Tesla is a Vocal Opponent of the Right to Repair. Now we know why.
Tesla was outspoken in opposing Massachusetts’ auto right to repair law last November. The story this week of Tesla’s $16,000 quote for a repair that an independent garage did for $700 suggests why.
It has been a busy couple of weeks on the front lines of the right to repair, following the ground breaking announcement by the Biden Administration that it is asking the FTC and DOJ to take a hard look at repair restrictions and - in the case of the FTC - undertake new rule making to clarify consumers’ right to repair their own stuff.
One of the few stories to break through the noise around the Biden Executive Order came out of New Hampshire, where YouTuber and Tesla hacker extraordinaire Rich Benoit of Rich Rebuilds and the crew at The Electrified Garage (@ServiceMyEV) posted a video that highlights just how much Tesla stands to gain from constrained service and repair options for its vehicles.
That’ll be 16 large, please.
The video in question, which you can view below, concerns Donald Bone, an engineer at Radio City Music Hall who leases a Tesla Model 3 and had the misfortune of running over an object in the road that bounced up and damaged his battery pack.
The Tesla Service Center in New Jersey that Mr. Bone contacted informed him that fixing the problem would require them to replace the entire battery pack assembly - $16,000 including parts and labor. This, even though the damage was limited to a small part that connected a low-pressure coolant line to the battery.
The excuse: the Service Center said they could not access the component that needed replacing. Even worse, Mr. Bone’s auto insurance, which was transferred to the Tesla from another vehicle, would not cover the repair. He faced the prospect of years of monthly lease payments for a car he couldn’t even drive.
Rich to the Rescue
Enter Benoit and the Electrified Garage, which is two states away from Mr. Bone in New Hampshire and has a reputation for doing repairs that Tesla’s authorized repair monopo… err…authorized service network refuses to.
The video shows the fix in detail with the broken coolant line connector successfully repaired using a few inexpensive parts, some sealant and a turkey baster. (Yes: a turkey baster.)
Total repair cost to Mr. Bone: $700. But, as The Drive noted in their coverage: the parts used could mostly be obtained at a local home improvement store. The price charged was mostly for diagnostics and labor. The actual cost to a Tesla owner who saw the video and needed to do this repair herself could be well under $100. So figure: $100 or less vs. $16,000.
As for the durability of the fix? In the video, Benoit interviews another client who had the same repair done 30,000 miles previously - with no problems since.
Parts is Parts
As Benoit notes, the $16,000 vs. $700 repair is an argument, in itself, for the importance of independent repair shops. Tesla does not do "part replacement,” as was needed to fix Mr. Bone’s car, one of his mechanics observes. Instead, they only do “assembly replacement” - the entire battery in this case.
Training may be another issue. As it looks to keep service costs down, Tesla has determined that limiting its need for highly skilled repair professionals of the type Benoit employs is key. The solution: simply don’t offer repairs that require more skilled labor. Then concentrate battery servicing at a central facility where the batteries are manufactured and the talent is already in place, rather than training up and retaining technicians at Tesla Service Centers in local communities. Ta da!
Of course, the cost of that decision not to offer part replacements or more high-skilled repairs is borne by consumers. “$16,000 is a lot of money,” Benoit said.
Now it all makes sense
Despite its reputation as a cutting-edge, engineering driven company, Tesla has been a stalwart of the anti right-to-repair movement and has steadily constrained the ability of owners and independent shops like Benoit’s to service Tesla vehicles.
In October, Tesla also came out vocally against Question 1, a Massachusetts ballot measure that expanded that state’s automobile right to repair law to cover maintenance information transmitted via wireless telematics systems of the type Tesla uses. The company sent a letter to its Massachusetts customers urging them to vote against Question 1, arguing - without evidence - that the measure would open vehicles to cyber attacks.
Question 1 ultimately passed with almost three quarters (74.9%) of voters voting “YES.” It is now caught in legal limbo as automakers sue to block its implementation.
In the meantime, while we have yet to see cyber attacks against connected cars that leverage repair or diagnostic data - wireless or otherwise - the incident with the $16,000 bill brings the bigger picture on Tesla’s opposition to Question 1 into focus.
After all: the absence of independent repair doesn’t just mean your repairs get more expensive. It determines what repairs are even possible. If OEMs get a monopoly on after market parts, service and repair, they have total freedom not just to price those repairs (the higher the better), but also to decide what is and isn’t on the menu of repairs they will do.
Practically speaking: absent an independent garage that would first invent and then perform the repair that saved his leased vehicle and kept it on the road, Mr. Bone would likely have had to junk the car. Insurance companies, as well, might decide that minor damage to a coolant line actually constituted a “totaling” of the vehicle, if the price to fix that small, broken adaptor was a big enough percentage of the vehicle’s replacement cost and no lower cost repair option existed. That bottom line decision by insurers would sending perfectly good Teslas like Mr. Bone’s to an early grave - just one more piece of serviceable hardware in the landfill.
“Third party repair is key,” Benoit said. “Right to repair is key…We need the tools and the right to do our own thing, otherwise people could be out a lot. There needs to be another option.”
Smells like Apple!
Prematurely retiring a perfectly good piece of hardware because of a minor problem? Sounds familiar, no?
That is, of course, the exact same model that companies like Apple use to get consumers to refresh their iPhone or iPad every two or three years, even though the phone itself - properly maintained - could last for a decade or more. Those fast refresh cycles are critical to Apple’s revenue models - to the point that CEO Tim Cook warned investors that the company would miss revenue targets in 2019, in part, because “some customers (are) taking advantage of significantly reduced pricing for iPhone battery replacements” rather than buying new phones.
Tesla’s business model is different from Apple’s of course. But not that different. We know, for example, that OEMs like Tesla can expect less revenue from maintenance of electric cars than from gas powered vehicles. AAA estimates the savings on maintenance and repair to be substantial - as much as $330 less than a gas-powered car. Locking down the repair ecosystem to only authorized Service Centers, then, is a way to maximize service revenue and, also, to increase the likelihood that vehicles are replaced, rather than repaired.
We all pay
As Mr. Bone notes: we all pay for this skewed system. If the goal, societally, is to move away from hydrocarbons and to increase use of electric vehicles, Tesla owners need more than one service center per state. They also need robust repair and service offerings (like The Electrified Garage) that are independent of the Tesla owned and operated facilities. That means making after market parts and tools available to owners and independent repair pros that will allow owners to maintain their own vehicles affordably.
While car owners benefit from a national right to repair (at least for now), owners of pretty much every other type of equipment and electronics do not. Keep this story in mind the next time an authorized repair tech or OEM gives you an eye-popping quote for what seems to be a simple repair. And keep it in mind when OEMs argue that there’s no need for a right to repair because they take great care of their customers.