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Tesla's Model 3 'production hell' is testing Elon Musk's fix-as-you-go carmaking model

Russ Mitchell, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Automotive News

Tesla turned the first 30 Model 3s over to paying customers -- all Tesla employees – at the July event. The company said regular customers will begin receiving Model 3s by the end of this month.

It's common practice for carmakers to let employees try out fresh cars as the assembly line is being tweaked before production begins in earnest. But those cars don't generate revenue for the company.

"At GM or Ford or Toyota, they call those vehicles 'production-intent prototypes not for sale,'" said Bob Lutz, a legendary car executive whose career spanned BMW, Ford, Chrysler and General Motors. By selling cars when the factory remains in "production hell," Lutz said, "you've got an increased risk of having problems with the vehicles. You're putting quality at risk for the sake of a PR event."

The online publication Elektrek said some of those first 30 cars were returned to Tesla with battery problems. Asked whether the story was accurate, a Tesla spokesman declined to comment.

Some observers wonder whether the Silicon Valley approach is being taken too far.

"If you find fault in a (motor vehicle) production process, it's not like your (Apple) Watch app, where they say, 'No problem, our next software release is in seven days and we promise it'll be fixed,'" said Julian Weber, an executive at BMW who helped develop its i3 and i8 electric cars and the author of a textbook on automobile manufacturing.

Weber now works with digital information systems for autos, and agrees that the Silicon Valley "done is better than perfect" approach to software releases has some merit for infotainment and other electronics because problems can be fixed fast. Large objects with moving parts are a different story.

"If 1,000 vehicles have a serious flaw, that's not going to be fixed in a few days," he said. "It means delays for 1,000 people waiting for their car. In the worst case, 1,000 vehicles have to be scrapped."

When a manufacturer introduces new manufacturing techniques to a line, Weber said, the results are often unpredictable. Several years ago, on a BMW 5 Series redesign, the mostly steel front end was changed to a mix of aluminum and other materials that required different joining techniques. The switch required "extensive and costly testing to ensure safety and functionality," Weber said.

The bodies of the Model S and Model X are mostly aluminum. The Model 3 is a mix of steel and aluminum. After Musk recently posted a short video clip of robots working with body parts, trade publication Automotive News showed it to a manufacturing expert, who said it appears that Tesla is grappling with welding issues.

Barring some surprising disclosure from Tesla during its Nov. 1 earnings call, the production level reached by the end of December will be the first public indication of whether Tesla's bottlenecks are early fixable glitches or problems that run deep.

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