Tesla Motors Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA) has audacious plans. From CEO Elon Musk's vision of all electric vehicles for the mass market to building a battery factory that will produce more batteries than all of the world's factories produced in 2013, Tesla thinks big. But here's one big thing that Tesla owners didn't want to be a part of -- massive repair bills. And, sometimes, for little more than a scratch!
A different kind of car
It's pretty obvious that Tesla Motors makes a unique automobile since it's sole focus is all-electric vehicles. But switching gas for electric is only one piece of the puzzle. Another big difference between the company's cars and most others is the materials used, which in the case of Tesla includes a fair amount of aluminum. Interestingly enough, more aluminum is the big news for the new Ford (NYSE:F) F-150 truck. And as we look to fuel efficiency, more and more aluminum is likely to be the norm.
Aluminum is light and strong. Reduced weight allows automakers like Ford to squeeze out more miles from a gasoline-powered engine and allows Tesla's all-electric vehicles to go further on a single charge. Ford, for example, was able to increase the Ford F-150's fuel efficiency by as much as 29% compared to older models of the same truck.
That's great, but there are a number of problems with aluminum. For example, you can't just use steel working machines on it and it isn't normally welded together. So, if you are going to use aluminum, you have to purchase special equipment. That, obviously, raises costs for automakers.
And while aluminum is strong, it works differently than steel. It's easy to understand by taking a soda can and denting it. If you try to work that dent out, you'll likely wind up creating all sorts of creases in the side of the can. It just won't look the same. In fact, if you bend that aluminum can back and forth too many times, it will probably develop a sort of rip or tear at the main crease point. If it were a steel can with a dent, you could just take a hammer to it and pound the dent out. With enough finesse it might even look pretty close to new.
And that's where Tesla owners are increasingly feeling sticker shock, outside of the cost of the car, that is. Imagine getting a small dent or scratch from a minor traffic collision. The car works perfectly fine, but the body could use what you think is just a little tender loving care.
Green Car Reports scanned through a Tesla owners forum and found some examples of what that TLC might cost: "A $10,000 estimate to repair a 'minor but long' scratch," "A $7,000 estimate for repair of a small dent and scratch that required no replacement of parts," and my favorite, "An $11,000 estimate for a minor scrape on the rear panel, including a $155 charge to 'ensure battery remains charged' during the repair." I can't even imagine what the auto shop would be doing with the battery that would fully drain it while it fixed a dent -- listening to the radio?
These examples, meanwhile, are for minor dents. How about $30,000 for fender and door damage? Or $45,000 for "minor" front end damage? We all know that cars are more complex then they used to be and that's inflated auto repair bills, but that $45,000 bill to fix a Tesla is frighteningly close to the median family income in the United States (the median income is a bit under $55,000, in case you were wondering).
Why so much? Aluminum is a big part of the equation. Repair shops have to buy all new equipment to work with the metal, something that cost a shop $100,000 according to one owner. And Tesla is a stickler about repairs, too. For example, to get Tesla Approved requires a three week course. That's three weeks that a shop has to pay employees to sit in class on top of the cost of the class.
All of those costs get passed along to customers. According to one shop owner, the per hour rate for a Tesla repair can be as much as twice what would be charged for other cars. Ouch! But before you go down the route of rich people that can afford expensive toys can afford expensive repair bills, think back to the Ford F-150. That's a working man's truck that's meant to handle heavy duty work. The kind of work that might just lead to a few dents and scratches.
The future is nigh
As the government pushes harder and harder for increased fuel efficiency, aluminum will increasingly find its way into cars that the Average Joe might buy. If you own a Tesla, you had better take extra care on the road if you don't want to face hefty repair bills for minor damage. At the very least, include repair costs in your thought process when you buy it. The same is true if you own an F-150. But if you are an auto consumer with more modest taste, be prepared for a future where repair bills are increasingly, well, "Tesla" big.
Reuben Brewer has no position in any stocks mentioned and doesn't own a Tesla, but only because it costs so much to repair -- otherwise he'd own three or four of them. The Motley Fool recommends Ford and Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford and Tesla Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.