Stuck on the Freeway - 2013 Tesla Model S Long-Term Road Test

2013 Tesla Model S Long-Term Road Test

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2013 Tesla Model S: Stuck on the Freeway

February 19, 2014

2013 Tesla Model S

This was to be my first date with the 2013 Tesla Model S. I've admired this car from afar, and quite honestly, I'd been looking forward to some Tesla seat time since being hired at Finally, my chance had come. Just the two of us. Alone. It was destined to be a special night. Me, the Tesla, and the highway.

Well, I'm sure I'm not the first guy to have a dream date go sour.

The night started innocently enough. After a thorough intro to the car by Features Editor Mike Magrath, I hopped into the Tesla and made my way to Pacific Coast Highway. My plan was to drive it by the beach, then take a canyon drive over to the San Fernando Valley.

The initial drive was fun, but uneventful. Because of traffic, I wasn't really able to test the Model S's capabilities, but I got glimpses of what it could do while switching lanes on PCH. Magrath had said, "Two things to remember. This car is wide, like S Class wide. And it is fast. Crazy fast."

It sounded like a challenge. But I behaved myself. No need for the new guy to go and get into trouble.

When I got home, I parked the Model S and went upstairs. My teenage son saw the key fob (which looks like a car itself) and flipped. "Do you have the Tesla today?"

And then the pleas began: Can I have a ride? Please? I dangled the Model S as a way to get some dishes washed, and then we were off.

Twenty minutes later, I was back in the car with my son as copilot. Our plan was to go south on the 101 Freeway for one exit, turn around, and come back, a roundtrip of perhaps a mile. With little freeway traffic, it seemed like a great idea.

The initial drive was great. Both the kid and I had smiles the size of Fiats. The Tesla gave us smooth, powerful acceleration. Mike had suggested this could very well be the fastest car I'd ever driven, and he was spot on. Incredible ride.

The ride went incredibly bad on the way back.

While accelerating up the 101 north onramp, something happened. I'm not sure what as I'm not a tech guy. The best way to describe the feeling would be to compare it to a manual-transmission car stalling in first gear. The Tesla jerked violently forward, and then lost power.

The Tesla's massive display starting flashing messages: "12V Battery Power Low - Car May Shut Down Unexpectedly" and "Car Needs Service - Car May Shut Down Unexpectedly." The funny thing about it was that the car already had shut down unexpectedly. I had no power to accelerate and I couldn't move over to the shoulder. I simply had to coast to a stop on the onramp of a Los Angeles freeway, well after dark.

2013 Tesla Model S

My son hit the hazard icon on the dash and we hopped out of the car. We've all seen videos of stalled cars on freeways getting plowed into by distracted drivers. We weren't hanging around for that.

I did get back in the car for a moment when the onramp was clear. I wanted to try again to restart the car to get it out of traffic. No dice. I got out, and we stayed well clear of the disabled Tesla after that.

I called a friend who lived nearby and asked him to take my kid home. No need for both of us to be stuck on the side of a freeway. He suggested we put the car in neutral and roll it over to the shoulder or down the onramp and onto the street. Great suggestions, but we couldn't get the car out of gear.

It's worth noting that between my friend and me, we have nearly two decades of car-sales experience. That doesn't make us experts in car technology, but we've both driven thousands of cars over the years. Chances are if we couldn't find a way to move the Tesla, the average driver wouldn't have been able to either.

We got Tesla roadside assistance on the phone, and learned that in 45 minutes or less a tow truck would arrive to get me off the road. About 30 minutes later, the truck arrived.

The timing couldn't have been better. While the tow truck was setting up to load the Tesla, whatever power source was keeping the hazard lights blinking failed.

If the tow truck didn't arrive at exactly when it did, the stalled Tesla would have been nearly invisible to traffic getting on the freeway.

2013 Tesla Model S

The tow-truck driver took about 15 minutes to get the Tesla on the flatbed. He finished securing the car, and away it went, bound for the Tesla Santa Monica repair shop (which knows us well by now).

First dates don't always work out the way you plan. And although I still admire the Tesla, I think I'm going love it as I have since I started working at Edmunds.

From afar.

Matt Jones, Senior Editor @ 18,828 miles


  • hybris hybris Posts:

    Good to hear that everyone is all right. Just wondering where is the 12v battery mounted in this thing?

  • gslippy gslippy Posts:

    First, the entire drivetrain was replaced, now this. I'm a big Tesla fan, but this ownership experience is not great. It had better be a simple fix. And Edmunds - DON'T leave us hanging as you've done with the Dart.

  • noburgers noburgers Posts:

    I had to reread the post to see it said 12V battery, not the battery pack you charge to operate the car. I'm surprised that would kill the car--you would think it could rely on the other battery in a pinch.

  • bankerdanny bankerdanny Posts:

    I've never really thought about it before, but given your experience here perhaps electric cars should have a small separate battery for the hazards rated for a minimum flash time.

  • public public Posts:

    "While accelerating up the 101 north onramp, something happened. I'm not sure what as I'm not a tech guy. The best way to describe the feeling would be to compare it to a manual-transmission car stalling in first gear. The Tesla jerked violently forward, and then lost power" Telsa, unsafe at any speed.

  • bankerdanny bankerdanny Posts:

    Or is that what the "12 volt battery" message means. Does the Tesla have a separate battery for some systems?

  • public public Posts:

    Appears you are not the only journalist to have this issue. Vincent Everts a European auto journalist faced a similar breakdown: If we have multiple stories of this happening to people reviewing the vehicle it makes sense thing that these are not isolated incidents and present a real issue.

  • On a side note, this is one reason I keep one of those flashlight/emergency strobe combo lights in all our cars. Even with the emergency flashers going they don't always draw the attention you'd want and even in a gas powered car the electrical systems can die. That way if I ever have to I can just pop the magnetic light in red strobe mode on the car and at least make it somewhat noticeable. Road flares are a nice old school backup too.

  • legacygt legacygt Posts:

    Tesla has done a remarkable job delivering a relatively reliable car. I say "relatively" to emphasize that I'm factoring in their inexperience and some of the reliability issues associated with other luxury manufacturers. The more bells and whistles a car has the more that can go wrong. What I am more concerned about is the way the car became unresponsive to any inputs. This is a huge problem. As cars replace more and more mechanical systems with electronic ones, issues that may have been isolated in the past can impact everything the car should be able to do. Not being able to get a car into Neutral is a big deal. You should always be able to push a car to the side of the road when all else fails but that was not an option here as the car seems to have simply shut everything down.

  • I'm curious, did Tesla ever replace the 12V battery on this car during a previous service visit? It's an early VIN, so it is likely it had the inferior battery that commonly failed. They had been proactive about replacing them, but some cars (like mine) didn't have them done for over a year. Cheap fix, but unfortunately potentially catastrophic when it fails like this.

  • mercedesfan mercedesfan Posts:

    I have heard of this type of thing happening to other Tesla owners. Unfortunately, it is not an isolated or entirely rare incident. I'm just thankful mine has only had trim and infotainment issues. On a side note, the Model S is actually a lot wider than an S-Class (nearly 3 inches wider). Having owned both, I can tell you that the Benz actually feels like a much smaller car from behind the wheel.

  • tjpark01 tjpark01 Posts:

    Boring and functional will always beat cool and broken.

  • greenpony greenpony Posts:

    I'd rather have cool and functional.

  • throwback throwback Posts:

    tjpark01, that is why Camrys and carollas sell in the numbers they do

  • gslippy gslippy Posts:

    Most people don't realize that EVs contain a 12V battery which operates the accessories and gets the car 'started'. My Leaf has this arrangement, and I think they do it this way because every other car uses 12V bulbs, etc. The 12V battery is charged by the lithium ion pack. If the car has juice in the tank but the 12V battery is dead, it can be jumped by another car to get things going. If stoneymonster is right, this is an easy - but embarrassing - fix.

  • marcos9 marcos9 Posts:

    I hope edmunds posts a follow up article on this. Crazy - someone could have been hurt or even killed.

  • So this car has had two dead in the water failures now. Is that a record for Edmunds or was the Ferrari 308 worse?

  • duck87 duck87 Posts:

    If it's just the battery I'm surprised there's no on-board diagnostics or failsafe to account for it. This is a very dangerous failure mode. This car has been in California for most of its 18k mile life and it's already had a motor replacement, tire wear issues and now this. Inexcusable even for a new company.

  • se_riously se_riously Posts:

    It sounds like the Tesla is just like the Prius, where you cannot shift into neutral if the 12v battery is insufficiently charged to "startup" the vehicle. The real issue here is the sudden shutdown while the vehicle was in motion, since the drivetrain should be charging the 12v battery. A very likely culprit would be a 12v battery with bad cells not accepting the charge, but Tesla could (should given the vehicle's price?) have a system that monitors the 12v battery charging to avoid this type of sudden shutdown.

  • tubybntz tubybntz Posts:

    How many miles range did you have when this happened?

  • greg128 greg128 Posts:

    If had over $100k to spend on a car I sure would not buy this. As brilliant as Elon Musk is and as much as I appreciate the cutting-edge robotic technology evident in the Tesla factory; and as much as I want this American company to succeed, I also recognize the challenge of bringing to market such an innovative product. Obviously there are bugs than need to be worked out and I hope they are.

  • "How many miles range did you have when this happened?" I would say zero.

  • lmbvette lmbvette Posts:

    As others have noted, EV's have 12V batteries to run the accessories. I own a Chevy Volt and there have been numerous cases of Volt owners being stranded as a result of a dead 12V battery, exactly like what happens in regular ICE vehicles when the battery dies. Volts have been around since Fall of 2010, so lots of 3 and 4 year old vehicles, which is when a typical 12V battery fails. FYI, in the Volt the 12V battery does NOT charge while the vehicle is charging. Thus if you leave the car powered on over night it could conceivably run the battery down and you could have a fully charged 16.5 kwH battery and a full tank of gas and a car that won't start. LOL I'm surprised that EV makers have not figured out a way to eliminate the 12V battery. Why not have the ability for the HUGE battery to convert power over to 12V and save the 60 pounds of weight of a lead acid battery that needs to be replaced every 2-3 years.

  • pommah pommah Posts:

    I'm surprised at the number of readers of this website - enthusiasts I would presume - who seem to be reveling in the teething problems of what's probably the most innovative vehicle on the road. A car that one of the site's writers says is the fastest he's ever driven. I would think they'd want Tesla to be a roaring success.

  • fordson1 fordson1 Posts:

    Look at Scott Oldham's Twitter page realscottoldham. He tweeted about it and said it was all covered under warranty - this was almost a week wonder when the failure actually happened - ? The LT blog is becoming almost meaningless, what with them all tweeting about stuff in real time. Anyway...another entire powertrain under 19k miles. So now the drama starts...wonder if they will succeed in getting an explanation of this or if they'll let Tesla tell them to piss off, like last time...

  • Why would a regular 12V battery totally cripple the car? Why didn't they get a low battery warning earlier? And Tesla really needs to engineer better redundancies into their car. A car that relies so much on electronics and electrical power should have some way to keep instruments and hazards powered even if it becomes immobile. We all know a normal car can rely on the alternator if the battery fails and the battery can keep things going for a while if the alternator craps out.

  • red0011 red0011 Posts:

    See "Tesla Owners Encounter Problems with 12-Volt Battery" -->

  • hybris hybris Posts:

    At work we have some early 2000's GMC 5500 TopKicks that when the battery dies you can't shift gears or turn off the parking brake so this particular problem is not new but it certainly needs to be fixed. I should always have the ability to turn the key to the ON position and roll my vehicle to a place of safety.

  • Oh its the wave of the future! Lol, stupid electric cars! Ok, ok, troll comment I know (and of all the electric cars on the market the Tesla is definitely the only one I'd even think twice about buying) but this kind of story is exactly why I think electric vehicles are a stupid idea, at least right now. Battery tech is no where near where it needs to be IMO to make the jump from internal combustion to electric and it won't be any time soon either. What's more is that there is no need for this alarmist mission to get everyone out of their gas-burning vehicles. We still have plenty of oil and global warming has been completely debunked. Why can't we just keep buying the cars we really want instead of being guilt-tripped and forced into a new technology that is simply not ready for the big time yet???

  • "See "Tesla Owners Encounter Problems with 12-Volt Battery" -->" Thanks for the link but this just highlights what is wrong with Edmunds Long Term tests. The idea is that they are meant to act like owners to give an owner's experience. Yet in most instances they do not read the owner's manuals and they make no effort to research the product. Any obstacle is thrown up as a mystery, whereas an actual owner would perform some research on the web for answers. Real issues are swept under the rug with no end explanation(Tesla driveline replacement, Jeep V6 cylinder head replacement, Dodge Dart's 'spark plug' failure, no follow up on a possible transmission issue on the Porsche). Some cars mysteriously no longer are mentioned, before the apparent end of their term (Lexus RX hybrid after a May 2008 fuel log entry of 20mpg average with a low of 15mpg ). It all smacks of cow-towing to the mfgs, simple as that. Edmunds was a unique site when it first started out. One that provided a source of pricing as well as reviews. But the pricing source no longer is unique. We can get that anywhere on the web and quite frankly the TMV, as shown by Edmunds editors themselves when they turn in a car, is marginal at best. So that leaves us with the reviews. And well, those are comical compared to the long established industry leaders. While they performance test a muscle car (here's looking at you CL65AMG), we get a video of the trunk closing. It is clear what has happened here once the editorials praising selected car dealerships started to appear. And when commenters on the LT blog provide more real information than the editors.

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