You’re Supposed To Be Glad Your Tesla Is A Brittle Heap Of Junk

Tesla cars are shoddily built pieces of shit liable to fall apart and malfunction in dangerous ways at inopportune moments. No, this is not a blog from 2012! It is also not a blog from 2015 or 2018 or 2022. It is not even a blog from two weeks ago about Tesla’s self-driving systems killing people all over the place. It is a blog from today, Dec. 21, 2023.

On Wednesday, Reuters published a big, thorough investigative story documenting a pattern of major parts failures on low-mileage Tesla vehicles—and Tesla’s organized years-long effort to obscure the pattern and offload its costs onto drivers, so as to sustain the illusion that it is a profitable company making cars that are not piece-of-shit death traps. By “major parts failures,” I should specify here that we are not talking about, like, a faulty turn signal, or an unreliable trunk latch. We are talking about stuff like a whole-ass wheel falling off of your Model 3 while it travels at highway speeds, or the suspension collapsing while you make a left turn, causing the body of the car to crunch down onto the road, or an axle half-shaft fucking snapping while you accelerate, or the power steering suddenly failing while you are zooming along at 60 miles per hour.

We are talking, in short, about engineering failures—failures that anyone would find alarming if they encountered them in a soap box derby racer made out of literally a soap box—happening, abruptly and without warning, to Tesla cars that are for all practical purposes brand new. Moreover, they’re happening to lots of them, because of manufacture and assembly problems the company knew about, and hid, and lied about, and blamed on the poor suckers who bought its crappy cars.

The Reuters piece is quite long, and earns its length with an incredible wealth of damning receipts, including internal Tesla communications making clear that the company has known about its own shoddy work for a long time, even as it deceived investors, regulators, and drivers. I urge you to read it for yourself. It opens with a representative anecdote, funny only because its events take place at low speed on a surface road rather than on a highway, where someone would have died: The front-right suspension collapses beneath a brand-new Tesla Model Y with a whopping 115 miles on the odometer, leaving parts of the car scraping along the pavement.

A Tesla technician initially (and correctly) diagnoses a parts failure, obligating the company to pay for repairs. Later, however, the SUV’s owner, who’d had the vehicle for 24 hours when its suspension kerploded beneath him, receives an official email blaming the collapse on “prior external influenced damage”—claiming, in other words, than in less than 24 hours he’d managed to beat up his Model Y’s front-right suspension enough to cause its complete spontaneous collapse—and putting him on the hook for a $14,000 repair bill.

Here I would like to pause for a moment of personal reflection. I have been an owner and driver of automobiles for, oh God, something like 25 years. These vehicles have cut a fairly wide sample of the world of automobiles. Many of them were absolute beaters that couldn’t come within shouting distance of passing a safety inspection. A smaller number were nice late-model used cars still effectively new. One was an ill-chosen base-model Dodge Neon bought brand-new for reasons that surpass all explanation or defense. American cars, Japanese cars, Swedish cars, Korean cars. Compacts, sedans, minivans, even a couple of sprightly little sports cars. I drove across the country in a then-newish Toyota Celica and in a crusty old Jeep Cherokee and in a dangerously overloaded Ford Contour; I did hellish daily D.C. commutes in a capable Honda Civic and in a Geo Metro micro-compact only slightly larger than the jacket I was wearing. I foolishly drove an early-80s Volvo station wagon straight through a flood so deep it washed over the bottom of the windshield. I drove back and forth to a bookstore job in an ancient Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais so apocalyptically derelict that when I got pulled over for a busted taillight, the lady cop fixed me with sad eyes and asked “Is everything OK with you?”

Where I am going with this is, I have never, ever had the suspension of a car collapse under me. I have never had a wheel come off of the car I was driving. No axle shaft has ever snapped while I was driving a car; not once have I had to replace a steering column. Some of those cars were held together with paperclips, man. That Geo Metro’s frame was just rolled-up logs of aluminum foil. I couldn’t have sold that Cutlass Calais for a packet of Toast Chee.

Back to Tesla. The Reuters piece makes clear that the internal practice of blaming part failures on drivers themselves—others can fight over whether it’s fraud in any legal sense—was a common tactic on Tesla’s part, made explicit in company documents. In this way it fought off expensive recalls in Europe and the U.S.—it couldn’t do so in China, where regulators were less eager to fall for its bullshit—and made its business appear more profitable to investors, whose calculations would look quite different if they assumed hundreds or thousands of dollars of repair liability for each Tesla vehicle sold. Given that regulatory arbitrage, not selling cars, is Tesla’s real business, I suppose it makes a grim sort of sense that this would be baked into the front-facing, car-selling part of the operation.

In general I don’t like spoiling the kicker of somebody else’s article, but I’d like to call your attention to the following quote, which ends the Reuters piece and crystallizes, I think, something important. The context is: A Tesla driver has brought his wife’s Model 3 in for servicing because the power steering ceased operating after the car went over a normal speed bump. The service manager (note that Tesla, unlike other car manufacturers, owns and operates all of its dealerships, so the workers there are Tesla employees) identifies the culprit: A system component has become corroded—probably, he says, because the car went through a car wash. The repairs will cost $4,400. The driver observes, reasonably, that he has never heard of a car’s wiring being damaged by simply taking it through a car wash.

Lundeen [the driver] said he was so shocked by the manager’s frank explanation of Tesla’s part failures that he wrote it down: “All I can tell you,” the Tesla manager said, “is we’re not a 100-year-old company like GM and Ford. We haven’t worked all the bugs out yet.”

Reuters

Imagine offering this as a defense, as you charge a customer $4,400 to fix your own shoddy product. Look, pal, all I can tell you is that I don’t know how to make the thing I sold you at great expense. Contained in this doofus Tesla service manager’s quote is the ethos shared among all Elon Musk’s ventures. It is the defining ethos of Silicon Valley.

The engineers who work at GM and Ford (or at Toyota or Honda or Nissan or Mercedes-Benz or any other company whose cars you can drive through a car wash without corroding their power steering components) are not themselves 100 years old; they are not the original discoverers of how to design and manufacture power steering systems. The reason those companies, and not Tesla, know how to build cars that (in general) can drive from here to there without dropping a wheel or bursting into flames is not that they are staffed by a bunch of centenarian Lore Wizards who learned the secrets of auto manufacture back in nineteen-aught-dickity and now hide this sacred knowledge in a walled mountaintop abbey. What those car companies know about building cars is collective industry knowledge. It is best practice. It is, that is to say, Out There. It can be had by any car company that wants it.

What keeps Tesla from having that knowledge, then, isn’t that the company is too young to have acquired it, or that it simply cannot be had except by learning it from scratch. The knowledge can be had in the person of any number of far-less-than-100-years-old engineers Tesla could hire; moreover it can be had by reverse-engineering a frickin’ Miata. The reason Tesla hasn’t “worked all the bugs out yet” is that the company is run by people who hold established best practice in ideological contempt, and is defined by a tech-industry culture that fetishizes innovation and regards product quality as a third-order concern. There simply isn’t as much investment money and credulous tech-media adulation to suck up in the promise of iterating on what already works. You must reinvent, almost literally in this case, the wheel—this time, apparently on the premise of “…and what if it sucked?”

All the upside-down incentives and warped prerogatives of the startup world are on display here (including a preference for lying and monkeying with data over actually doing good work). They’re also, in turn, mere appendages of a deeper and more profound decadence. In 2023, discovery, exploration, and invention are just vibes you rent, by investing in a future-costumed effort to ignore all of what’s already been learned and pretend “making a car that works” (or tunnels, or spaceships, or social media) is a new frontier. What matters isn’t whether any of this has been done before, and more authentically, and well enough to be built upon—what matters is that this particular rich man-child hasn’t done it yet, from scratch, for himself and for his own dream of being The Most Special Boy. In the absence of any real opportunity to envision a brighter future, you sign up to support some inheritance goober’s personal fantasy camp by dumping money into his company or buying his stupid-looking car. In this way, you are meant to understand, you have participated in the great grand adventure of discovering tomorrow.

Then the wheel falls off while you’re driving, or the autopilot plows into a jersey wall, and you’re meant to be thrilled.* Glad even. Grateful! This is proof: You were an early adopter. A beta tester, a brave explorer. You’re helping to work out the bugs, mapping new territory. Who knows? In a hundred years this car’s descendants might be as reliable as cars that by then will be 150 years old, and you will have played a part in making it so. Won’t that be nice.

*Assuming you lived through it.

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