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Tuesday, January 2, 2018

First Accident - Part 4: Eaten Alive

The first major modification we had done to our Tesla-- and one of the first reviews I did for Teslarati-- was the installation of our Torklift EcoHitch. It was a huge opportunity to get functionality we wanted but I was very nervous about the installation process and, three years later, I’ve discovered my concerns were justified.

Our Tesla made it over three years without a blemish, but this summer an inattentive minivan driver somehow missed the 3 foot long brake light and rammed our rear bumper. Fortunately, no one was hurt and we were somewhat heartened to see that the damage appeared to be superficial and the car was still usable.
Body by Cochran, our local Tesla-approved body shop, had been working on my car for only a day or so when I got some bad news. I noticed earlier in the summer that when I pulled the hitch cover out it was rusty and hard to remove. Since the experts at Cochran would be removing the bumper anyway, I asked them to poke around and let me know what the condition of the hitch was like. I had been recently working under my old Subaru and after eyeballing the Titanic-level rust on its hitch, the cogs in my brain were turning... wondering if the hitch on the Tesla would be better protected hidden behind all those underbody shrouds and the bumper itself.
The pictures sent from Cochran were disturbing. At first the shock of all the rust was concern enough, but I couldn’t figure out why the finish on the hitch was so badly disintegrated. It was only three years old, installed with maniacal attention to detail and all the instructions were followed to the letter and then some. Yet there was no refuting the pictures and the Cochran techs agreed that the failure of the finish was troubling.

I could understand the rust on my old Subaru’s hitch. Like most ICE vehicles, it’s slung under the rear bumper and it’s completely exposed to the elements churned up by the winter roads. Not a single bit of it is protected. Debris and road grit impact the paint, the paint is compromised and slowly but surely, rust takes hold and soon coats the entire assembly. But on the Tesla, the Torklift Ecohitch is completely encased by the bumper and I even had the optional cover on to seal it the rest of the way. Nothing EVER touches the hitch as it is completely protected by various aero shields and the bumper itself.
Even more troubling, the experts at Body by Cochran expressed that they were concerned about what was going on behind the hitch and implored me to have it completely removed and inspected. The surface rust was only part of the problem. As one of the few Tesla-authorized body shops in the region, Cochran’s staff has been educated in the unique problems with restoring crunched Teslas, namely: galvanic corrosion. I didn't hesitate. Take it all off, baby!

You don’t have to be a metallurgy expert to understand the potential insidiousness of galvanic corrosion. Essentially, two dissimilar metals will have different electrode potentials. These potentials result in one of the metals corroding the other, much like rust, but it can happen without any other outside elements. As the ions migrate from one metal to the other, the corrosion can be aggressive and catastrophic. It's the basic principle behind the anode rods in your hot water heater, except on the Tesla nothing is sacrificial and certainly not the aluminum structure of the car itself!
Keeping steel and aluminum separate is-- no exaggeration-- a full-time job. When I picked up the car, the Cochran staff walked me through their shop and explained to me how they have separate work areas and tools for aluminum parts. There are even large curtains to cordon off areas of the shop because even sanded metal grit can get airborne and into the structures and cause problems later. It’s an obsessive nightmare trying to work around all the weird metallurgy, but just another day at the office for these guys.

When the steel Torklift Ecohitch was first installed, it was separated from the aluminum structure of the Tesla by its coating. As the coating failed, the steel began to make a direct contact to the aluminum and it was eating away at the frame of the Tesla. The brownish-red rust of steel is then complimented by the white-grey ash of the galvanic corrosion. Warning! These pictures are a little disturbing (at least to me):

This was all done independent of the rust on the rest of the hitch and in a place completely obscured without removing the entire rear bumper, the rear crash bar and uninstalling the hitch.

For the past three years, we’d been garaging our car and pampering it with hand washes… but underneath a silent killer was consuming the rear bumper structure behind the hitch, and were it not for this accident repair we would never have known until... Well, I'm not even sure of all the ways it could have manifested.

Having seen the pictures, I was almost a little grateful that the car was hit. Now the condition was known and caught soon enough to be stopped. Even better, it wasn’t just me blindly trying to figure it out in my garage, but I was in the hands of Tesla-reconstruction experts. They knew all the procedures and had all the right tools and expertise to restore the car and preserve our ability to use the hitch for our bike rack and protect the car from further damage.  The Tesla's ability to haul a family's worth of bikes, without heavy lifting, was something I didn't want to lose.
As luck would have it, we realized the seriousness of the hitch about the same time Cochran discovered Tesla had sent the wrong wiring harness for my new rear bumper. There was a production change made at some point that moved the parking sensors very slightly farther around the bumper. If you didn’t know it was different, I bet you’d never spot the difference-- we sure didn’t! Anyway, Tesla had made the change but still managed to send the wrong harness and it couldn’t be adapted. While Serena waited, the Cochran team re-engineered the Torklift Ecohitch installation process.

They scraped down and cleaned up the entirety of the hitch, including every single bolt. All the parts were given a new durable coat of underbody paint.

The inside of the hitch bar was open and, unsure of how deep paint would penetrate, Cochran even sprayed a generous coating of body-sealing wax to keep it from rusting inside too.
The rear of the Tesla was also cleaned up. The rear panel was restored and the entire back side of the frame was repainted as well.

Hardware that was too far gone was replaced with new pieces and they created insulators to keep the hitch from ever touching the body again.

Insulating the bolts wasn’t enough, they also had to isolate the hitch mounting panels. They used a toolbox-lining type material to fabricate large pads to sandwich between the hitch and the rear of the Tesla. In the event the new paint ever wore off, there would still be a physical barrier between the two types of metal.

The good folks at Cochran even resprayed the backside of the steel Tesla bumper crash bar and the hitch’s cover, which had first tipped me off that something was going on in the dark insides of my bumper.

I did reach out to Torklift to see if there was any response or interest in this issue. Cochran had graciously waived most of the charges because my car was already apart for the collision repair, but it seemed reasonable to see if Torklift was willing to help out with what was left. They eventually responded it was their opinion that, essentially, “these things happen.” I was given a one-time offer to remove my hitch, ship it to Washington state (where Torklift is based) and they would repaint it and send it back for me to reinstall, with return shipping at my expense as well.

The initial response from Torklift was disappointing. The market rate to uninstall and reinstall the hitch would be about $300-400 each. The transit/repainting time would mean that, in addition to the $600-800 expense to mess with the hitch, I’d have to schedule two separate trips to a shop to have that work done. Add in the unknown costs to pack and ship a 40-pound chunk of steel across the country, TWICE. And for what? Based on the information I had, it seemed to be a promise of re-coating the hitch in the same finish that had failed and caused all this galvanic corrosion in the first place. Hardly a solution. They offered no alternative mounting instructions or showed any interest in further isolating their steel hitch from the aluminum structure of the Tesla, though it is possible that they did not understand the nature of the corrosion at that time.

So let this be a warning to any Tesla owner who has installed the Torklift Ecohitch. Your experience may vary, but there’s at least some chance that it is quietly eating your Tesla alive in the dark forgotten recesses of your car... completely out of your ability to casually inspect it.
If you’re contemplating a Torklift for your S, you’d be wise to work above and beyond the installation instructions and find a solution with your installer that will keep the hitch isolated from the structure of the car long-term.  While it remains the best option for adding a hitch to a Model S (which is why I chose to rehab mine rather than be without it), make sure you understand the implications of "just following the instructions." Buyer beware.

UPDATE: After this review was posted on Teslarati, Torklift investigated the problems described and is changing their product as a result.  You can find their full response below:

Dear Matt, 

I hope you enjoyed your weekend. I have outlined below some information that we think could be useful for your readers to see and encourage you to share this message with them. Without our customers, we are nothing and our goal is to provide useful products that are not only safe, but can also enhance our customer’s lives. When we read your article about your experience, we took this to heart as we often do, and began methodically looking at the information before us. In addition to the actual product we manufacture, you also pointed out your experience with our customer service department -- that has inclined us to make a modification to our email support response. 

Something we are known for is customer service that goes above expectations. This is because we have real live people that pick up the phone and who respond to our customers via email. We believe the human touch is critical when serving people and have previously shied away from automated customer service as a result. By doing so, each of our customer service team members is more of a caseworker. They take care of each customer from start to finish before moving onto the next customer who needs help. This simple but extremely valuable action allows us to listen to our customers and help them according to their needs, however it does require additional time to take care of the customer. You had indicated our response time to you was not satisfactory. Based on your experience, we agree and have implemented an automated response system to let our customers know we have received their email. This message lets them know they are in a queue and that an actual person will be reaching out to them. We also provide a phone number for customers with urgent needs that must be addressed immediately. There are some days of the week where response time typically takes longer due to call volume or email volume, and that is outlined in the automated response. We believe that initial acknowledgment will help tremendously. We will continue to have our customer service folks act as a caseworker for each customer from start to finish. 

When you had initially reached out to us, based on the information we had at the time, the photos provided did not show the extent of the corrosion that was later learned. Neither of us would have known that information at the time and we appreciate and understand the timeline you were under to get this taken care. We do want you to know that had we had all the information, we would have taken care of you just as we take care of all our customers - from start to finish. Based on the information you shared in your article, we dove further into the subject of corrosion and found many interesting examples of Tesla Model S without a hitch installed or other aftermarket parts installed that also showed corrosion. One example was extreme enough that the vehicle was deemed unsafe for use. 

Link: https://forums.tesla.com/forum/forums/galvanic-corrosion 
Link: https://teslamotorsclub.com/tmc/threads/aluminium-body-vs-road-salt.33968/

Upon our recent review of this situation, this type corrosion is often found where the factory bumper is attached to the aluminum underbody using factory steel bolts. When the factory steel bolts are in contact with the aluminum underbody, you have two different types of metals coming into direct contact with each other in the absence of a thick powder coat finish. The bolts do have a coating on them, but it appears to be a thin layer that wears down somewhat quickly. This begins to be problematic when you add the catalyst for corrosion. The catalyst occurs when driving through caustic environments such as the area of the United States commonly referred to as the rust belt, as well as coastal and mountain regions. The common denominator is road salt and water. It is important to note that none of the Tesla Model S variants have their bumper covers sealed and although the space is enclosed, what we are seeing on unaltered cars in our research is significant debris and signs of water intrusion in this area. Obviously, water is a key catalyst. This leads to corrosion. 

Based on this research as well as your experience with the solution you used, we have decided to adopt it and have an action plan moving forward. This week we will have a simple kit and installation instructions for insulation pads - similar to what you have installed on your Tesla Model S. We are going to include this kit in all Tesla kits moving forward, as well as contact customers who have recently purchased. See figure 18 below:

There is no charge for the kit and the price for the hitch will not be increased due to including this kit. This kit is not mandatory but we do strongly recommend it because of just how simple it is to add this preventative measure. It is very simple in how it works. It essentially acts of an additional degree of separation between the hitch and the underbody (which are too different types of metal). It’s important to remember that there already is a barrier between the aluminum body and the steel composed hitch. This barrier is the powder coat which is commonly referred to as a finish. 

We’ve made a change to the powder coating of our products several years ago but before we go into that, it is important to talk about the quality of powder coat that is currently on hitches produced in recent years and how we are going to be inspecting a cross section of hitches across the country as a precautionary method. 

It’s important to note that we have a lifetime warranty on our hitch, however the powder coat/finish is not warrantied and that is very common. An example would be to consider the finish on under-vehicle accessory components. They are subject to road salts or just plain debris on the road that can affect the finish. We are not aware of an underbody accessory manufacturer that would replace parts if it results in problems with the finish. We believe that is a true statement for nearly all under body accessory manufacturers.

When this hitch was first developed in 2013, they were sent to third party powder coating company that was local to our community. This is a very common practice. Upon reviewing the finish on the hitch and other aftermarket parts we produced, we opted to make an investment in our own powder coat facility. Later we purchased the machinery and moved powder coating in-house. We believed that our people could do it better and have better judgment about rejecting and passing our product through various levels of inspection in the powder coat process. We did not have that level of inspection before because previously we only saw the end result. 

Even though finish is not covered by our warranty, we still wanted to improve it because our customers matter to us. That is the only way to stay in business for more than four decades as we have - by truly caring. This led us to begin investigating different types of powder coating/finishing methods. What we learned is that sand blasting is critical. Many items you might see at an automotive retailer have a powder coated finish but are not sand blasted first in preparation for the powder coat application. We made the multimillion dollar investment into purchasing our own powder coating facility to have control over our finish quality. This transition began in 2013. Because the transition from outsourced powder coat to in-house powder coat began in 2013 and extended through part of 2014 when the hitch was first introduced, we believe few hitches will be similar to your hitch experience. Even though there is indication that very few hitches would be affected will not matter as we are still going to further research this occurrence.

We’d like to talk about the method to making a great finish. The sand blast step allows for the surface of the hitch to become abraded. An easy way to think of this process is to consider what happens to a surface when you rub sandpaper on it. However, our method involves a high intensity gun that blasts several pounds of sand per minute onto each hitch. This method is done by hand. An actual person is crafting each hitch and blasting it with sand to breach all nooks and crannies, ensuring the surface is not smooth. All impurities like oil and dirt residue are completely removed before powder coat is applied. Powder coat prep is much like paint prep for a car. 

From there, the sand blasted hitch is washed in an eco-friendly cleaning solution, rinsed, dried, then pre-heated to a specific temperature for the particular powder coat being administered. Finally, a specific (non-conductive) powder coat is applied by hand to ensure full coverage of the part. Once coated, it is once again baked at a certain temperature in a specialized oven for a predetermined time depending on the powder coat type. The main factors in a quality powder coat finish is the sandblasting, pre-bake temperature and final bake temperature and time. 

We are currently working with dealers who install aftermarket parts on Tesla in corrosive regions as well as non-corrosive regions to inspect Tesla Model S with hitches from 2013 to 2017. What we expect to find is that hitches manufactured in 2014 and newer will not have corrosion signs, and hitches manufactured in 2013 through part of 2014 could have signs of corrosion IF they are used in highly corrosive driving conditions. We aim to have our research findings completed during the first part of the new year and will provide an update at the conclusion of the investigation.

Matt, even though we are actively investigating the information you have brought forward, we hope that you can share this email in its entirety with your readers as soon as you are able. The last thing we want is for customers and future customers to be worried. We have received a few emails and phone calls so far. We want our customers to know we are working on this now. Future customers will have the insulation kit with their hitch to help prevent the corrosion already mentioned on Tesla forums where the factory steel bolts secure the bumper to the aluminum body. For our recent customers, we are in the process of contacting them to provide them with the insulation kit, even though the current powder coat on new kits is expected to work as a secure barrier between the two metals. And finally, we are working with various dealerships to bring in a cross section of vehicles to review. 

Thank you, Matt - we hope you can share this with your readers,


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