Tesla exaggerated range figures, set up secret team to divert customer complaints

The software for dashboard readouts was rigged allegedly under Musk's direction says a Reuters report.
Ameya Paleja
Elon Musk

Elon Musk's Tesla Inc. exaggerated its range estimates on its electric vehicles (EVs) to such an extent that owners thought something was wrong with their cars. As sales ballooned, Tesla service centers were inundated with in-person appointment requests. The company responded by setting up a secret team in Las Vegas tasked with canceling them, a Reuters investigation report said.

The range has been a top concern for potential buyers transitioning from internal combustion vehicles to electric ones. In 2008, when EVs were still a rare new concept, Tesla promised a 200-mile (320 km) range on a single charge on its Roadster, a model it soon discontinued. Its second offering, Model S, promised a higher range of 249 miles (401 km) in 2012.

Around the same time, the company decided to rig its range-estimating software in its cars so that they offered "rosy" projections on a full charge. This helped to market its vehicles, a person familiar with the design of the software told Reuters.

It was only when the battery charge fell below 50 percent that the read-out was programmed to show more realistic projections. Car owners saw range estimations drop drastically and were at risk of being stranded.

So, Tesla put in a "safety buffer" to allow the car to go 15 more miles (24 km) even when the battery charge displayed zero on the dashboard. Instructions to display bloated figures came from none other than Elon Musk himself, the report claims.

Diverting customer complaints

With more than four million vehicles on the road, it was only a matter of time before Tesla owners noticed the differences in the promised and delivered ranges. One such owner, Alexandre Ponsin, was expecting the promised 353-mile range on his 2021 Model 3 during a road trip from Colorado to California. Surprisingly, he found that the range was nearly half in cold weather and needed a dozen stops to complete his journey.

Ponsin was concerned that his Tesla had developed a fault and, after multiple texts and calls, ended up setting up an appointment at a Santa Clara center soon after he arrived in California. He soon received a text stating that remote diagnostics had shown his battery was in good health, prompting him to cancel his appointment.

Tesla exaggerated range figures, set up secret team to divert customer complaints
Stock image of a call center representative

Ponsin did not know then that Tesla had set up a secret "Diversion" team tasked to cancel appointments of this nature. Located in Las Vegas, Nevada, the team fielded 2,000 requests a week and was expected to close 750 to reduce queues at Tesla service centers.

Tesla even updated its app so customers with range complaints could not book service appointments and had to wait for a Tesla representative to contact them, which often took weeks.

Approaches to closing requests included calling customers "unresponsive" after one call attempt or closing the call in less than five minutes. The team was told that they were saving the company $1,000 for every canceled appointment and even encouraged to celebrate them by ringing a metal xylophone, the Reuters report said.

Tesla has virtual service teams that use remote diagnostics to find and fix various issues with the car. Advisers in the team would often run them and inform customers that the car battery was fine and the performance of the battery degraded over time.

As the number of requests regarding range concerns began to swell, the team stopped running remote diagnostics and closed complaints. If remote diagnostics found another issue with the car, the group was instructed not to inform the customer and still close the complaint.

What about the EPA stickers?

Tesla is not the only brand of EVs that does not meet the range that it advertises. A study of 21 vehicles across brands in April this year found that EVs fell short by an average of 12.5 percent from what they promised. However, the three models of Tesla performed the worst, dropping 26 percent from what the stickers on the car claim.

US law requires EVs to state their fuel efficiency in miles-per-gallon equivalent (MPGe) to allow comparisons with internal combustion vehicles. These labels also carry range estimations, including city and highway driving.

Tesla exaggerated range figures, set up secret team to divert customer complaints
If you have found yourself frantic for a charger with Tesla, you are not alone

Car makers can either pick a standard Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) formula for arriving at these numbers or do so through their testing. Legacy carmakers such as Ford, Mercedes, and Porsche use EPA's formula while Tesla conducts its tests. EPA audits of Tesla's numbers have decreased estimated ranges by no more than three percent, the federal agency told Reuters.

In 2021, however, an independent automotive website Edmunds.com found after an extensive examination that while Tesla cars fell short of their advertised ranges, those from Ford, General Motors, Hyundai, and Porsche usually exceeded them.

Tesla protested these claims and asked Edmunds to take into account the "safety buffer". Two of the six Teslas met their advertised range, but the testing also revealed that the cars did not have a fixed safety buffer.

Earlier this year, the Korea Fair Trade Commission (KFTC) fined Tesla $2.1 million for falsely advertising their driving ranges. The environment ministry's tests found that the cars lost 50.5 percent of range in cold weather and demanded a public admission of misleading customers, which Musk and two other local executives did in a statement issued in June.

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