Will a Major Drive Unit Problem Decimate Tesla Motors, Inc.?


Tesla Motors Model S. Photo credit: Tesla Motors.  

On June 22, 2012, Tesla Motors  (NASDAQ: TSLA  ) delivered its first Model S, and since then, the car has received high praise and numerous accolades -- Consumer Reports even rated the Model S at a near perfect score of 99 out of 100. What's more, Tesla Motors' stock has risen precipitously since 2012, and as of this writing, it sits at $215.40 a share. That's the good news.

The bad news is that after being road-tested for the past few years, the Model S is starting to show some major flaws, and that could have a direct impact on Tesla Motors' stock price. Here's what you need to know.

Edmunds.com's Long-term road test
In February, 2013, Edmunds.com purchased a 2013 Tesla Model S Performance for the sole purpose of being able to test the car for an extended period of time. For the first 5,000 miles, everything was relatively exceptional, except for a few minor issues. However, over the subsequent months, Edmunds.com journalists detailed their experiences with the Model S, and the results were not what one would hope for, or expect.

Tesla Motors Model S base. Photo credit: Oleg Alexandrov via Wikimedia Commons.

By 18,822 miles, the Model S had experienced myriad problems, including prematurely worn tires, a broken sunroof, the battery had to be replaced, and the drive unit had to be replaced -- twice

By 30,160 miles, the problems with the Model S had only increased, and when Ronald Montoya, consumer advice editor at Edmunds.com, took the Model S in to be serviced, the technician informed him that the noise he heard was what's known as a "milling sound," and indicated that the drive unit needed to be replaced... again.

Also, while Montoya believes that early Model S drivers are "essentially beta-testing the car" and thus are less likely to be "scared off by all the repairs," he admits that Tesla Motors needs to "get these quality issues under control," and that for someone who just wants a "stylish EV to replace a luxury sedan," the maintenance requirements for the Model S are off-putting.

Considering that Tesla Motors' site claims: "With just one moving piece in the motor, compared to hundreds in a gas engine, there are fewer things that can go wrong. That translates to less maintenance and service over time," the road test results above aren't the best news.

Not a unique problem
If Edmunds.com's problems with its Model S were an outlier, it'd be easy to say this singular car is a "lemon." Unfortunately, when MotorTrend.com also tested the Model S, it too had to have the drivetrain replaced. Plus, as insideevs.com points out, the technician who diagnosed the problem did so by ear after only a block and a half of driving. And, when one reads the comments on the Edmunds.com article, or TeslaMotors.com's forums, it's clear that numerous Model S owners are experiencing the same problem with the drive unit, meaning that the issue is not unique, nor is it limited to the Performance model.

Tesla Motors Model S. Source: Tesla Motors.

Furthermore, autoguide.com reports that Consumer Reports downgraded the 2013 Model S's reliability score to "below average," due to owners reporting more problems (the combined score from the 2012 and 2013 models years is "average"), and TrueDelta.com also reports that Model S owners are reporting "high repair frequencies." In fact, Michael Karesh, TrueDelta.com's founder, stated that the Model S "requires three times as much service as the typical vehicle in his survey," according to autoguide.com.

What this means
When it comes to drive unit problems, there are a number of concerns, but four seem especially important for investors.

Tesla T made by Model S cars. Source: deinspanjer via Wikimedia Commons.

First, it could be argued that Tesla Motors is simply experiencing growing pains, and that it'll get its drive unit issues sorted out. However, Tesla Motors stock is especially volatile when it comes to issues with its vehicles -- as was seen with the sell-offs after battery fires were reported -- and a drive unit that only lasts around 10,000 miles is a big issue (cleantechnica.com estimates that the out-of-warranty replacement cost for consumers is around $15,000).  

Second, because a number of Model S owners are reporting that the drive unit needs to be replaced around the 10,000-mile mark, that could indicate a design flaw, and not simply a manufacturing issue. If that's the case, a Model S recall would likely be needed, which could prove quite costly to Tesla Motors.

Third, Tesla Motors' guarantees the resale value of the Model S when it's financed through one of Tesla Motors' specified commercial banking partners. For the first quarter of 2014, that guarantee was given to "an additional 1,181 Model S deliverers," and it's expected to increase in the future. If the reliability of the Model S continues to decline, that could have a direct impact on resale value. If that happens, there could be a significant uptake on this program, and according to Tesla Motors, that "could have a significant adverse impact on our near term GAAP revenues and operating results." 

Finally, while warranty costs are something every vehicle manufacturer has to deal with, because Tesla Motors is currently only manufacturing one vehicle, a rapid increase in claims on the Model S could have a more pronounced impact on its bottom line, especially as it's failed to be profitable on a GAAP basis (except for the first quarter of 2013), and its non-GAAP EPS for Q1 2014 was $0.12. Consequently, Tesla Motors' drive unit issue is something to watch.

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Regardless of what happens with Tesla Motors, a major technological shift is happening in the automotive industry. Most people are skeptical about its impact. Warren Buffett isn't one of them. He recently called it a "real threat" to one of his favorite businesses. An executive at Ford called the technology "fantastic." The beauty for investors is that there is an easy way to invest in this megatrend. Click here to access our exclusive report on this stock.


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  • Report this Comment On July 20, 2014, at 11:35 AM, TMFDanielSparks wrote:

    Great article Katie! And thanks for doing all this research. Hopefully Tesla can comment on the service frequency and potential design flaw in the next quarterly letter to shareholders or conference call. I'd like some more perspective.

  • Report this Comment On July 20, 2014, at 12:10 PM, Ustauber wrote:

    Katie,

    How come every article that you write about Tesla Motors has to be negative .

    How come every article you write about Northrop Grumman is very positive.

    Very FISHY .......

    ThxTESLA from Belmont, Ca

  • Report this Comment On July 20, 2014, at 12:11 PM, EquityBull wrote:

    Fantastic research and article. I know the Tesla longs will want to shut their eyes to this but as with any investment you shouldn't do that.

    One other potential pothole in Tesla's future is going to be resale value with relation to battery replacement. Let's face it. Tesla cars are only on the road for a couple years now. What happens once the first cars hit 5 or 7 years of age? What will be their actual capacity left? How much longer until the batteries must be replaced at close to 20k.

    If you are a Tesla owner and trying to sell your 5 year old car to somebody how much gets knocked off because:

    A) Your mileage range has already dropped significantly

    B) You are now just potentially 3 to 5 years (or maybe less - we just don't know yet) from a costly battery replacement.

    I test drove a loaded P85+. I wanted to love it - and I did - but not for $125k. I've driven other cars in this price range and the Model S should sit more in the 75k range for what you get to be a value IMHO. Could I have bought it? Sure, easily. Did I buy it? No. Not a good value relative to other uber sedans from BMW and Mercedes (or audi) in this price range). Unless you MUST have electric only there are better choices out there with higher quality, better performance, fewer repairs, better resale.

  • Report this Comment On July 20, 2014, at 12:38 PM, TheSaX wrote:

    @TMFDanielSparks & @EquityBull

    Actually, she didn't do any research. This is all from a SeekingAlpha blog post by Mark Spiegel aka "LogicalThought."

    I haven't seen any numbers on the frequency of these problems. We can't really make any big claims until we know the frequency.

  • Report this Comment On July 20, 2014, at 2:17 PM, TCL wrote:

    Before you guys all freak out about drive trains, and issues. Every car company has some issues of recall. Look at GM as an example, their stock is near 52 week highs even with 10s of millions of recalls announce these past months from many deaths because of their vehicle design.

    The investor in tesla stocks don't care for earnings. It cares only about what is coming. Design flaws will be address, company will move on. If investors cared about earnings at this point, the stock would not be in the 200s. Investors are banking on huge growth from model X, and model 3, and the gigafactory. No one cares for the short term noise.

  • Report this Comment On July 20, 2014, at 2:53 PM, OverConfident wrote:

    There is the motor, gearbox, inverter. It is basically a package, so if there is a problem with any of them, it all gets swapped out as one.

    Very few have failed, as in dead in the street, but many early Model S' have been replaced because of noise, real or perceived, or during the 12k miles checkup. It is all under warranty for non-commercial owners. No one has paid a dime for its replacement. It has been known awhile, that Tesla routinely replaces the drive unit during regular maintenance cycles. It is like a 24 hour oil change.

    That 15k price came from one Limo fleet owner, whom did not have a mileage warranty extension.

    Tesla has been constantly tweaking the drive units designs, so later batches probably are less prone to premature failures. What mileage that is, no one outside the company knows how long they are supposed to last. But they are routinely swapped out regardless of problems and customer complaints.

  • Report this Comment On July 20, 2014, at 3:13 PM, nonqual wrote:

    " No one cares for the short term noise."

    Right on! It took them nearly 11 years to lose $1.2 billion. Profits are for trolls.

  • Report this Comment On July 20, 2014, at 3:26 PM, TMFKSpence wrote:

    Thanks, Daniel. I'm glad you liked the article. I too agree that'll be interesting to see how Tesla Motors spins this issue.

    Ustauber, here's a "negative" article I wrote regarding Northrop Grumman. Enjoy. "Warning: Northrop Grumman's Backlog continues to Decline," http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2014/04/28/warning-nor...

    EquityBull, I agree with you.

    TheSaX, I don't read SeekingAlpha, but it sounds like an interesting article. If you'd like to know more about where I got my research, as well as read about frequency of failure from Model S owners, feel free to click on the links I've embedded in my article.

    Fool on!

    TMFKSpence

  • Report this Comment On July 20, 2014, at 3:42 PM, monkeyspunky wrote:

    Well, Tesla is not about buying a brand.., it is about buying an alternative (to internal combustion.)

    Whether or not Elon Musk's ev car company is around 20 years from now, it is today causing the big car companies to look at technologies they've basically y avoided for 35 years.

    That's a good thing!

  • Report this Comment On July 20, 2014, at 3:48 PM, Haeze wrote:

    @EquityBull

    Your two questions are actually quite laughable in-perspective... Ask the same questions about an ICE car and you will get less positive answers than you will about an electric car.

    A) Your mileage range has already dropped significantly.

    Yup. In an ICE car after you have driven for 5 years, your mileage WILL be significantly lower per-gallon. In fact you will have also lost performance due to lower compression, and general parts wear in the engine. Something that doesn't happen with an electric drivetrain.

    B) You are now just potentially 3 to 5 years (or maybe less - we just don't know yet) from a costly battery replacement.

    Replace the word "Battery" with "Motor and Transmission" and you have the exact same statement that holds true for ICE vehicles.

    At least with the electric vehicle you can look at the age, and the mileage, and get an approximate remaining lifespan. With an ICE vehicle it depends too much on how the previous owner treated the car. If they maintained it properly, if they didn't abuse it, etc. WIth an electric car there is very little maintenance, and you can drive it as hard as you want, and it will still behave just like the car that was babied. There is no worry about overheating causing plug failures, there is no worry about air filters that weren't changed causing debris to get into the engine, there is no worry about not changing the oil often enough, or using the wrong oil, causing friction that wears down the moving parts quicker than their expected life.

    Funny enough, after all of that, if somehow the battery did have some sort of issue, it has an 8-year unlimited mile warranty. You get a replacement for free. If you are outside the 8 year warranty, you may have to pay for a replacement, but that replacement cost goes DOWN as new battery technologies and economies of scale have reduced it over those 8 years. Once you get that new battery pack which was cheaper, lighter, and may even have a longer range, your car is now restored to (arguably better than) new performance. With any other ICE car, the price of the motor and transmission alone would exceed the total value of the car, if you can find a replacement at all. It would have to be built, installed, then tuned by a mechanic who may or may not forget something in the process, causing more problems down the line, taking weeks if not months. All to get the car to a state that is never as good as the car ran when it was new.... while you watch the guy with a Tesla get his new battery pack installed by a robot in a matter of 90 seconds as he drove over the battery-swap station's pad.

    Sorry, but you fail to convince me that an ICE is superior in any way as far as resale value goes.

  • Report this Comment On July 20, 2014, at 3:57 PM, evlover wrote:

    Sloppiest research!

    How many Model S were delivered?

    How many had a Drive Unit failure?

    How common is the failure?

    Did you get a confirmation from Tesla?

    If Tesla does not reveal the numbers, don't you know how to force it to comply?

    That's what reporters do.

    Speculations is not value investing.

  • Report this Comment On July 20, 2014, at 4:18 PM, damienmargo wrote:

    Decimate? LOL. Not going to happen. The Tesla phenomenon as we know it was not created by Tesla, but rather 100 years of humans being complete idiots.

  • Report this Comment On July 20, 2014, at 6:35 PM, Origin97 wrote:

    It's taken over 100 years for cars to become what they are today. The Model S is two years old. I'm sure once they worked out their issues and their cars have evolved, they will be more modular, Things will be redesigned and in 20-30 years we'll have more electrics than gas. In reality, what choice will we have? What will we pay for gas then?

  • Report this Comment On July 20, 2014, at 7:12 PM, TheSaX wrote:

    @TMFKSpence

    This is the blog post I mentioned, which was written seven days ago:

    http://seekingalpha.com/article/2312325-tesla-may-have-a-hug...

    Anyway, I looked at all your links and didn't find the frequency of failures per cars sold. I'm assuming you never actually found that statistic either, because you didn't include it in your article.

  • Report this Comment On July 20, 2014, at 7:22 PM, TMFKSpence wrote:

    TheSax, thanks for the link! Like I said previously, you'll have to read through the comments of Model S owners, which will give you an idea of how frequently the drive unit is failing.

    TMFKSpence

  • Report this Comment On July 20, 2014, at 9:20 PM, Ustauber wrote:

    @TMFK

    Your article is a copy of the one in Seeking Alpha.

    How much research did you actually do for the article .

    http://seekingalpha.com/article/2312325-tesla-may-have-a-hug...

  • Report this Comment On July 20, 2014, at 10:20 PM, TMFKSpence wrote:

    Ustauber, as I've stated before, I don't read SeekingAlpha. If you'd like to know where I got my research, feel free to click on the handy-dandy links I've embedded in my article. Moreover, I'll wager that there are a number of articles regarding Edmunds' long-term Model S road test as it is an authority in vehicles.

    Hope you enjoyed the Northrop Grumman article.

    TMFKSpence

  • Report this Comment On July 20, 2014, at 10:43 PM, OneHundredxFifty wrote:

    Interesting article. This is a new vehicle and early adopters with any sense know they may suffer a bit. Sounds like not a big deal for non-commercial customers as the warranty covers it. As one who has done a good deal of product development, this sounds like a very solvable problem.

    Given the rapid decline in cost of Li-ion batteries, it is likely that they will cover the added cost by not dropping the list price. In other words, their cost of goods sold will decline providing better margins. Those margins can be applied to the higher warranty service costs and likely it will be a wash.

    The brand has value so they can continue to charge a premium for the foreseeable future. They will probably add a small performance boost and lower the price by some token amount essentially covering their tracks with good marketing.

  • Report this Comment On July 20, 2014, at 10:56 PM, californiaev wrote:

    I just returned from the annual TMC conference; I don't agree with the assertion this is widespread. There are multiple surveys being run of the base, and while there are a few cars that regretfully that fall into the Edmunds camp, they are in the minority.

    Forums are good places to look for a catalog of issues but you really need to look at the data before asserting there is an issue. Always good to bring up and discuss though.

  • Report this Comment On July 21, 2014, at 2:55 AM, Pixma25 wrote:

    This is where she lost credibility - "The bad news is that after being road-tested for the past few years, the Model S is starting to show some major flaws,"

    No one has owned a model S for more than 2 years. Not "a few".

    It's an important distinction. At best, she is willfully ignorant about the subject of her article. At worst, she is intentionally exaggerating (lying) to try and support her premise. Being so wrong about such a basic, easily checked fact casts doubt about everything she has to say.

    This was a common behavior after the first two or three fires. People negative on TSLA would say "several fires".

  • Report this Comment On July 21, 2014, at 3:48 AM, DeaneCO wrote:

    A year ago Katie wrote an article trashing Tesla, and as a brand new Model S owner, I jumped to Tesla's defense. Now a year older and wiser, I can say that Katie is… still absolutely wrong. My Tesla is the closest thing to a perfect vehicle I ever hope to drive. It is smooth, powerful, quiet and astonishingly fast. I drive a lot of miles and push the car every time I drive because it's such a thrilling experience.

  • Report this Comment On July 21, 2014, at 8:12 AM, envpilot wrote:

    This article is pretty useless without actual numbers / percentages of the problems.

    For one, I've had a Model S Performance Edition for about 17 months now, it's well over 10k miles and never had any issues with it.

    My tires are fine too.

    :)

    One reason for faster tire wear could just be that it's a very fast / high torque car, so people like to get the excitement for the crazy acceleration.

    :)

  • Report this Comment On July 21, 2014, at 9:07 AM, fpl1954 wrote:

    If you look at the price of Tesla cars, enough profit is built in to cover near total replacement of the car, not just batteries and drivetrain. Granted the profit is going to build supercharging stations so Tesla owners never have to buy fuel, but they can pause that expansion or borrow against growth to fund it, whatever provides cheaper capital.

    Remember, Elon Musk is an Engineer, with lots of EXPERIENCE. He is not an accountant. Accountants run most companies, which is why not only innovation, but maintaining quality, is impossible, accountants are destroying US Industry.

    Being an Engineer, Musk knows the compromises they had to accept. He knows that expecting lithium batteries to last several times their real service life is unrealistic. He knows that expecting drivetrains that run at full torque from zero to 100% RPM to have a zero failure rate is unrealistic.

    However, he also knows that MOST owners will hardly drive their cars and even then, only drive lightly. Those cars will be trouble free and pay for those who flog their cars.

    He knows the value provided by the "floggers", who are acting as the "test track" and providing superb definition of the boundary conditions he needs to address. You can bet Tesla is bending over backwards to keep them happy, and keep them flogging the cars.

    Tesla is doing things smart, and right.

  • Report this Comment On July 21, 2014, at 9:08 AM, drax7 wrote:

    The writer is probably getting renumeration for FUD, directly or indirectly .

    Tesla has the engineering talent to fix any electric motor issues should there be some.

  • Report this Comment On July 21, 2014, at 11:45 AM, CurtRenz wrote:

    It's an infrequent humming sound and not a drive train failure. It would not be noticed in a car with an internal combustion engine.

    The entire drive train is replaced. The drive train with the sound is sent back to the factory where the single internal problematic part is replaced. The reconditioned drive train is then placed in the next car that has a humming sound.

    The cost to the company is minimal, but the customer appreciation is immense. The good will created brings more customers. Trust the engineers to make certain this sound is not likely to recur in newer cars being produced.

    Regarding the unrelated battery pack concern expressed by EquityBull, the pack is warranted for eight years and expected to last at least twelve. By then replacements will likely be much cheaper and more powerful.

    Articles and comments by short selling FUDmeisters appear without end. Their shortsighted perspectives are wisely ignored by investors and car buyers who admire an innovative American company successfully disrupting the established automotive and oil companies.

  • Report this Comment On July 21, 2014, at 4:38 PM, NoOil wrote:

    "Decimate"?

    Your article did not beat TSLA price down as of 7/21/2014. It's $220.54, up $0.52 while the Dow, S&P and NASDAQ are all down!

    Do yourself a favor and rebuild your credibility please.

    Stop parroting other articles such as "the out-of-warranty replacement cost for consumers is around $15,000"

    The right thing to do is to get a receipt or proof of that dollar amount.

    What you portrait here should give you no problem of getting owners to give you a repair bill.

  • Report this Comment On July 21, 2014, at 6:37 PM, CurtRenz wrote:

    I'm a retired financial journalist. I'm aghast. What passes as a "researched" investigative report these days is just a paraphrasing of what has been googled on the internet. In my day we personally questioned sources.

    In this case Tesla Motors would have told the reporter a humming drive train is sent to the factory where a single imperfect part is replaced. The reconditioned drive train is then placed in the next car that hums.

    The cost to Tesla is minimal. Such a repair is far simpler and cheaper than with difficulties involving the drive train of a car with a far more complicated internal combustion engine. That's true for both the car owner and the company.

    If the author had learned this after contacting the company, she may not have written the article. If she had, she would have instead extolled the virtues of a cheap and simple fix for a minor sound annoyance that would not even be heard in a conventional car.

    Was this simply inept reporting, or is it part of an agenda to vilify America's first successful automaker in ninety years?

  • Report this Comment On July 21, 2014, at 7:04 PM, SkepikI wrote:

    A great deal of difficulty getting my comments to post on this article.. not the first time

  • Report this Comment On July 21, 2014, at 7:04 PM, SkepikI wrote:

    <The cost to Tesla is minimal. Such a repair is far simpler and cheaper than with difficulties involving the drive train of a car with a far more complicated internal combustion engine. That's true for both the car owner and the company.>

    While I would NEVER buy a Tesla, and yes, I've driven one (wonderful technology but lots of possible failure points)....the above is quite encouraging and EXACTLY what I would expect good engineers to do on a new product. Furthermore, I would expect them to KEEP a few and not refurbish them, but test them non destructively and run them to failure to see what can be improved and what possible problems are.....it would be interesting to find out IF they are doing this and complete research Katie would include such an inquiry. I look forward to your next article covering such....

    And to those of you who think that ICE autos have analagous problems all the time, I invite you to ride in my 99 Subaru Outback with ...419,520 miles. Heading for 500k.

    BTW Tesla fans- no slam, but I found myself wondering about what happens when the nifty "extruding" door handles fail and no longer extrude...break a window?

  • Report this Comment On July 22, 2014, at 12:43 AM, evlover wrote:

    @SkepikI:

    For your Tesla door handles question, it's best to register in Teslamotors' forum to cut down the bandwidth here.

    Your question suggests it's quite an adjustment to drive an electric car.

    People have been confused to see such an empty luggage space under the front hood. They then get more confused with lots of space in the rear as well.

    You come to it and you don't unlock it. It just greets you, present its handles and waits for you to get in.

    You don't turn it on. It's already on waiting for you to drive.

    When you are done. You don't shut it off, you don't lock it.

    Just get out, close the door and walk away: it's already off and locked automatically!

    To answer your question, it has no physical key for you to place it into a physical key hole.

    That means it has no physical key hole either.

    If the doors fail to present you the handles, you can use your cell phone app to do so.

    If you don't have your cell phone with you, go and borrow any phone to call Tesla to remotely unlock the doors for you.

    Of course, as touted by recent Chinese Syscan360 hackers last week, if someone knows or cracks your user name and password, they can open the doors for you from half a world away using freely available Tesla cell phone App without you asking.

    However, they cannot drive away, because the propulsion is a separate system which none has ever hacked so far (Others could hardwired hack to other brands of cars to drive away, but not Tesla so far.)

    If the car's electricity is completely depleted or if your car door handles is broken, call Tesla, they'll send a "Ranger" or a "Valet" to you to either fix it or tow it on a flat bed and leave you a loaner.

    In the forum, there have been many praises of Tesla Service for not wasting customers' time as they could continue to rest at home or work in the office when their cars are serviced and swapped with a loaner at home or at work.

    By the way, there has never been any report of handles failure that locks an owner out. Of course, that means there has never been a report of any owner breaking any window glasses at all.

  • Report this Comment On July 23, 2014, at 9:23 PM, TMFKSpence wrote:

    Pixma25, the definition of "a few" is "a small number; one or two." Better luck next time. ;)

    CurtRenz, since you're a "retired financial journalist" I'm sure you're aware that claiming the "milling" sound is a "single internal problematic part" needs to be backed up. So, what is this "single internal problematic part," what is your source, and what constitutes a "minimal" cost? Further, how do you explain Model S owners complaining that the noise is quite loud, and gets progressively worse?http://www.teslamotors.com/forum/forums/whats-edmunds-and-dr...

    This is in direct conflict to your statement that it wouldn't be noticed in an ICE vehicle. Also, the claim the Tesla Motors is replacing drive units with reconditioned ones is somewhat dubious: please cite your source for this claim.

    TMFKSpence

  • Report this Comment On July 23, 2014, at 9:48 PM, TMFKSpence wrote:

    Skepikl, while some may claim that fixing the Model S' drive unit is cheap and not complicated, I'd seriously question that assumption. We're talking about a motor that at its base produces 302hp and 317 lb-ft of torque, and can propel a 4,647 lb car from 0-60 in 5.9 sec.

    TMFKSpence

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