Payne: The fun and frustration of a Tesla Model 3 owner
Tesla announced last week that my Model 3 sedan will soon get a 5 percent increase in power and 15-mile extension in range. In a software update. Delivered over-the-air while my car sits in the garage.
I’ve never owned a car that did that before.
But I've also never had to wait two months for a simple parts repair due to Tesla's Michigan service model of Mobile Repair Units. With Tesla dealer-service centers banned in the state, a front-bumper sensor repair dragged on for weeks.
My first Michigan winter with the Model 3 has been full of such paradoxes in a premium brand that has defied industry convention. I crave its electric torque, yet am anxious about its range limitations. I marvel at its electronic advances, yet worry about quality issues. It's the coolest car I've owned, yet I caution potential buyers on its limitations.
Re-imagining the auto business is central to Tesla’s appeal and a key reason I ordered a $57,000 Model 3 in 2016. From online ordering to smartphone-like updates to electrification to its own dealer network, the start-up automaker is challenging industry norms just as tech peers Apple and Amazon upended cellphone and retail markets.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and Mercedes-Benz and Volvo’s Polestar brand have followed the Silicon Valley-based company’s lead in connectivity and electrification. But as my experience suggests, the jury is still out on innovations like battery-power and mobile service.
I left my house on Dec. 4 for a business appointment in Marshall, Michigan, in a Model 3 pregnant with electrons and a significant over-the-air update for autonomous driving.
I had charged my car to near-capacity, 302-miles range (310 is the max) overnight for the 228-mile round-trip.
“Navigate to Eaton Corporation, Marshall, Michigan” I barked at the car just as I would Google Maps on my Android phone, and it quickly charted my route. It also told me I would have less than half of battery capacity remaining when I arrived and would have to recharge at a Tesla Supercharger station nearby to get back home.
The car’s computer was honest enough to tell me what most EV advocates only whisper — that battery range degrades significantly in cold weather. At the speed limit in 30-degree December temps, I would only get 70 percent of battery range, burning 154 miles of range to roll up 114 miles on the odometer.
As the mercury dropped below 20 degrees in this winter of the polar vortex, my range has degraded as much as 50 percent.
This is a common problem for all EVs and why the public has been shy to embrace the technology. They plug into your home and are simple to operate, but can they get you where you want to go on time?
The drive to Marshall was typically invigorating. Not just because of the Model 3’s wicked acceleration and handling (cloverleafs are a blast), but because of the opportunity to test the car’s latest upgrade: navigate on Autopilot.
Autopilot has been controversial (not least because its name suggests airliner-like full self-driving) for allegedly being engaged in numerous accidents. Properly driven as a semi-autonomous Level 2 system, it is quite good. And it got better with the upgrade.
Once on the highway, I put the Model 3 on Autopilot, rested my hand on the steering wheel (the car will squawk at you if you go hands-free) and relaxed. When I reached my off-ramp the Tesla’s big center screen displayed a blue line suggesting I move right to exit.
I toggled the right turn signal and the Model 3 automatically changed lanes — but not before my blind-spot indicator lit up red to warn me I should let another car pass first. Both features were unavailable before the software update the night before.
The Model 3 computer had accurately predicted my cold-weather range degradation. With just 148 miles of range left, I would not be able to return home without recharging on the Marshall Supercharger.
I charged for 45 minutes, adding 110 miles of range for insurance should I need to make a detour. Two other Model 3s shared the station with me, one of them a businessman from Chicago who regularly makes 500-mile round trips to Ann Arbor, stopping twice for lengthy Supercharger refills.
“Best car I have ever owned,” he said. “But these long recharging stops are wearing on me.”
He was considering switching to a gas-powered vehicle to make the trip, leaving the Tesla behind in Chicago as an urban commuter.
For all of Tesla's ambitions as a mass-market automaker, such inconveniences are why many believe EVs are niche vehicles limited to urban commuters or luxury enthusiasts with other cars in the stable.
Two more days passed before my first Model 3 service issue since taking delivery in late October.
Automatic lane-change stopped working, as did Summon (another neat trick where you can remote-control-drive the Model 3 out of a tight parking space). I called my service center ... in Cleveland.
Michigan is one of 27 states at war with Tesla dealer/service centers (though it allows Tesla “galleries” where cars can be seen but not ordered). If I was to get serviced, it would be by house-call from a Mobile Unit.
The good news was the service center knew what was wrong (and my car was otherwise perfectly driveable).
“Your front-left sensor is out,” said the tech. A rock had knocked it senseless.
“How do you know that from Cleveland?” I asked.
“Because I’m looking at your car on my computer just like a smartphone.”
The bad news: I would have to wait weeks for a Mobile Repair Unit to show up at my house.
In Tesla’s backyard where its cars are common, the company uses a mix of dealerships (“stores” in Tesla parlance), over-the-air fixes and mobile units for repairs. But in Michigan, where Tesla’s suit overturning the Legislature’s ban on company-owned stores is pending in the state Supreme Court, the automaker is dependent on over-the-air and traveling technicians.
Given the rapid growth of Model 3 sales to all 50 states, service has been strained and there have been long waits for parts from the mothership.
“My top priority this year is making service amazing,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk said in a conference call with journalists last week.
That promise, too, may be paradoxical, as Tesla plans to shut down some service centers to cut costs so it can deliver the long-promised base Model 3 at $35,000. That will make the company even more dependent on mobile housecalls.
My friendly traveling mechanic replaced the sensor as well as an LTE Wi-Fi card that had gone bad after just 1,700 miles.
Tesla owners are beta-testers for the most audacious automotive start-up in my lifetime. While waiting for service I got an over-the-air software update for security, climate controls ... and an electronic whoopee cushion to prank passengers.
Such details help make the sometimes-bumpy journey worthwhile.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.