THURSDAY EVENING, TENS of thousands of Tesla Model S owners got an email warning them that the power steering on their electric cars might fail. Bolts that hold the system together have been corroding and weakening, particularly when exposed to harsh winter road conditions.
“We have observed excessive corrosion in the power steering bolts, though only in very cold climates, particularly those that frequently use calcium or magnesium road salts, rather than sodium chloride (table salt),” the email read. “Nonetheless, Tesla plans to replace all early Model S power steering bolts in all climates worldwide to account for the possibility that the vehicle may later be used in a highly corrosive environment.”
The issue affects all Tesla Model S sedans built before April 2016, some 123,000 vehicles globally, making it the young automaker’s largest recall to date. Tesla estimates that just .02 percent of vehicles in the US will suffer the failure, since most cars it has sold don’t face those conditions. But it’s voluntarily recalling all the cars to stay on the safe side. It also says that its owners can safely keep driving for now, while it gets parts out to service centers for replacement.
Still, the recall presents Tesla with another tripping hazard on an already rocky road. The automaker is desperately working to ramp up production of its all-important Model 3 sedan. It’s about to report Q1 numbers for 2018 to investors, who will home in on any shortcomings. Elon Musk’s latest promise is to be building 2,500 vehicles per week by now, and 5,000 per week by the end of June—a target he initially set for the end of last year, and which would have seen the line up and humming by now.
And, the National Transportation Safety Board has launched an investigation into a deadly Model X crash in the California Bay Area earlier this month. The feds will be looking to see whether the car was in Autopilot mode when it hit a freeway safety barrier dividing two lanes and caught fire—and, if it was, how the self-driving feature could have contributed to the driver’s death.
Tesla has dealt with recalls before. (Production delays and high-profile crashes aren’t new, either.) In 2015, it recalled every Model S it had built (about 90,000) for an easy-to-fix seatbelt issue. It gets a lot of attention each time, because it’s Tesla, it’s run by a famous billionaire, and the media and public subject it to constant scrutiny. But it’s worth remembering that car recalls are common across all manufacturers. Sedans, SUVs, and trucks are highly complex pieces of machinery, with thousands of moving parts. Despite rigorous testing, some faults don’t show up until a car has been on the road for years. To put Tesla’s 123,000-car hiccup into perspective, consider that, just this month, Mercedes-Benz is recalling 121,000 GLC SUVsbecause the rear seat belts have a design flaw. Honda is recalling 254,000 Odyssey minivans because the back seats might not latch properly. Ford, Ferrari, Pagani, and Maserati are also bringing smaller number of cars in for repairs. That’s in the past four weeks, and there’s nothing unusual about it.
The truly troubling problems are the really big ones, like the Takata recall, in which tens of millions of cars were equipped with airbags that could malfunction and fire shrapnel into the people they were meant to protect when they deployed. A few years ago, General Motors had to recall nearly 30 million cars around the world because of a faulty ignition switch, which could turn off while driving and deactivate the airbags. (If you’re suddenly wondering what’s wrong with your own car, you can pop your VIN into NHTSA’s website to see any recall that may affect it.)
The good news for Tesla and its owners is that the steering recall has an easy fix. It takes about an hour to replace the dodgy bolts. But that’s about 123,000 hours service technicians could spend working on other cars, or making sure customers are happy with their new Model 3s. Those new vehicles are reportedly still leaving the factory with poor build quality, leaving it to local service centers to realign doors, or replace touchscreens that suffer from “phantom touches” and crank up the volume all by themselves.
Put it all together, and it looks like the trouble may be getting to Tesla, a company that has survived more than a few crises. Share prices are dipping and the company is burning through cash while investors wait for Elon Musk to deliver on his promises. The steering recall might be a small straw on Elon Musk’s back, but it’s one more piece of an ever-growing pile.