Elon Musk: Model 3 Braking Can Be Fixed in Firmware. What?

Elon Musk: Model 3 Braking Can Be Fixed in Firmware. What?

There’s two new pieces of news about Tesla and its Model 3 ramp. One isn’t great news for anyone who hoped to buy the $35K version of the car, particularly people who wanted to pair it with the $7,500 tax credit, and the other is… complicated.

Complicated news first. Both Consumer Reports and Car and Driver have tested the Model 3 and come away with serious concerns about the vehicle’s braking distance. Consumer Reports logged an initial braking distance from 60mph to full stop of 130 feet on their first attempt, which is roughly in-line with Tesla’s communicated expectations. Subsequent tests, however, fell well short of that mark. CR tested two vehicles in total and was only able to hit the 130-foot mark once, on the first test of one car. The average length was 152 feet, seven feet longer than a Ford F-150 pickup. Meanwhile, Car and Driver saw a similar problem. That publication notes that brake distance was bizarrely variable, with a maximum distance of 196 feet and an average distance of 176 feet when stopping from 70mph. Both distances were significantly longer than Tesla expected.

Elon Musk: Model 3 Braking Can Be Fixed in Firmware. What?

The good news is, Musk has pledged to take whatever steps may be necessary to remedy this problem and to investigate how it may have occurred in the first place. What makes the issue a bit complicated is the following:

Very strange. Model 3 is designed to have super good stopping distance & others reviewers have confirmed this. If there is vehicle variability, we will figure it out & address. May just be a question of firmware tuning, in which case can be solved by an OTA software update.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 22, 2018

The CR braking result is inconsistent with other reviewers, but might indicate that some Model 3’s have longer braking distances than others. If so, we will address this at our expense. First time we’ve seen anything like this.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 22, 2018

A few hours later, Musk followed up with:

Looks like this can be fixed with a firmware update. Will be rolling that out in a few days. With further refinement, we can improve braking distance beyond initial specs. Tesla won’t stop until Model 3 has better braking than any remotely comparable car.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 22, 2018

Now, on the one hand, we’re glad to see Elon following up on the issue and pledging to address it immediately. On the other, it’s more than a little unsettling to think of a brake system as something that requires a firmware update to function properly. It’s definitely an area where Silicon Valley’s style of frequent product updates may not mesh well with the reality of what drivers expect — especially as Tesla scales out its customer base and hypothetically starts picking up buyers who aren’t as tech-savvy or as rich and don’t follow technical developments around BEVs as a daily hobby.

No Near-Term Plans for Baseline Model 3s

A recent New York Times report, meanwhile, throws more cold water on anyone who reserved a Model 3 early, with plans to buy the $35K baseline flavor, especially if they were planning to take advantage of the car’s $7,500 federal rebate. In a Twitter post over the weekend, Musk noted that shipping the $35K model right now would cause Tesla to “lose money and die.”

With production, 1st you need achieve target rate & then smooth out flow to achieve target cost. Shipping min cost Model 3 right away wd cause Tesla to lose money & die. Need 3 to 6 months after 5k/wk to ship $35k Tesla & live.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 21, 2018

All of Musk’s recent announcements around the Model 3 have targeted up-market features, including an AWD model ($54K) and a high-performance vehicle at $78K with dual motors. This has led some fans to charge that the line between the Model 3 and the Model S is getting awfully blurry, with more overlap between the products than was previously expected. This problem, of course, is scarcely unique to Tesla. As a longtime watcher of the computer industry, let me grouchily attest that laptop and desktop manufacturers often stuff product families with far more hardware than is particularly useful or necessary. It’s not unusual to find good deals for significantly less money than the top-end, heavily advertised products. But there’s also a sense that customers may sour on the Model 3 if the $35K flavor keeps being pushed back in favor of upmarket solutions, especially as more cost-competitive BEVs roll out from Tesla’s major competitors.

Musk’s point about vehicle production is accurate. Many companies start with the version of the car they can profitably sell before moving on to building the mass produced flavor. But this is also how companies slip from leading an industry, where Tesla indisputably enjoys some first-mover advantage, to fighting for market share in a crowded field. Musk, of course, is well aware of this, which likely explains some of his reactions of late.

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