Tesla Battery 'Bricking': The Real Story Behind The Scare

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Tesla Roadster 2.5

Tesla Roadster 2.5

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Late last night, a sensational blog post circulated through Silicon Valley.

It claimed that several $100,000-plus Tesla Roadsters were now useless as the result of a "devastating design problem," with their battery packs "bricked" from being left too long without plugging in.

Early this morning, we predicted that this would be today's electric-car news story, and so it proved to be. Jalopnik picked up the post and ran it, uncritically, sans context.

But we've spent the day talking, prodding, urging, e-mailing, tweeting, and generally doing what reporters do. We also reached out to the author Michael Degusta, who hasn't responded.

Right now, we can only speculate on any reasons for the sensationalist approach he took in describing the problem.

[UPDATE: Is Tesla 'Bricking' Story Just An Angry Owner's Warranty Claim?]

Courtesy of electric-car fan David Peilow, we note that blogger Michael DeGusta--who wrote the original post that kicked off the ruckus--was a business partner of Max Drucker, the aggrieved Tesla owner, for seven years.

DeGusta did not disclose this anywhere in his post, in which Drucker was never identified.

We welcome comments and input from any Tesla Roadster owners (one is apparently named Max) who claim that their battery packs have 'bricked'.

Failing that, here's our best crack at the real story, with appropriate context, in Q+A format.

Q: Is the possibility of 'bricking' a real problem?

A: Yes. It's been known since the earliest days of modern electric cars--the 1980s or 1990s--and is widely acknowledged as a potential risk by designers and manufacturers of plug-in vehicles. In other words, this is hardly a hidden problem.

Tesla said in a statement:

All automobiles require some level of owner care. For example, combustion vehicles require regular oil changes or the engine will be destroyed. Electric vehicles should be plugged in and charging when not in use for maximum performance. All batteries are subject to damage if the charge is kept at zero for long periods of time.

Q: Does Tesla tell Roadster buyers to keep their cars plugged in?

A: Yes. It's prominently called out in the warranty and owner's documents.

Tesla Roadster 'Acknowledgement of Charging Instructions' document (courtesy Tesla Motors Club)

Tesla Roadster 'Acknowledgement of Charging Instructions' document (courtesy Tesla Motors Club)

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One Tesla source confirmed to us that the company has buyers sign a document at the time of purchase that acknowledges it is the owner's responsibility to maintain the Roadster's charge by keeping it plugged in--and that any damage caused by not doing so is not covered under the warranty.

We will post a copy of that document when we receive it.

An image of that document, provided courtesy of owner Cingergi, who posted it on the Tesla Motors Club website, is included in this article.

Q: Will a Tesla Roadster warn its owners if the pack is dangerously low?

A: Yes. And owners of Roadster 2.0 and 2.5 vehicles (the vast majority of the total) can set their cars up to send alerts to the owner as well. Tesla said:

Tesla avoids this problem in virtually all instances with numerous counter-measures. Tesla batteries can remain unplugged for weeks (even months), without reaching zero state of charge. Owners of Roadster 2.0 and all subsequent Tesla products can request that their vehicle alert Tesla if battery state of charge falls to a low level.

All Tesla vehicles emit various visual and audible warnings if the battery pack falls below 5 percent state of charge.

Q: Are there circumstances in which a Tesla Roadster pack could in fact have been so depleted that it 'bricked'?

A: Yes. If an owner were not to use or visit the car, or the car were locked away, for several months, the warnings would not be seen, and the pack might over time go from the minimal 5 percent down to zero.

We have heard of a Tesla Roadster sold on a salvage title, for example, after sitting in storage for an undetermined period. That car's battery pack may not have been charged for a year or more, and could be completely dead.

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Comments (23)
  1. Strange that after all that, anyone would let their roadster sit for long enough to completely brick the battery. I think if I spent that kind of money and the manufacturer kept hammering the fact I shouldn't keep it discharged I would probably bother to plug it in.

  2. I'm of the opinion that the car was bricked on purpose just so the scalding article would be written. Max knew there would be no refund. Any business person like Max would have read the Tesla contract. And, Max and Michael have been business partners for 7 years. Hmmmmm. Alarm bells going off for me.

  3. I guess you should ask the Nissan PR people to define "never." All batteries have some self discharge. I'm sure you could "brick" a Leaf battery if you tried. But not many folks buy a Leaf to leave (so to speak) it in storage for months on end.
    Anyhow RTFM.

    So why is this becoming an issue now?? Seems like an active attempt at spreading FUD.

  4. See the parts Nissan underlined in their Leaf manual:

  5. Thanks for the post. So the LEAF only needs to be charged every 3 months and the Tesla Roadster was dead after 2 months. That is a big difference.

  6. Every one who lets this beautiful car sit for months without driving and charging deserves a bricked battery as penalty.
    A happy Roadster owner, 15 month, 75.631 km on the odometer :-)

  7. Ulrich, as a Tesla owner, were you told about that the battery pack could die if fully discharged?

  8. Did Tesla tell you to use the RTFM acronym? It fits with the attitude you'd expect from little boys who hack software. Grownups who work for real companies take responsibility for issues. This is a design and mfg execution flaw and something for Tesla engineers to look into--yes, owners of Tesla Roadsters must tolerate things like this because it is what you get with bleeding-edge, half-baked, not-ready-for-prime-time technology. Tesla should spend some of its unlimited cash to get to the root cause of this problem now. If Tesla mgmt expects that margins will improve when it tries to do something 50X more complicated than anything it has done so far, like building/supporting a production automobile, then Tesla Motors is the real BRICK.

  9. Finally a commenter that understands design. Yes, it is a problem to be fixed. Sadly, the problem is probably very easy to fix with a cut-out at a certain voltage.

  10. I agree that the use of RTFM should be calmed down but the issue at hand is not a design flaw as far as I can tell.

    In order for Tesla to warranty the battery for as long as they do, the owner has to follow certain procedures to keep battery temps at safe level. Tesla drill this info into Tesla roadster owners that buy direct from Tesla.

    If your car is sitting in an airport parking lot in the baking sun at a near depleted state and the battery management system (BMS) is not allowed to keep the pack cool, you'd run the risk of a fire occurring. Cutting the BMS off before full battery depletion would just accelerate the fire risk.

  11. If I didn't have access to my home charger, I'd at least plug-in to a standard outlet. And if for some reason I had to store the car I'd probably contact Tesla service for example and find out what I have to do. There are certain things you should do before storing any car, I think most people are so used to issues with gasoline cars that they forget that gasoline cars can't be left to sit either, it's like the saying, everything old is new again. Electric cars are new so people are shocked when there's a problem, even though storage of cars has always been problematic if not done right. We are a generation raised on gasoline, so a huge part of our trasition to electricity will be constant education and realization.

  12. "Read the manual" is not a real good defense. Products should be engineered, if possible, so that they do not depend upon the owner having to do something. And don't expect that owner's manual to both be readable by the owner or even present with the car.Cars and owners manuals often get separated. If Nissan can eliminate the problem, then Tesla should also be able to do so.
    The outcome of this can be economically catastrophic and thus deserves extra effort from the factory to insure that it never happens. Perhaps the owners should be required to sign an acknowledgment that they understand the issue. I will assume that things will now change for the Model S when it appears.

  13. Doug; Nissan will never clarify the "never" part of the battery discharge, because to do so, they will have to reveal the "secondary" use of the teeny tiny solar panel!

  14. Nissan did not eliminate the problem.

    If you tried hard enough you could damage any Li battery system by just keeping it depleted and in extreme heat conditions.

    Nissan Leaf owners are probably less likely to have so much disposable income that they'd leave their vehicle unused in a hot storage container in summertime for months at a time.

  15. Michael Degusta @degusta has been responding and tweeting about this issue pretty much nonstop for the past 24 hours. Just check his twitterfeed! How much of an effort did you make in trying to contact him? I tweeted him looking for more information, and he tweeted me back yesterday within about an hour!

  16. RTFM? LUAGHABLE. You've never spent ONE DAY in Automobile Service. How about design a car without such MASSIVE defects in design that it won't commit suddenly commit suicide? How about designing a vehicle that can be TOWED? At the end of the day, this car is too poorly engineered to be usable in the real world. Look out, Tucker '48- here comes Tesla.

  17. Jeff, while I'll agree that Tesla didn't do an optimum job on this one point, the towing comment is ridiculous; have you never seen a flatbed towtruck?

    And yes, one minor problem caused by people not driving or even charging their $100k plus car for months at a time and ignoring both the owner's manual (understandable) and repeated warnings... Obviously, this is a horrible car and Tesla should just give up now.

    Oh, that's right, Tesla's doing a solid job for the most part, even if I doubt the long-term viability of the company.

    I didn't know that suddenly committing suicide includes something that takes months of inaction and ignoring warnings. Sudden seems like a word you'd better look up again.

  18. Tesla cars uses 18650 lithium ion cells which are used in most of the laptop batteries. There are 6800 cells in one of the packs. These cells are used since they are produced in mass scale and have the cost advantage. Lithium ion battery packs have to have Battery Management System (BMS) to make sure the cells are charged properly and not overcharged. If it goes below certain charge level it should cut off the battery so that the battery is not over discharged and it is saved. If it is not good to leave the batteries under charged for a long time they should put an audible and a visible alarm to tell the users that they have to charged. Moreover, how long your laptop battery lasts?

  19. If they have 6800 cells at the rate of $3 a cell plus pack cost and their margin it should be around $25K. why it costs so much to replace a battery pack?

  20. Installation and hopefully a new warranty.

  21. Love the Tesla but battery bricking is a Big concern as it leads the possibility of draining to zero with a malfunction of the system. Nissan Leaf does not have this problem - therefore it is a problem that is easy to solve. Meanwhile Caveat Emptor and READ the manual!!

  22. Laptop cells are used. How can you expect the life is more than two years? My laptop batteries go bad in two years.

  23. I live in Scottsdale, AZ, there are many second home owners. If they don't have their car on a trickler (imagine that, a gasoline car's battery will die too!) or drive their vehicle every 90 days or so, things start to go down hill very quickly for their cars. Everything needs maintenance of some type, from your cars, to your kids, to your wife...not usually in that order. Use your head...is what it comes down to. Imagine that....

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