Story of Teslas Turning Into 'Bricks' Making the Rounds

As Tesla Motors continues to build excitement for its all-electric Model S sedan and Model X CUV, an enthusiasm-quelling story about its Roadster’s battery pack turning into a proverbial “brick” has been circulating and prompting a predictable backlash of re-reporting and commentary.

The anti-excitement got started by a report that cited “at least” five owners who were faced with around $40,000 each in repair costs after allowing their Roadsters to go to a zero state of charge. Four had reportedly left their Roadsters unplugged but one was said to have had his battery die after using the wrong kind of extension cord.

The term “brick” refers to a dead machine and is borrowed from the world of electronic devices, which the Tesla automobiles basically happen to be, albeit with wheels and intended for transportation.

And a brick is what they essentially become if left unplugged long enough. As explained by theunderstatement.com which originated the story, the six-figure sports car can go from full charge to zero inside of 11 weeks due to always on subsystems trickling the juice away, and from there to catastrophic failure. If the battery was partially charged when the car was put away unplugged, it could be a shorter time to zero state of charge. If run to almost no charge, then put away unplugged, it could reportedly take just a few days or perhaps weeks before the vehicle is dead.

The story also made clear that Tesla’s supplied information explicitly states that it is the owner’s responsibility to never let the battery pack fully deplete.

However, if a Roadster is drained and passes into a state of electrical rigor mortis, it cannot be revived, nor can the vehicle even be rolled. Worse, Tesla does not cover it under warranty, and reportedly neither do insurance companies. The devastation requires a $32,000 replacement battery, plus labor, and taxes bringing the repair bill to around $40,000.

According to theunderstatement.com, an un-named Tesla regional service manager attests to “at least five cases of Tesla Roadsters being ‘bricked’ due to battery depletion.”

Unknown is whether there are additional cases in other regions or countries, the article added.

Included in the reported cases was one owner whose Roadster became a brick after leaving it unplugged for weeks in a temporary garage while his house was under renovation. Another person used a 100-foot extension cord but the long cord was presumably too light a gauge, and current loss exceeded current replenishment – this Roadster therefore bricked despite being plugged in. Another owner reportedly shipped a Roadster to Japan and said he could not plug in anywhere and by then it was too late.

As mentioned the news has been repeated in the blogosphere, and some have already deemed it “nonsense” or blamed negligent owners. One publication responding to this alarming story asked whether these were just accounts given by angry owners on the losing end of a warranty claim.

Whether this is the case or not cannot be determined with the info available, but despite allegations against the writer, theunderstanding.com did not present an exceptionally sensational story. It did explain the ins and outs of Tesla’s warranty, and was fairly thorough in a piece at about 2,500 words plus notes – easily three times or more the word count of re-reports.

Also documented was Tesla’s “unorthodox” means of preventing battery depletion by remotely monitoring the vehicles via installed electronics that connect through AT&T’s GSM-based cellular network.

“According to the Tesla service manager, Tesla has used this information on multiple occasions to proactively telephone customers to warn them when their Roadster’s battery was dangerously low,” theunderstatement.com wrote.

The writer alleged also that Tesla is playing down the issue, although not denying it exists.

Following is a response from Tesla:

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. However, 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 SOC falls to a low level. All Tesla vehicles emit various visual and audible warnings if the battery pack falls below 5 percent SOC. Tesla provides extensive maintenance recommendations as part of the customer experience.

Roadster production was recently discontinued after around 2,200 units were sold worldwide. The question now is whether this will mean potential trouble for the Model S which is next up for production, and Tesla hopes to sell many more of these.

Theunderstatement.com covered this too.

“Tesla’s service manager stated the upcoming Model S definitely shares the Roadster’s discharge problem, describing it as fundamental to the battery technology. Another Tesla employee concurred, saying it would be ‘neglect’ to leave the vehicle unplugged when it’s parked.”

Model S is next up as Tesla’s inaugural mode, the Roadster, begins to recede into history.

Citing purportedly “understated” instructions to keep the Model S plugged in, and hinting that human nature will find a way to brick them also, the writer mentions the company has accepted $465 million in federal loans based on promises to deliver a viable mainstream electric car.

In short, the writer said he was left wondering whether Tesla is setting itself up for more trouble as it attempts to appeal to mainstream buyers.

“Yet today, in my opinion, Tesla seems to be knowingly selling cars that can turn into bricks without any financial protection for the customer,” the author wrote with a subsequent note that he was uncompensated and personally had a deposit on a Model X. “Until there’s a fundamental change in Tesla’s technology, it would seem the only other option for Tesla is to help its customers insure against this problem.”

Although some publications have said warnings are overblown – although if so, by how much is in question – it appears one point driven home is that Teslas do not have the shelf life of an internal combustion car if left unattended. Internal combustion cars may see their 12-volt battery die after weeks or months, but this is not catastrophic. If left much longer, other things can go wrong like internal corrosion, fuel possibly evaporating, and eventually even seals can dry out. There are storage procedures for these vehicles as well to prevent things from going wrong.

At this juncture, we’ll avoid going out on a limb, and just say if you intend to get a Tesla – and barring any engineering updates the company may devise to make its cars more foolproof as Nissan has already with its Leaf – make sure you understand what you’re getting, and are prepared.


  • the other Anonymous

    Ouch, owner pays six-figures for a hi-tech sports car, hoping to be the kid with the latest gadget, not the miserable guy holding a ‘brick’.

  • Duude

    Its not like Tesla owners can’t afford a $40,000 bill. Stupid to purchase something this expensive without a long enough consumer trial period? Duuh! This is the consumer trial period.
    Thanks for playing!

  • Bob W

    The problem is fundamental to the battery. Tesla could possibly design an extreme power saving mode to delay full discharge as long as possible, but it’s a tradeoff. The subsystems run while the car is parked for a reason.

    As you said, the same thing happens to your cell phone or your laptop if left unplugged long enough. Those batteries are cheaper to replace.

  • Anonymous

    I have a Model X reservation. Doesn’t change my mind. Certainly something to be aware of but doesn’t seem like an overly difficult situation to avoid (unless you decide to ship your car to Japan as one person did). The automatic notification process seems like a good idea — I’ll definitely opt for that.

    These cars are different — that’s the point. Not every difference is going to be positive but I think the net still turns out for the better.

  • RogerP

    Hmm. Let’s see. If I plug-in a Model S overnight in my garage I get the equivalent of 106 mpg, the acceleration and performance of a very high end sports sedan (0-60 in 5.6 sec, flat cornering), and the overall storage space of a small SUV. Not to mention luxury features found in Jags, MB, Lexus, and BMW.

    Or … I can pay no attention to the owner’s manual and to verbal and written warnings when I purchased the car, leave the car unplugged for weeks or months, and brick the battery.

    This story is truly a hatchet job on one of the most innovative car companies on the planet—an American company, providing jobs for American workers. The treatment of this story by some in the media is disgraceful—little context and lots of sensationalism. You have to wonder why there are people who are rooting for Tesla and EVs in general to fail.

  • KVA

    Nothing I have seen has been sensationalized. The “brick” problem sounds real, and important, and it appears that Tesla had not been giving the consumer all the information they needed. Thank God for a free press that brings these kinds of things to light. I have put down my 5k for a model S and will likely still get it when it comes out, but this does give me pause. I occasionally take extended trips, the airport is a long drive from my house and the power does occasionally fail at my rural home. I should be able to protect against bricking most of the time now that I know about it, but I need some better protection if the unthinkable happens. I CANNOT afford a 40k repair for my car.

  • Rob De

    I’ve noticed that Tesla has neither confirmed nor denied the existence of the other 4 alleged cases of total loss main propulsion battery function.

    They should. After all, the other 4 alleged cases either happened, or they didn’t. The person who broke the original story is having his integrity openly challenged in countless online venues. If he is slandering Tesla, let them say so. If he is not, let them admit it.

    Based on my research into the story and it’s unfolding, I suspect Tesla is hiding as much as they can.