Tesla Model 3 Owners Are Complaining Their Cars Mysteriously Conked Out

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems
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tesla model 3 owners are complaining their cars mysteriously conked out

It’s been said that the true test of Tesla’s “affordable” Model 3 won’t be the car’s production rate — it will be initial build quality. A slower than predicted production ramp-up is already a reality for Tesla and its hundreds of thousands of reservation holders, but, as the automaker reaches beyond the existing group of well-monied brand diehards, glitches and reliability issues will pose a larger threat to the brand’s reputation.

With the Model 3 now coming off the Fremont assembly line in larger numbers (though not as large as predicted), it seems we have a recurring quality issue, if you want to call it that. Many Model 3 owners — who, for obvious reasons, are not longtime Model 3 owners — are taking to the internet to report a strange problem that leaves their car dead in the water and in need of a tow.

Just take a look at this thread on the Tesla Motors Club forum. Started on Tuesday by a Model 3 owner in Napa, California, the string of responses is eye-opening.

“Was backing out of our driveway and when I shifted from R to D warnings came up telling me to pull over, and not to drive,” the original poster writes. “I was on a steep hill pointed down, and the car just barely moved. It would not shift into N to allow me to freewheel it down to where I could be off to the side. The warnings then said that if I exited the vehicle, and locked it, then unlocked it and reentered it, that might clear it up. No such luck. It felt to me like it was locked into ReGen.”

Roadside assistance could not get the vehicle into the EV equivalent of running condition, so it was towed to a Tesla service center 50 miles distant.

An L.A. Model 3 owner immediately responds with a similar story. This poster took delivery of their vehicle on March 23rd:

I go to drive it this morning and I see a flashing message on my screen that alternates between ‘Rear motor disabled’, ‘Car may not start’, and ‘Car needs service’. The car wouldn’t start at all. It tells me that the problem may be fixed if I exit the vehicle and enter again, so I do that, but it does not fix the issue. I call Tesla and the lady on the phone has me reboot the car, but that also does not fix the issue.

While the owner claims the mystery glitch hasn’t caused him or her to fall out of love with the car, the comment prompted another response — this time from an Altadena, California owner:

It happened to me first night with the car as i was pulling into the garage and repositioning. Switched from reverse to drive and as soon as I pressed the accelerator the car put the motor in protection mode and behaved as the [original poster].

Doing the suggested steps as the OP and nothing. Two button, and two-button-brake reboots did not help, either Since the car was halfway in the garage and it was midnight, I figured I should put it in tow mode and push it in and deal with it in the morning. After I put it in tow mode, and on a “IT Crowd” “have you turned it off and on again?” whim, I decided to take it out of tow mode by stepping on the brake. The fault cleared and I was able to drive it around with no issues.

This poster was not able to replicate the warning messages after the car received an over-the-air firmware update (4.9), leading to the conclusion that a “bug” in the as-delivered firmware was/is the culprit.

On Wednesday morning, a Model 3 owner from northern Virginia posted the following:

This just happened to me this morning. Did all the same steps as OP and then Tesla sent out a flatbed. Currently at Service Center. I’ll update on what they tell me as well. I did read on another thread that it could be the 12v battery. I guess we’ll see. Also, I’m on firmware 2018.10.5

Later that morning, from an Orlando Model 3 owner:

Wow and I thought it was just me. This exact thing happened to me last week. Was driving on a local road going 25 mph and all of a sudden the car just stopped with the same messages, rear drive disabled and pull over. I tried the reboot, get out of the car and back in, etc. and nothing worked. Tesla came and towed it, gave me a loaner, and about a week later it was fixed. They replaced some fuse and the entire drive unit. Sure hope this isn’t a sign of more than just a couple bad drive units…

All of these owners took delivery of their vehicles within the last seven weeks or so. As some await a service center diagnosis, the forum posters then entered into a discussion of whether software or hardware was to blame, without a clear answer.

One owner called attention to a post from February 17th, where another owner reported the same vehicle behavior and related messages, followed by other strange quirks (like the car not “going to sleep” after being parked). As we’ve come to expect from online discussion boards, one Tesla fan chastised the owner, claiming legitimate discussion about vehicle problems might feed the “trolls.” (This didn’t go over well with many of the others.)

While the owner in this case initially suspected the car’s 12-volt battery, the actual cause was more extensive. “The drive unit DID in fact fail which they say caused the DC converter to malfunction,” the poster wrote following an update from Tesla Service. “The new drive unit arrived today and they will be replacing that and then testing the DC converter to see if it charges the 12V battery.”

The L.A. poster quoted earlier eventually learned the afflicted vehicle would need a new drive unit and fuse.

Late Wednesday, this post appeared on Reddit’s Tesla Motors page, describing an identical experience with a Model 3 just two weeks after delivery.

What does this all add up to? If it remains a problem experienced by just a handful of owners, well, not much. An anomaly that came and went. But, as even some of the TMC forum posters stated, this many identical issues in such a relatively small number of vehicles is enough to raise a red flag. Early initial quality proved to be a serious issue for the Model S and X. And, while later updates can indeed fix an early problem, automakers — going back decades — have discovered you can only make a first impression once. Ask Ford and Chevrolet about that.

Last month brought a CNBC report, based on sources within Tesla, that the automaker’s February production slowdown stemmed from the need to “rework” roughly 40 percent of Model 3 parts, raising the spectre of quality issues in early builds. The defect rate was high enough to keep production levels suppressed, one Tesla engineer claimed. Tesla denied that any of its employees were doing rework on any production vehicles. Quality control is rigorous, the company’s spokesperson assured the media outlet.

If this devotion to quality control is the same one that let a Model S with a clearly torn A-pillar slip by last year, then we don’t see why anyone else wouldn’t also take the company’s word with a grain of salt. Even a small one.

Tesla needs the Model 3 to make the company money and cement its status as a viable automaker for the masses. There’s still hundreds of thousands of reservation holders out there, many of then holding a voucher for a $44,000-plus Long Range model, and delivery delays are arguably more likely to cause them to back out than stories or online posts about quality issues. I could be wrong about that. Still, as a fledgling company pushes the volume ceiling past any previous level in a bid to get a new product to buyers ASAP, it only makes sense to be on guard for quality issues.

We’ll keep an eye on this. It’s likely some of the more fanatical Tesla devotees will accuse us of piling on an automaker that’s just trying to make the world a cleaner, safer place, as if we don’t also write about Ford Fusion steering wheels coming off in drivers’ hands, or Hyundai Sonatas that turn into convertibles, any number of Fiat Chrysler products with dangerous rollaway issues, and so on and so forth. Oh well.

There’s no checks rolling in from GM or Big Oil around here, nor do we cash in by referring people to a certain automaker.

[Images: Tesla]

Steph Willems
Steph Willems

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5 of 74 comments
  • Halftruth Halftruth on Apr 08, 2018

    All of this and more! From a company allegedly valued more than Ford.. please. Tesla deathwatch time. Oh wait, that's already started..

    • See 1 previous
    • Slavuta Slavuta on Apr 08, 2018

      @mcs Actually, vs Tesla, they are. In fact, if you think, Fiat Chrysler are pretty good quality vs Mahindra, 20 Chinese makes, Russian cars, etc. Basically, they may be not a Toyota-quality but pretty respectable over the larger picture (beyond 5 brands)

  • Amca Amca on Apr 08, 2018

    I rented a Model 3 for a weekend. Mechanically, it worked fine. But the software part of the machine was a disaster. Radio coming on full blast repeatedly. AC running while we're at dinner and scrubbing 20 miles off the range. Nav that would go back three hours and zoom in and out in a stuttering fashion. And the stripes that appeared on the screen. That all took place from 10 am Saturday to 7 pm Sunday. And that's not to mention the impenetrable shifter or the awful seats or the console covers that wouldn't stay closed or weird clompy ride (uncomfortable, and I'm used to a 911 which is no limo).

    • 28-Cars-Later 28-Cars-Later on Apr 08, 2018

      I work in software, and product in the industry has gotten progressively worse in the past decade or so. Yet everything is gaining a software layer, even things which don't need them. Funny that.

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  • SCE to AUX Seems like a good car at a good price. $7900 can buy a real junker these days.