Good news: Your Tesla Model 3 is finally ready. Bad news: It may take weeks to get it serviced

Tesla service center in Costa Mesa, Calif. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

As Tesla ramps up its Fremont, Calif., factory to escape what Elon Musk called “production hell” with its new Model 3 electric sedan, some customers are enduring their own state of suffering trying to get Teslas serviced.

Parts shortages, long repair delays and problems getting through on customer help lines have led to scenes of strife at Tesla’s service centers.

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At the entrance to the company’s Dublin, Calif., center recently, an agitated Model X owner was trying to drop his SUV off for repair. A Tesla service agent said he couldn’t leave the car there because the facility was too busy. He could make an appointment to bring it in another time, maybe in a couple of weeks.

“But I don’t want to drive it!” said Kaushal Bhaskar, a software engineer from nearby San Ramon who complained he sometimes couldn’t get the passenger door to open, while other times the door would open up all by itself – including once on the Interstate at highway speeds. “This is a safety concern for me!”

Another service rep was assisting Mike, the owner of a red Model 3 with door-lock problems who declined to give his last name. He’d lock the car, walk away, and it would electronically unlock itself. That caused him to alter his vacation plans. “I couldn’t take it to Yosemite like that,” he said.

The agent said Mike would have to leave the car there awhile: “The amount of cases I’ve got right now is unbelievable.”

Service complaints are common at traditional automobile dealers, of course, even for new cars. But weeks-long waits for basic auto repair are rare, and months-long waits for body parts are practically unheard of for all but the most exotic vehicles, because spare parts from automakers and after-market manufacturers are stocked in inventory.

Spare body parts for repair almost always are made by the original manufacturer, said Bill Hampton, editor of the industry trade publication Auto Beat Daily.

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But, he said, it’s not surprising that such parts aren’t a top priority right now at Tesla.

“When you’re making dramatic efforts to manufacture 5,000 [Model 3s] in one week, you sure can’t say, ‘Hey, some guy in Topeka needs a new hood. Too bad,’” Hampton said.

The parts shortage goes well beyond California. In Norway, the third largest market for Tesla cars after the U.S. and China, some customers told Norwegian media they have been waiting months on body parts for their damaged Teslas. Musk addressed the Norway problem on Twitter on July 5, saying “Norwegians are right to be upset with Tesla. We are having trouble expanding our service facilities in Oslo especially. Can solve quickly with Tesla mobile service vans, but awaiting govt permission to do so.”

He has not addressed problems in the U.S. or elsewhere. The Times asked Tesla to make a service executive available to talk about what the company is doing to improve customer service, but it declined.

Only Tesla knows the full extent of its quality problems. J.D. Power, which ranks initial vehicle quality, measures all mass-market automakers except Tesla, which declines to provide quality data requested by the market research firm.

A Tesla spokesman said in a prepared statement that the company’s own global satisfaction scores for service are above 90%. A new parts distribution service was opened this spring in California, the statement said, and while “call volumes have increased dramatically due to the overwhelming excitement around the Model 3, this hasn’t impacted our ability to respond to emergency roadside events.”

Tesla has “plans in place” to hire more staff in customer support “in the event they are unable to find their answers" at Tesla’s support site “or in their Tesla account,” the company said. And it plans to open a large new service center in Oslo later this year. Tesla cars have topped Consumer Reports’ owner satisfaction survey for the last two years, the company noted.

Jeff Klein, a publishing executive in Northridge, said the hood and front quarter panel on his wife’s Model S were damaged in a March accident. Four months later, the car is still parked at a Tesla certified repair shop, waiting for parts, while Klein makes monthly payments on the lease. Klein didn't need a loaner vehicle.

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“The general manager said it could take several months, that Tesla didn’t seem to realize that their cars might get in accidents and they had no parts inventory,” Klein said. “Their parts are made to order, just like their cars.”

On Tesla online forums, customers complain about long hold times on Tesla’s customer service phone line and waits of sometimes hours to check the status on a car delivery or repair, or to ask for a refund on a car deposit. Some report Tesla doesn’t get back to them at all.

Mathijs Kok of Bueren, Germany, said the company promised by phone someone would return his call to correct a windshield problem on his new Model S. No one called him back.

The next time he had a problem — this one with unresponsive roadside assistance — Kok emailed the company. He never heard back, despite some followup reminders.

Kok, who said he runs a customer support department at Aerosoft GmbH, a flight simulator software maker, called the email snub “nasty.”

“The lack of callbacks was sloppy, almost certainly caused by too much work,” he said. “In a nutshell, it’s damned hard to get in contact and they have lacking procedures to make it possible for issues to be missed and not followed up in time.”

Service problems are not new at Tesla. In August, the company’s president for sales, marketing, delivery and service, Jon McNeill, said on the Tesla Motors Club forum the company had “streamlined” customer service “to make contacting the right person at Tesla easier.” Six months later, McNeill quit Tesla to become chief operating officer at Lyft.

In June, Karim Bousta, Tesla vice president of worldwide service and customer experience, left, as did David Erhart, senior director for reliability and testing.

Tesla’s sales and service approach differs greatly from most automakers, which sell their cars to franchised dealers. Tesla owns and runs retail sales and service operations on its own.

The company’s 74 service centers in the U.S. are complemented by Tesla Rangers, a mobile service program that dispatches service workers to fix some cars on site.

The company also has pioneered “over the air” updates, where software updates can be beamed to the car without having to bring it to the dealer.

A tent outside the Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif., was pressed into service to ramp up Model 3 production. (Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Tesla executives have said this approach lowers Tesla’s capital costs. But accelerating production — to 53,339 cars of three different models in the second quarter, up 55% from a year earlier and almost a five-fold increase from the same period in 2015 — may be overwhelming Tesla’s service resources.

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Add to that the wide variety of Model 3 quality problems reported on Tesla customer forums, including broken glass, bad paint jobs, body panel gaps, dead batteries, wind noise, dents, scratches and software problems including door locks and weirdly behaving touch screens.

Tesla has one of the most rabidly loyal customer bases of any automaker, of course. The same forums are peppered with praise for the cars and with Tesla service. And auto reviewers are near unanimous in their praise for the way the Model 3 drives.

Consumer Reports relies on customer surveys for its own quality assessments. Mike Quincy, an automotive specialist at the research organization, called Tesla’s quality record “mixed.”

“The good news is that the Model S has a new-car predicted reliability better than average,” Quincy said, referring to the mainstay Tesla sedan. “The bad news is that the Model X has proved far worse than average. Too few surveys have been collected yet to evaluate the Model 3.”

If Model 3 quality proves subpar and service issues aren’t fixed, it could mean deeper trouble for Tesla as the company tries to go mainstream, according to Karl Brauer at Kelley Blue Book.

Early Tesla buyers are “so in love with the car, they’d ignore things most buyers wouldn’t put up with, like delays for repairs, or batteries that fail multiple times,” Brauer said.

He suggested that Musk spend more time straightening out issues at Tesla and less time on cave rescue operations or offering to fix water contamination problems in Flint, Mich., Musk’s latest social cause.

As the Model 3 broadens Tesla’s customer base, it may test the company’s “over the air” service model.

At the Dublin service center, Bhaskar’s service rep said a review of his vehicle’s operational data, captured on Tesla’s cloud storage system, showed the door never opened by itself. “But I have seen it with my own eyes,” Bhaskar insisted. (The Times called the Dublin center three times to ask the service manager for comment. No calls were returned.)

Bhaskar told the rep he’d take the car home and make an appointment, but wanted a written statement acknowledging the door safety problem. “We’re not putting this on paper,” he was told. “Here, that’s not the way business is done.”

The issue was escalated, and after 45 minutes Bhaskar was allowed to leave his car. He departed in a Mercedes-Benz SUV loaner.

5:20 p.m.: This article was updated to include mention of Tesla’s Consumer Reports’ owner satisfaction rating.

This article was originally published at 1:25 p.m.

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