarding safety concerns is unacceptable, and NHTSA expects Tesla to eliminate any such language. Tesla representatives told NHTSA that it was not their intention to dissuade consumers from contacting the agency. NHTSA always encourages vehicle owners concerned about potential safety defects to contact the agency by filing a vehicle safety complaint at SaferCar.gov.”

Tesla, in a blog post titled “ A Grain of Salt,” which attacks the story and Neidermeyer, posted a different take on the language used in its goodwill agreement on Thursday.

From the post:

The basic point is to ensure that Tesla doesn’t do a good deed, only to have that used against us in court for further gain. These situations are very rare, but have sometimes occurred in the past. We will take a look at this situation and will work with NHTSA to see if we can handle it differently, but one thing is clear: this agreement never even comes close to mentioning NHTSA or the government and it has nothing to do with trying to stop someone from communicating with NHTSA or the government about our cars.

It’s worth noting that while the agreement doesn’t necessarily gag a customer from speaking to the NHTSA specifically, it’s ambiguous and doesn’t limit the people or organizations a person entering into this goodwill agreement aren’t allowed to contact.

That said, it could easy be seen as a way to dissuade those who receive goodwill assistance from Tesla from reporting issues to the NHTSA.

Whether the goodwill agreement has any teeth is another issue entirely.

We asked our aptly named TTAC contributor and lawyer Andrew Justus for his take.

“The agreement won’t likely be enforceable to prevent customers from discussing the fact their vehicle was repaired by Tesla or the nature of their repairs. If such an agreement was enforceable, automakers could keep their warranty repairs secret from consumers and regulators. It would also prevent customers from using state lemon law remedies.”

Andrew then emphasized, “If lemon laws could be waived, some other automaker would have tried it by now.”

And any possible litigation arising from such a breach of contract would be a public relations nightmare for Tesla.

“Pursuing litigation to stop someone from talking is fraught with peril,” said David Scott of Hansell McLaughlin Advisory, a public relations firm that specializes in executive-level crisis management.

“There’s a false notion of control on behalf of certain companies. The threat of a lawsuit sends a very strong message of intimidation. The idea of an over-looming threat just doesn’t bode well for a company. This is a hyper-vigilant legal team trying to protect themselves against people saying bad things.”

Instead, the best plan is to communicate the issues, and how you plan to fix them.

“It is a very transparent world. Your actions will be found out eventually. Tell people what the problem is. Tell them who is impacted. That puts everyone’s mind at ease,” said Scott.

And that’s what Tesla has done, though the EV manufacturer’s press team or Elon Musk himself seem to have gone overboard in their portrayal of Neidermeyer.

From Tesla:

We don’t know if Mr. Niedermayer’s (sic) motivation is simply to set a world record for axe-grinding or whether he or his associates have something financial to gain by negatively affecting Tesla’s stock price, but it is important to highlight that there are several billion dollars in short sale bets against Tesla. This means that there is a strong financial incentive to greatly amplify minor issues and to create false issues from whole cloth.

TTAC Staff
TTAC Staff

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  • Fastdriver Fastdriver on Jul 13, 2017

    $3,100 for a ball joint! I really want to see Tesla succeed, but frankly, that's beyond crazy. $500 for ball joint, maybe $750. Tesla needs to get in-front of supporting maintenance for a reasonable cost. That's one of their clear advantages, given the reduced complexity of their vehicles. e.g. I can easily buy a Porsche, but if I have an engine problem, what a financial nightmare... and seeing how Porsche's handled the IMS bearing issue, what should a person expect? Tesla has every opportunity to show the class, design responsibility, and reasonable support of e.g. Toyota, or Honda, or even GM - in making wear components, and replacement knowledge available. There will be 150k mile Teslas... a lot more in the next 2-3 years ... who will fix these cars? And will there be an aftermarket for some of the non-electrical parts?

  • Lightspeed Lightspeed on Jun 26, 2018

    I have a Lexus that's used up more ball joints in 280,000KM than my three previous GM cars did in a total of 800,000KM (not to mention other suspension parts).

  • Analoggrotto Colorado baby!
  • Rob Woytuck Weight is also a factor for ferries which for instance in British Columbia, Canada are part of the highway system.
  • Ajla I guess some people were big fans of Milli Vanilli and Real Dolls (don't Google that at work) but I have a very large problem with the fake engine sounds and fake transmissions. If you turn them off does it stay off forever or does it turn back on whenever you go into sport mode?
  • Probert That X frame was a killer. No nostalgia for these things to be honest. Yup - life of the party....
  • Kjhkjlhkjhkljh kljhjkhjklhkjh starting to see the concern about how many pro Hyundai blurbs and bits are popping up on the site. It is a very detailed review and well written ...
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