Tesla, the Tornado … and CX, a Tale From the Chargeless Road

CX, particularly for a brand such as Tesla, needs to catch up with the user experience of operating these art-and-science vehicles.

CX lesson for Chet Dalzell
Photo: Chet Dalzell Gets a CX Lesson in Tesla Power Infrastructure, 2018. | Credit: Chet Dalzell

This is a CX tale. Summer goings-on took me to the highway this past week; and with it, concerns from a friend who is planning to drive her Tesla from Denver to Chicago over the coming weekend.

Tesla is an electronic vehicle, and its cars’ “fuel stations” are charging stations, spaced along the highways of America. Without a charge in a car’s battery, the vehicle cannot be operated. Tesla supercharging stations enable a battery to be fully powered in a matter of many minutes, rather than several hours via a conventional plug.

I love all things sustainable, And with it, the beautiful, sleek and very tech-savvy Tesla Model S she owns, with a desktop-size flat screen navigator, spacious sky roof and plentiful horsepower, among many other attributes, satisfies that love. She also owns a Ford 350 pick-up and a Toyota Prius hybrid. We happened to be driving in her pickup truck from western Nebraska (where we had attended a high school reunion in Ogallala) back to her home in metro Denver.

We’re racing along Interstate 76 at an undisclosed speed, when suddenly we see evidence of what had transpired merely hours before. We slow down.

As we approached Brush, Colo. — about 90 miles northeast of Denver — the uncharacteristic late July landscape of green suddenly turned brown, as if every scrub of grass had just been torn from the earth. The sage reduced to lonely stalks. Then, we see the power line poles snapped in two in the field alongside the highway. Even an exit sign is bent over and mangled. We were driving inside the aftermath of a tornado. (Thankfully, this storm injured no one.)

Then we arrived at the Brush exit ramp. A growing army of power vehicles were parked at the Shell station at the foot of the ramp, a sort of power restoration staging area. The gas station itself was damaged heavily — its roof ripped off the main building or caved in (or both), and the gas pumps stripped of their casing. It was surreal. Police tape and pylons restricted access to the one reason we took this very exit: to see if the Tesla supercharge station adjacent to the Shell station was online. Clearly, it was not.

Thankfully, we were in a pickup truck — and not the Tesla, which would have been in need of an immediate charge. My friend was planning her drive two days later to Chicago — and Brush, Colo., is the “first” supercharging station outside of Denver — a full two hours from the next charging station in Ogallala, across Colorado’s northeast border. She told me, with the downhill elevation from Denver to Ogallala, and all non-essentials (air conditioning, et al) turned off — she should be able to make it all of the way to Ogallala, without a charging stop in Brush. For her sake, I hope she’s right.

When ‘Real-Time’ Is Not Real-Time

With Tesla ownership comes a “community” of support for both the brand and electric automotive, in general. This was an introduction to me. All I own for transport is a Citibike key and a New York City MetroCard. Tesla has a branded app, and the e-car community has a non-branded app and site called PlugShare. The Tesla app is supposed to have real-time information on the online status of all stations — and if plugs are available within each station. PlugShare seeks to provide much the same.

At the time of our tornado discovery and aftermath, both apps still showed current power availability in Brush. But a look at the comments section from helpful Tesla and other electric car owners regarding Brush told the real, other story. There’s no power, and no indication of when it may be restored. Tesla owners also commented that they had reported the outage to Tesla by telephone, as early as 90 minutes after the storm. We attempted to call Tesla (some 20 hours after the storm) to inquire about expected restoration, but our call was put on a call-in-queue cycle, and after 15 minutes – with no hold notice on expected wait time — we gave up and hung up.

It wasn’t until the next day when we checked did we find that the Tesla in-car navigation, with charging station status information, had caught up to the Brush station’s still-offline status. Unfortunately, no further information on when the station may be restored was made available there.

In This Case: Why CX Needs to Be State-of-the-Art

Customer experience — particularly for a status brand, such as Tesla — needs to catch up to the user experience of operating these art-and-science vehicles. Especially for a network infrastructure so vital to electronic vehicle operation across distances. In this case, CX is also important to the entire user category. Plugshare helped augment these shortcomings, but Tesla’s CX might be a lot more urgent.

If Citibike can tell me via its app in real-time that docking stations have available bicycles or not, or which docking stations are offline, then why shouldn’t Tesla’s app at least be able to do the same regarding its network of charging stations, in real time? Even if a widespread or localized power outage might interfere with a real-time signal of status, why couldn’t Tesla at least post an in-app notice on its awareness of the incident, or respond to posted comments elsewhere? It might even offer a link to the local utility’s power restoration status, so Tesla drivers can plan their journeys safely and accordingly.

In this outage, it was Tesla owners themselves giving the status updates — via user-facilitated, third-party in-app content.

PlugShare, a third-party app with many more users, seemed to have more user comments about the Brush station status, with myriad reports from Tesla owners regarding the situation. It’s not unusual for non-branded community apps in any given category to be filled with such user information, typically reliable. In this case, brands and their apps should make a point to monitor these go-to third-party communities to react to comments and to keep their own customers informed and engaged there.

There may be extenuating circumstances in play here. Perhaps Tesla does all of the right things — but seeks to verify and validate before posting such information, I’m not sure. But gee, what a beautiful car, with beautiful performance. As an extension of the brand, the customer service experience needs to be equally on-point. For Tesla owners, it’s also a matter of not finding themselves powerless in Brush, Colo.