Used Teslas

My wife and I had to make a couple of trips across the valley last week along Capitol Expressway, in the midst of which there is what is called the Capitol Auto Mall, a stretch of new car dealerships lumped together between Almaden Expressway and Highway 87.  Its primary distinguishing feature is a series of truly huge American flags lining that stretch, all of which were at half mast due to the passing of Queen Elizabeth II… because… America?

I don’t know.

I also do not know what the expressway is named “Capitol,” it not going anywhere in the vicinity of anything one might consider the capitol of anything, but that is another rabbit hole to go down at a later date.

Anyway, my wife was driving so I was gawking out the window as I do and as we went past the various dealerships I noticed that there were, in the used car sections of several of the dealerships, a disproportionately large number of used Teslas lined up for sale.  Like way more than any other vehicle by a wide margin.  The Chevrolet dealership alone had 19 Teslas lined up along the front of their lot, while another had an easy dozen.  There were so many that I tried to take a couple of pictures with my phone as we drove past. (Out the window of a moving vehicle yielded the poor results you might expect.)

Some Teslas

Now, if Silicon Valley is going to claim to be the capitol of anything, Tesla ownership would certainly be on the list of possible options.  The things are everywhere.  Seeing a Telsa in the Santa Clara Valley today is like seeing a VW Bug most places in the 70s.  If you come to a stop at a major intersection during daylight hours and don’t see at least one… and likely more… it is a notable occurrence.

And used cars are, of course, very much a thing.  They are large, mobile, durable goods that hold value.  Buying a used car is an every day occurrence for millions.

But used Teslas, that made me stop and think.

A Tesla is a car, sure, so of course there will be used Teslas.  And maybe it is because I have stuck with my old Camry for 19 years, a vehicle that came with a cassette deck and is the model of simplicity when compared to current new cars, that got me thinking about what one should consider when buying a used Tesla, or any other electric vehicle.

Batteries make me wonder about if buying one is a good idea.  I was already down on the idea of used hybrids due to battery decay over time.

A quick look on Google showed me Tesla itself reassuring people that a used Tesla is a perfectly cromulent vehicular choice, claiming that the batteries in them are good for 300,000 to 500,000 miles.  But that is also the end of useful life, and the inevitable performance degradation is unlikely to occur in a single giant leap that many miles down the road.  It happens from day one and likely in a smooth but every increasing slope, meaning that there is some point well before those end of life numbers where the batteries are going to be an issue.

Also a Tesla, having been in a couple… they are almost like a iPhone.  Unlike my own car, where the radio station pre-sets and the stains on the upholstery are about all the mark I would leave on it, a Tesla is a device, with lots of data about the user stored away.

I am sure there is a way to wipe a Tesla, to restart it as a fresh device.   But as with an iPhone, you immediately have to get into contract with Tesla, at least setting up an account, otherwise you won’t get updates and offers to buy new features and the ability to extend your driving range because Tesla limits your battery life with software unlocks that they would like to sell you as upgrades.

I am not down on Teslas in particular.  We’re getting past the point where you know who a Tesla owner is the way you know who a vegan is because they won’t shut up about it.  It isn’t like I don’t enjoy nattering on about expensive electronic gadgets.  But the electric car thing is still not a viable option for me.  I already have to deal with my aunt who lives 70 miles away and has a Nissan Leaf.  Every visit is a trial about having to recharge at our end and we only have standard outlets which charge an electric vehicle very slowly.  Too slowly.

Slow, but I can show you on my electric bill the day my aunt visited and charged here.

Can you spot the day?

So we have to meet up at some place locally that has a free charging station and I drive her back to our place or out to lunch or whatever we’re up to.  Her work has a charging station so she rarely charges at home, her car getting topped up during the day.  But on a weekend trip it is suddenly an issue.

Anyway, I have digressed from my main point, which is mostly, “Whoa, that was a whole lotta Teslas on the used car lot!”

The question here is really “why so many Teslas?”

The answer could be simply that these dealerships, several of which have the same owner, have decided to go all in on electric and have been scooping up Teslas at auction to stock their inventory.  Maybe they are trying to make used electric vehicles their brand.

But that still leaves the supply question, why are so many Teslas available?  Cars in general are still in somewhat short supply, and Teslas especially have a reputation of buyers needing to get on a waiting list to get one.

Does the electric car thing not fit in with user needs as well as people thought?    Is there something specific about Telsas that people are trading them in for something else?

While I know Teslas are very popular around here, so supply in the used market is likely to have more units available, I also wonder if the used bookstore analogy is in play as well.  If you go into a used bookstore and there are a lot of copies of a particular title… say Tek War… and the store even has it on a list of titles they are not currently purchasing, that does tend to be less than a stellar endorsement.

I don’t really know the answer, but it seemed an odd situation.

Addendum: Further thoughts.

The used cars at dealerships are part of their own ecosystem, being made up largely of trade-ins, lease returns, and the occasional other route like a repo that made its way back into the system.

When you trade your car in or do a lease return, if the car is in really good shape they may spiff it up and put it back on the lot.  If it needs some work they bring it to the dealership auction and somebody else will buy it, fix it up, and either put it their lot or auction it again for more.  If specific cars are in demand in different areas sometime dealers will buy them at auction and ship them across country.

Used cars are very profitable for dealerships since they generally pay for them in what is essentially store credit towards something else you’re going to buy.

Then there is the parallel private used car sales channel, which is largely handled via Craig’s List these days, but use to be a staple of newspapers until the web became big.

So every one of those Teslas was very likely a trade-in or a lease return at which point the owner bought something else.

But it also makes me wonder about the complexities of private Tesla sales.  To use my analogy from above, I might trade my iPhone in at the Apple store, but I am not sure I would sell it to a private party even if I wiped it myself, not being wise enough to know what data might still persist.

I speak as somebody who has retrieved a lot of data off of supposedly wiped hard drives.

13 thoughts on “Used Teslas

  1. Nogamara

    Fascinating question indeed. I really like the idea of an electric car but I’m in the same boat as you, with the additional problem that I couldn’t even install charging here at my rented parking spot that comes with the rented apartment (at an additional monthly fee, of course) – which usually kills the mood instantly, but is interestingly not even enough to shut down the loudmouths declaring the old dinosaur juice ones obsolete. Kinda glad I can postpone this decision for now and not have a car of my own :P


  2. cyanbane

    I think it is just a legacy of people turning their cars over a bunch. Probably most of them couldn’t support the software upgrades of newer ones. I have not noticed this where I live yet. Going to be on the look out. My guess is that it will start to creep up here too. Also, bonus points for “cromulent”.


  3. Ula

    Wasn’t aware of “cromulent”! Had to look it up!

    But back on point. That aunt-charge electric bill – ouch. But at least it didn’t happen on a day a squirrel ran along the lines, triggering a 24-hour Safety Shutoff, or on a day it got over 90 degrees, prompting Newsom to send his threatening texts to stop charging cars. That said, I hear he’s working on keeping that nuke plant sparked up for us, so I’m sure it will all be fine. Everything’s fine.


  4. Bhagpuss

    In the UK all sales of new petrol and diesel cars and vans are supposed to end in 2030, which is really, really soon. How this is going to happen is unclear. There certainly aren’t any signs that I’ve seen of mass charging points being installed at filling stations, for example, although our local supermarket does have a couple.

    It does invite the question of what happens to the used petrol and diesel vehicles, too. It’s going to be a long time before those filter out of the market unless it also becomes illegal to sell them on.


  5. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Bhagpuss – The state of California has a similar deadline in place for new car sales at some future point. I think it is set for 2035.

    It will be an interesting transition. The tech needs to get a lot better for charging time and battery life.

    Electric cars are heavily subsidized here, with tax incentives and free express lane access and free charging stations scattered all over. While I am almost an ideal customer, making mostly short trips around the county, I wouldn’t buy one until I had solar power installed on our roof because the electric draw charging them at home is pretty big.

    But even if I bought one we’d keep a second gas vehicle for long trips.


  6. briandavidh

    If you buy a car through a business you’ll generally get most of the tax benefit from depreciation in the first three years. The timing is about right for ex-business Teslas to start hitting the market.


  7. PCRedbeard

    There are some people who simply just get new cars every several years and don’t hold onto them. I’ve a coworker who’s like that, and he’s the polar opposite of me, who has a car old enough to qualify for Historical Vehicle status in Ohio (1997 Honda Accord, so you know.)


  8. kiantremayne

    @Bhagpuss – I’m starting to see charging points more and more in this country. I currently get a car on a 4 year lease as part of my benefits package from work, got the current one in 2020 so assuming I keep on working for the same company, and keep on leasing on the same terms, I’ll have to take an electric vehicle in 2032 and have the option to switch in 2024.

    To be honest, I’m hoping we’ll be looking at self-driving vehicles by then. People worry about glitches in the self-driving AI, but frankly I’ve seen enough human drivers with obvious glitches in their software that robot overlords will be an improvement.


  9. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @PCRedbeard – My wife gets annoyed when I tell her I am holding on to my 2004 Camry until I can get the classic car license plate at the 25 year mark.

    @kiantremayne – The problem with self-driving cars… well, they are manifold. Simply expecting them to run well in the chaos of the road network we have is asking a lot.

    We went from a plan a couple decades back that involved having automated highways, where you were traffic controlled while going long distance and drove normally around town, to the idea that your car AI is going to be able to negotiate the parking lot at the mall at Christmas, which has raised the level of complexity almost asymptotically.

    So the problem is that unless we re-architect street level traffic, the biggest hurdle for self-driving cars is the human drivers and their chaotic behavior. The AI right now can probably handle better than 95% of situations, but that isn’t enough for insurance companies or state regulators and it will be a long time until it gets to that point because people are dumb, and all the more so when they get behind the wheel.

    I submit the Audi 5000 unintended acceleration case as evidence.


  10. Bob H

    Being a Tesla owner I know what is going on. The demand is so much larger than supply that people have been flipping their Teslas. Sell them for prices greater than new or selling used so they can get a new one basically for free. There are signs though that peak has been reached and this is now ending.


  11. SynCaine

    Dealers tend to put the nice cars in the front, so that might explain the visual.

    Did you already post about why you don’t have solar panels? Seems like a no brainer these days.


  12. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @SynCaine – Daughter in college, mother in assisted living, and our electric bill is around $100 a month right now, so there isn’t a lot of win to solar unless we get central air conditioning or an electric car. We’ll get solar at some point, but there are a few other house projects ahead of that.


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