One of the coolest things about owning a Tesla Model S for almost three years now has been the service.

When first revealed back in the spring of 2013—a few months after I had taken delivery of my car—the Tesla service model sounded almost too good to be true.

If a problem occurred, CEO Elon Musk announced, a Tesla rep would pick up the car, drop off a P85 loaner, and then return the car to my driveway when it was fixed.

At the time, I wrote, “It almost made me wish something would go wrong with my car.”

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It was no empty promise, either. On two or three occasions I’ve happily partaken of the pickup-and-dropoff service, impressing anew all my friends with the loaner P85’s acceleration. 

A Tesla tech from the New York City area once recounted to me how he had driven nine hours in a snowstorm, towing a loaner on a trailer, to pick up a disabled Model S in Buffalo, New York.

Tesla's Mobile Service Ranger vehicle

Tesla's Mobile Service Ranger vehicle

Then 400 miles back to the service center, and, a few days later, another 800-mile round-trip to deliver the car back to its owner. 

Amazing.

On a couple of occasions, however, harsh reality intruded into my Tesla service experience. No loaners were available, and I had to drive my car to the service center and wait, just like the plebeian masses in their Chevies and Hondas. 

But I didn’t really mind; the techs were always happy to talk about my car’s issues and answer my endless inquiries about all things Tesla.

Service Nirvana

My best service experience—a story I often trot out to anyone who will listen—still seems too good to be true.

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The morning before Thanksgiving 2013, I was sitting at my kitchen table sipping tea and reading The New York Times when the phone rang.

It was the scheduler at my local Tesla service center. "We just got an e-mail from Tesla engineering in California," she said. "It seems there's a problem with your 12-volt battery.  Would it be okay if we sent someone out to your house  this morning to replace it?”

I was completely unaware of any problem with my 12-volt battery. (To be perfectly honest, I wasn't totally sure my car even had a 12-volt battery.)  But apparently Tesla's remote monitoring system had detected some sort of anomaly in the electrical readings from my car.

Onsite service by Tesla Motor technicians on 2013 Tesla Model S, upstate NY [photo: David Noland]

Onsite service by Tesla Motor technicians on 2013 Tesla Model S, upstate NY [photo: David Noland]

Two hours later, a couple of Tesla Ranger technicians showed up at my house, and replaced the battery with an upgraded model.

A problem that I didn't know I had was fixed almost before I knew it, with zero effort or inconvenience on my part. 

“Amazing,” I wrote at the time. “If this is the future of automotive service, count me in.”

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Other Tesla owners apparently agreed with me; according to a 2014 Consumer Reports survey, the Model S received a rating of 99 out of 100 for service. 

Too many cars?

My service-Nirvana experience happened when there were roughly 25,000 Model S cars on the road. Now there are roughly 110,000. 

Tesla Model S at Supercharger site in Ventura, CA, with just one slot open [photo: David Noland]

Tesla Model S at Supercharger site in Ventura, CA, with just one slot open [photo: David Noland]

I have no data about the nationwide growth of Tesla service centers over the last two years. (There are currently 69 U.S. centers listed on the Tesla website.)

However, I can say that the number of service centers within reasonable distance of my home in New York’s Hudson Valley has doubled in that time, from one to two. 

Do the math: Assuming a similar distribution of Model S population growth, each service center in my area is now responsible, on average, for more than twice as many cars as it used to be.

And I’ve noticed the difference.

 

Onsite service by Tesla Motor technicians on 2013 Tesla Model S, upstate NY [photo: David Noland]

Onsite service by Tesla Motor technicians on 2013 Tesla Model S, upstate NY [photo: David Noland]

I haven’t been offered the pickup service for more than a year now. Loaners have to be scheduled well in advance.

A couple of months back, I had a problem with the rear lift gate latch. It wouldn’t latch properly, which meant that the car couldn’t be locked, which meant I couldn’t safely park it on the street in New York City—or, really, in any other public place.

When I called my regular service center in Paramus, New Jersey, I was told they couldn’t take me for at least a week, even if I came in and waited for the car.  “Try Mount Kisco,” I was told, the other nearby  service center.

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No dice at Mount Kisco either; they didn’t have an appointment available for almost a month.

Result: I didn’t drive into New York City that week, and had to leave the car unlocked whenever I parked it around my local area.

Tesla owner forums too include tales of booked-up service centers and long waits. 

“I purchased my Model S in November 2013," reported one California owner, "and at first I was able to take the car in for any recall or maintenance within a day or two and get a loaner.”

Onsite service by Tesla Motor technicians on 2013 Tesla Model S, upstate NY [photo: David Noland]

Onsite service by Tesla Motor technicians on 2013 Tesla Model S, upstate NY [photo: David Noland]

But for a more recent problem, his calls to five service centers revealed no open slots for at least two weeks. The Palo Alto service center, he reported, was booked solid for the next six weeks.

“This is clearly showing a failure of the current service model,” he posted. And I can’t say I disagree with him.

Clearly, the numbers are starting to catch up with Tesla’s vaunted service architecture.

New Ranger policy

In an apparent effort to reign in costs, Tesla has recently—and quietly—rescinded the $100 flat fee for its roving-technician “Ranger” service.

The new policy sets a minimum price of $100 for a Ranger to either repair the car on the spot or pick it up from a distant customer.

But the $100 is now just the minimum, and the price goes up from there—sometimes way up—depending on the distance from the service center.

Tesla Road Trip from MD to CT, Feb 2013 - Tesla Model S cars at Delaware SuperCharger location

Tesla Road Trip from MD to CT, Feb 2013 - Tesla Model S cars at Delaware SuperCharger location

That change was an unhappy surprise for at least two Tesla customers.

Automotive News reports that a Tesla owner in Chesapeake, Virginia, was quoted a $606 Ranger fee to have his car picked up and delivered to the service center in Raleigh, North Carolina, 202 miles away—despite a pre-purchase assurance from the service center that any such fee would be the flat $100.

The owner ended up putting off the repairs until he was in Raleigh on other business. “If it weren’t for the fact that the car is so damned good, I’d be pretty ticked off,” he told AN.

Onsite service by Tesla Motor technicians on 2013 Tesla Model S, upstate NY [photo: David Noland]

Onsite service by Tesla Motor technicians on 2013 Tesla Model S, upstate NY [photo: David Noland]

Another Model S owner on the remote Canadian island of Newfoundland fared better, thanks to the fact that he had the $100 flat-fee promise in writing.

His car subsequently broke down on the side of the road, and Tesla quoted him a Ranger fee of $808.

But when the owner pointed out the e-mail promise, Tesla picked up the car, put it on a ferry, and shipped it 1,500 miles back to Montreal for repair—at no charge. 

"When we added it up, they probably spent $10,000 on us, “ the owner reported. “It's incredible that they would do that. But there's no way they could do that for everybody."

Model X and Model 3 coming

Tesla faces a huge impending service challenge: Its production expected to double by the end of 2016 as Model X production ramps up.

Then it could soar with the start of production of the less expensive Model 3, presently scheduled for 2018.

There could be 1 million Teslas on the road by 2020, 10 times the current number.

2016 Tesla Model X

2016 Tesla Model X

And these are not cars you can take to your local mechanic: Virtually every Tesla will have to be repaired and serviced at a Tesla factory service center.

To increase its service capacity tenfold, to keep up with its projected skyrocketing population numbers in 2020, Tesla will have to build about 600 new service centers in the U.S. 

That’s about three new service centers a week,  every week, for the next four years.

That will be a serious challenge indeed.

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