Tesla #ModelStranded: the full story
The Tesla Model S is an incredible machine. We’ll cover the operating experience soon, but right now I’ve got a story to tell.
It started on a Tuesday morning, when a malfunction of the Tesla’s charge port kept me stranded 90 miles from my office. I posted a tweet, asking Twitter users if they had any suggestions for freeing the stuck charging cable. News of my situation spread pretty widely and I did my best to keep everyone up-to-date on my and the Tesla’s progress. Here is the full story, finally available in more than 140 characters:
When we received a Tesla Model S at Autoweek Global HQ, it would not take a charge from any of the three fast-charge stations on our campus–stations that have successfully charged everything from the Nissan Leaf to the Chevy Volt since their installation a year ago. So, we’d been charging the Model S using Tesla’s provided 110-volt cable. For reasons best explained by an electrical engineer, that means we had to wait about an hour for every two-four miles of range.
Our road-test route had me driving the Model S to Lansing, Mich., and then, without charging it overnight, driving it back to Detroit to verify its range capabilities. Theoretically, this should have worked. The trip is 90 miles each way, and the Model S was estimating its range at 235 miles by the time I was ready to leave the office. But, since drivers in Southeast Michigan seem totally unable to navigate even slightly damp roads–or merge, or drive by anything even just a little bit unusual without coming to a complete stop to gawk–I ended up burning a lot of range while crawling slowly through traffic. By the time I arrived in Lansing, the Tesla was calculating my remaining range at somewhere around 70 miles. I found this disparity between estimated range and actual delivered range to be typical of the Tesla when driving at highway speeds, even without traffic.
Since 70 miles of range wasn’t going to get me to Detroit from Lansing, going all night without a charge was out of the question. So I plugged the Tesla-provided cable into an outlet on my house. Then I opened the charge port using the touchscreen on the car’s dash. With the port open and doors unlocked, I held the charge cable near the charge port with the key in my pocket. I then pushed the button inset on the charge cable that makes the charge port ready to accept the cable by opening the door if it isn’t already ajar, and lowering a little retaining pin that sits in the bottom of the charge port.
When I tried to slide the cable into the port, it would not accept the cable. The aforementioned pin was blocking the port.
After reading the owner’s manual and Googling for a solution, I tried locking and unlocking the car, opening and closing the charge port, and staring intently at the side of the car while muttering, all with no effect. Eventually, I found piece of paper in the glovebox with a 1-800 number printed on it, as well as an invitation to call that number in case of technical trouble. At 10:52 p.m., I called the number and navigated the usual customer service-type automated menus. Incidentally, the hold music is incredibly weird. It’s a kind of electronic-jazz-experimentation. I began to imagine that the music was a band fronted by Elon Musk and called Muskellunge. I hope that’s true.
Since no one was available to answer technical questions, I ended up talking to Tesla’s roadside assistance team. The woman I spoke with couldn’t suggest a course of action for solving my problem. She said I should call a service center in the morning and that one would be open around 9 a.m. Throughout the 13-minute call, she was helpful and courteous, but the best she could offer was a tow. And since I had to be to work in the morning and didn’t have enough juice to get there, I had to figure something out.
Looking at the charge port, I could clearly see that it was the little metal tab that was keeping the cable from entering the port. I gently pushed the pin down with a plastic pen, and it sprung back up with a spring-loaded click. Using a thin strip of plastic, I was able to hold the tab down and insert the charger. The car began to charge. I pushed the button on the charge cable and it released. I re-inserted it, then pushed the button and pulled it back out. Finally, I plugged the charger back in and went to bed.
The next morning, the cable would not release. I called the service center in Chicago, which was the closest one to me. They didn’t answer, but Chicago is an hour behind Michigan, so I called Queens, N.Y. No answer. I waited half an hour or so and then went back through the prompts and finally reached Queens.
The service tech on the other end of the line ran me through a couple of unlocking procedures without effect. He claimed to have seen this happen before, and he also claimed that he’d been able to talk owners through resetting the mechanism before. I put down the phone and went through the locking and unlocking procedures a few more times, again with no success.
I called back and was told to reset the car’s computer by holding down two buttons on the steering wheel. The computer did reset, but the charger was still locked in place. The guys in Queens told me they’d get in touch with the Chicago location and that that office would be in touch with me.
I sent a text to my boss, informing him that I’d be late.
At 9:56 a.m., I tweeted the first picture of the Model S and asked if any of my Twitter followers had a suggestion for getting it loose. Interest on Twitter soon exploded, as can be seen here, or by looking at the relevant posts from my Twitter feed here.
I then called the guys in Queens again to let them know that I hadn’t heard from Chicago. They promised to sort it out. After waiting for a while, I called Autoweek to check in and let them know what was going on.
Natalie Neff, our senior road test editor, gave me a phone number for Tesla’s Christina Ra. I made some breakfast.
I called Ra, and she answered. She was very apologetic and helpful, but she didn’t seem worried. I wasn’t worried either. I had just eaten a couple of eggs and some bacon and was enjoying a cup of coffee. Ra was heading into an important conference call and promised that someone from Tesla would be with me shortly.
Around then, I thought maybe I’d see if I could give the little metal tab that held the charge cable in place a poke and free it. I went to the garage, grabbed a feeler gauge and another long, flat tool and squatted at the bumper of the Model S.
Now, at this point you’re probably wondering if I was worried about getting electrocuted. I wasn’t. With the charge cable inserted, all of the parts that actually conduct electricity are pressed inside the body of the charge cable. That said, I had rubber boots on, and my tools had rubber handles. Gently lifting the charge cable created enough space for either of my tools. I was able to touch the tab, but it wouldn’t budge. So, I went back to my coffee. In the process, I left a couple of minor, cosmetic scratches in the charge port.
I then talked to Shanna from Tesla’s PR office, who said she’d encourage the Chicago office to call me.They did, right away. After a few repetitions of the procedures that the Queens office had dictated to me earlier, I started to realize that the problem would not be fixed over the phone.
I was then contacted by Lawrence, a Tesla Ranger who ran me through the aforementioned procedures again, to no avail. Rangers are Tesla’s mobile techs who are dispatched–McLaren F1-style–to owners who encounter problems with their cars. At some point, it was decided that Lawrence–a three year Tesla employee and longtime auto industry vet–would be making a house call.
At 10:20 p.m., Lawrence arrived, tools in hand. He tried the procedures again, and again there was no result. He noticed I’d opened the “frunk” and taken a look at the fuse boxes. A Twitter user claimed that the issue could be solved by removing a fuse, but after getting a look at several unlabeled fuses, I decided to wait on Larry.
Larry rushed efficiently through his work, disconnecting the high-voltage connection in the “frunk”–other manufacturers call this a luggage compartment–and then getting to work on the charge port. I reluctantly told him about how I got the cable into the port in the first place and how I’d tried to poke at it. This didn’t please the affable Lawrence, who would later relate an anecdote about a friend of his, and some expanding foam and a chainsaw, the point of which was that it’s usually best to leave this sort of thing up to professionals.
He was able to free the cable by completely disassembling the charge port and manually releasing the retaining tab. Once the plug was out, he took a couple of photos of it; the device was a little beat-up, though worn might be a better descriptor.
He had theorized that the plug may have been forced in, bending the retaining tab. But with the plug removed, it was clear that the tab had not been damaged and was indeed able to move freely.
As of this writing, we know that the tab-lowering mechanism failed, though it’s unclear why. It seems to be a known, if exceedingly uncommon issue, as can be seen here in the Tesla Motors forums.
Just after midnight, the plug was halfway reassembled so that it could charge the car overnight. Lawrence checked into a hotel and awaited a new charge port, which was on its way from either Chicago or California.
Around noon the next day, the part arrived and Lawrence dropped by to install it. Throughout the process, the tech extolled the virtues of the Model S and its construction, comparing it to other cars he’d serviced in his many years of servicing cars. With the charge port replaced, Lawrence tested it, reassembled it, and we took it for a ride around the block, with Lawrence again pointing out some of the subtleties of the car.
Being #ModelStranded taught me a great deal about Tesla. When I arrived at home at the end of my commute, I was ready to call the Model S “the first modern car.” I was ready to name it “the only super-sedan that mattered.” It is very, very close to being as good and exciting as everyone says it is. Discounting the logistical considerations of Model S ownership, it is an excellent car.
In fact, the Model S is incredible. But two things keep it on this side of the line between wonderful curiosity and credible contender among high-priced sports sedans.
One is battery life. Range estimations are fluid, meaning that a 200-odd-mile range can be reduced greatly while sitting in traffic. Though impressive, its range is limited, and for many that will keep it from being a legitimate alternative to other cars in its class. Even with Tesla’s amazing and much-touted “Supercharger,” adding 150 miles to the car’s range takes half an hour. There are currently six active Supercharger stations in North America, with that number set to expand to 100 by 2015.
Until recharging can be accomplished more quickly, the very best electric car ever created is still best as a second car. Which, like seemingly all green things, creates an ugly paradox; two cars where only one was needed before. That said, for those whose daily mileage rarely approaches the 200 mile mark, the Model S might provide all the mobility you need.
The second thing holding the Model S back is Tesla’s reliance on their Rangers to provide service. I have no reason to doubt Telsa’s claim that the Model S has been incredibly reliable so far; it seems remarkably well-built. The car I was lent malfunctioned, but all cars do that. Tesla claims that by March 2013, 90 percent of Tesla Model S customers will be within 100 miles of a Tesla service location.
But until then, they’d be well-served to provide 24-hour technical service and do what they can to improve Ranger response time. Negotiating an arrangement with one of the established car-rental operations by which they could quickly dispatch a loaner car to a stranded customer would go a long way to erasing owner anxiety. If the Model S is as reliable as Tesla says it is, it’s not a service they’d have to use often.
That Tesla has scratch-built a car as good as the Model S is a monumental achievement. That they are so close to building an all-electric car that could legitimately be considered as an alternative to the best gas-powered luxury cars is almost unbelievable. For the moment, they still remain close, but after driving the Model S–and living with it–I have no reason to believe they won’t get there.
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By Rory Carroll