Future Tense

Consumer Reports Just Changed Its Mind About Tesla’s Model 3

The Tesla Model 3 drives past a Tesla factory.
Tesla used a software update to reduce the Model 3’s emergency stopping distance by 12 percent. Courtesy of Tesla

Last week, Consumer Reports dealt Tesla a blow when it declined to recommend the electric car maker’s long-awaited new sedan, the Model 3.

Today, it changed its mind.

In an unusual move, Consumer Reports said Wednesday that it will recommend the Model 3 after all, after Tesla rolled out a software update that addressed a significant problem with the vehicle’s braking system. It’s a reminder that electric power isn’t the only thing that separates Tesla from other car companies.

Consumer Reports’ initial review found that the Model 3 took longer to stop than any other car on the market, a serious safety hazard. In the nonprofit’s testing, the vehicle required an average of 152 feet to stop from 60 mph, which is more than even a heavy-duty pickup truck. But Tesla quickly rolled out a software fix that reduced its emergency stopping distance to 133 feet, putting it on par with other vehicles in its class.

A Tesla spokeswoman told Consumer Reports that the new software adjusted how the anti-lock braking system responded to different situations and environmental conditions. The braking improvement “raised the Model 3’s Overall score enough for the car to be recommended by CR,” the updated review said, although there remain “other areas of concern.” Those include clunky touch-screen controls, a stiff ride, and wind noise at high speed. Consumer Reports added that Tesla has indicated it may be able to address some of those via over-the-air updates as well.

The quick fix highlights one of the less-appreciated ways in which Tesla is reshaping the automotive industry. Historically, automakers have dealt with problems in their vehicles by recalling them and making adjustments at dealerships. Tesla has issued a few recalls itself, but it has designed its vehicles’ software in such a way that it can often change how they work without touching them, just by tweaking the code and remotely updating each vehicle’s software. Other car companies are just beginning to move in this direction.

Consumer Reports’ director of automotive testing, Jake Fisher, told CNBC that he’s never seen a car company fix a major performance problem this fast. “This really is an industry first,” he said.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who has been railing against “the media” for what he perceives as unfair coverage, played nice with Consumer Reports on Twitter after it announced the recommendation.

The company has deployed similarly timely updates in the past, such as when it pushed out new software in 2016 to address a major safety shortcoming in its Autopilot software.

Tesla has been struggling lately on multiple fronts, including its production costs and timetable for the Model 3; claims of unsafe working conditions and underreporting of injuries at its factory; and a handful of accidents potentially implicating its Autopilot software. (Musk argues media coverage has sensationalized these accidents and failed to put them in the context of the many human-caused car wrecks that happen every day.) That the Model 3 is evidently imperfect shouldn’t be a surprise, given the (mostly self-imposed) pressure the company has faced to ramp up production.

Given all that, it’s reassuring to see how quickly Tesla was able to address the braking problem, and the Consumer Reports recommendation should assuage some Model 3 buyers’ concerns. Tesla has also apparently found solutions to some of the problems that have dogged his assembly line, such as a malfunctioning “flufferbot” that it ultimately deemed superfluous. Elon Musk is always pushing the envelope, but at least he has some nifty tape on hand for when it bursts.