Disclaimer: I am not a car guy. Read the following with that
As long-time EG readers will know, I've complained in the past that my
Prius has a feeble starter/electronics battery which is easy to
run down even by leaving the interior lights on. This despite the fact that the
Prius has a huge battery running the hybrid system to draw on. But I
certainly didn't want this. Michael DeGusta reports
that if you leave your Tesla parked for a long time (like months),
then the car bleeds enough power off of the battery to run the
auxilary vehicle systems [parasitic load]
to drain it down into deep discharge
(and hance damage to the battery) territory:
A Tesla Roadster that is simply parked without being plugged in will
eventually become a "brick". The parasitic load from the car's
always-on subsystems continually drains the battery and if the
battery's charge is ever totally depleted, it is essentially
destroyed. Complete discharge can happen even when the car is plugged
in if it isn't receiving sufficient current to charge, which can be
caused by something as simple as using an extension cord. After
battery death, the car is completely inoperable. At least in the case
of the Tesla Roadster, it's not even possible to enable tow mode,
meaning the wheels will not turn and the vehicle cannot be pushed nor
transported to a repair facility by traditional means.
The amount of time it takes an unplugged Tesla to die varies. Tesla's
Roadster Owners Manual [Full Zipped PDF] states that the battery
should take approximately 11 weeks of inactivity to completely
discharge [Page 5-2, Column 3: PDF]. However, that is from a full 100%
charge. If the car has been driven first, say to be parked at an
airport for a long trip, that time can be substantially reduced. If
the car is driven to nearly its maximum range and then left unplugged,
it could potentially "brick" in about one week.1 Many other scenarios
are possible: for example, the car becomes unplugged by accident, or
is unwittingly plugged into an extension cord that is defective or too
When a Tesla battery does reach total discharge, it cannot be
recovered and must be entirely replaced. Unlike a normal car battery,
the best-case replacement cost of the Tesla battery is currently at
least $32,000, not including labor and taxes that can add thousands
more to the cost.
There's been a lot of controversy about this report
(see, for instance, this defense), but Tesla's response seems to by consistent
with DeGusta's basic argument, as does the letter
that Jalopnik reproduces above:
All automobiles require some level of owner care. For example,
combustion vehicles require regular oil changes or the engine will be
destroyed. Electric vehicles should be plugged in and charging when
not in use for maximum performance. All batteries are subject to
damage if the charge is kept at zero for long periods of
time. However, Tesla avoids this problem in virtually all instances
with numerous counter-measures. Tesla batteries can remain unplugged
for weeks (even months), without reaching zero state of charge. Owners
of Roadster 2.0 and all subsequent Tesla products can request that
their vehicle alert Tesla if SOC falls to a low level. All Tesla
vehicles emit various visual and audible warnings if the battery pack
falls below 5 percent SOC. Tesla provides extensive maintenance
recommendations as part of the customer experience.
At present, then, the agreed upon facts seem to be that:
- If you leave the Tesla's batteries at zero charge, battery
- If you leave a Tesla unplugged for long enough, even
with a charged battery, parasitic load from the vehicle
systems will eventually consume the battery's charge,
leaving you in state (1) above. [Note that this appears
to exceed the Lithium-Ion self-discharge rate, so it
likely is parasitic load.]
The controversy really seems to be about who's fault
this is, namely whether the customer should have known better,
whether Tesla notified them correctly, etc. I don't have
a Tesla so I don't care about that. I'm much more interested
in the engineering question of what's going on and what,
if anything, can be done about it.
The parasitic load thing isn't totally unfamiliar territory, of
course. Any modern vehicle has electronics and those need
power, which they get from the battery. Some do a better
job than others.
My BMW R1200GS motorcycle, for instance, has this
problem and the manual explicitly tells you to connect it to
a trickle charger (an expensive BMW model, of course, though
you can use a standard one if you're willing to do a tiny
bit of work) if you're not going to drive it for a while,
and I duly plug it into the wall whenever I get home.
If you don't do that, however, the worst you're going to be
out is new lead-acid battery, which depending on what
vehicle you have, leaves you out something like
$50-$200, not $40,000.
However, the level of load we're talking about here
seems awful high. Remember that we're talking about a
battery capable of powering your car for 200 miles or
so on a single charge (53 kWh). In order to deplete
the battery in 11 weeks (~2000 hrs) you would need
continuous battery consumption of around 30 W.
For comparison, a Macbook Air has a 50Wh battery
and gets something like 5 hours on a charge, so it's
like the Tesla is running 5 Airs at once 24x7.
It's natural to ask where all that power is
going, since you don't need anywhere near that
much to keep a vehicle on standby. One likely source seems
to be the battery cooling system, of which Wikipedia
"Coolant is pumped continuously through the ESS both when the car is running and when the car is turned off if the pack retains more than a 90% charge. The coolant pump draws 146 watts."
[Original reference and long discussion here.
Note that this post is due to Martin Eberhard, one of the Tesla
Founders but apparently no longer with the company at the time he wrote it. Thanks
Wayback Machine for preserving this!].
Obviously, if you have a load this high, then you're going
to deplete the battery. The question then becomes whether
there is some way of avoiding permanent battery damage as
the depletion gets to dangerous levels. The natural
thing to do is install some sort of cutoff that turns
off all power drain once you get close to that level.
This may end up blowing away a bunch of the car's
configuration (though really, it's not that hard to
store that stuff in flash memory, even though
historically manufacturers have tended not to), but
surely it's cheaper to reboot your car than replace
the entire battery pack. However, if the power is
going to the cooling system and the cooling system
is doing something important, like keeping the
battery from being damaged by excessive heat, then
this may not help.
Oh, one more thing. DeGusta claims that Tesla has the capability
to remotely monitor the battery and locate the car, and has
sent people out to fix it:
In at least one case, Tesla went even further. The Tesla service
manager admitted that, unable to contact an owner by phone, Tesla
remotely activated a dying vehicle's GPS to determine its location and
then dispatched Tesla staff to go there. It is not clear if Tesla had
obtained this owner's consent to allow this tracking5, or if the owner
is even aware that his vehicle had been tracked. Further, the service
manager acknowledged that this use of tracking was not something they
generally tell customers about.
If true, that would be... interesting.