It’s not really news that, often, crashed cars in America that have been written off get sold to auction houses that then sell them to people who ship them overseas, fix them, and sell them. This has been happening for quite some time. What is more interesting is that this now seems to be happening to wrecked Teslas, and those Teslas are ending up in the theater of war in Ukraine, and the former owners of these Teslas have been still connected to their former cars via software, getting tracking updates and, in one case at least, seeing that their Spotify account is still active in the car. And playing Drake. What’s going on, here, exactly? I’m not sure we have all the answers, but it seems interesting enough to look into.
We first were made aware of this back in late May, when we got an email from Tom Rymes, introduced to us by Autopian contributor John Voelcker, who told us this:
I would add that this car suddenly departed the road for unexplained reasons – we were never able to find out what caused the car to suddenly veer off the road.Then, the tow driver damaged the front suspension even more dragging it back onto the road, and the insurance company eventually totaled it, likely due to a combination of high Tesla auction sale prices and their insistence that an entire new battery would be required because a certain bracket supposedly wasn’t available without the battery – the battery was NOT damaged. My finding that bracket on eBay for $150 didn’t sway their decision. The car’s location far away from them in Florida likely didn’t help.Regardless, it eventually made it through the auction system and I got a notification in the app today that “XOO – Software Update Complete” not recognizing that name, I opened the app, realized which car it was, and that it must have been charged back up and powered on. I checked the location, and…it’s halfway between Lviv and Kyiv.The other part here is that the new owner likely cannot get or will face difficulty in getting app access for this car, and we still have app access to this car, are able to control it, etc. there’s definitely a similar problem with other makers’ cars in this regard too, but one wonders when manufacturers will find a good solution to this, or have they already?
But then today we see this on what I’m still going to call Twitter:
Here's an unusual situation. I had a Tesla, crashed it, it was totaled. And now it's … in Ukraine? And someone there is listening to Drake on my, still logged in, Spotify account. pic.twitter.com/ymW2psyvz6
— Jay Yarow (@jyarow) August 10, 2023
Now it’s getting a bit more interesting, because this isn’t some isolated incident. Here’s another wrecked Tesla showing up in Ukraine, and with the former owner still having access to the car’s location and other accounts. And, that location shows it in an area where active fighting has been happening, to add a whole other element of complexity here. We spoke to Jay Yarow, who works at CNBC, and you can read their story about how this happened.
Part of what is interesting about all of this is simply the realization that we’re entering an era when just handing the keys over after you sell a car or have one towed off to a junkyard isn’t enough to untangle yourself from that vehicle. Cars like Teslas make extensive use of cloud-based user accounts and a lot of interaction with the car can be from applications on your phone, so when you no longer want that car to be yours, there’s procedures that need to happen. And they can be a bit involved, as you an see here:
In the case of a car that gets wrecked and towed away into the black hole of the insurance and then salvaged-car auction dimension, the owner may likely not have a chance to log completely out of the car’s systems, so when it ends up wherever it ends up, it’s still calling home, like those dogs you hear about finding their way back home, just a lot less cute. I don’t think this necessarily puts the original owner in a compromised position, but it does make it very difficult for the new owner to get full access to their car’s features.
For some of those features that we may consider vitally important for American Tesla ownership, like access to Tesla’s Supercharger network of high-speed chargers, that is a lot less important in Ukraine, which has no Superchargers. Well, there may be one in Kyiv, and there are certainly ones near parts of Ukraine, but I’d guess whomever has this Tesla now is just charging via 220V outlets or other chargers.
Then there’s the question of how these wrecked Teslas are being brought back from the dead and made available for sale, after they’ve been written off as not worth it here. Our own Matt Hardigree did some digging and found a good example of a wrecked 2016 Model S that ended up in Ukraine, fixed and ready for sale. This was the car, which sold at auction for $25,000 and sported a very smashed passenger’s side, with airbags deployed and everything. And here it is for sale in Ukraine, all nice and shiny, selling for $32,000. Look at this before/after:
This is a pretty impressive feat; the Model S has an aluminum body and frame, and is pretty non-trivial to repair. All this for a price delta of about $7,000, which would have to factor in all the parts and labor to get this thing looking good again. Oh, and shipping across an ocean! How does this make sense?
Matt found other examples of Teslas with VINs that could be shown to be wrecked American cars that got shipped over to Ukraine, it seems through roll-on-roll-off coming into Rotterdam. He also reached out to a seller, and we’ll update when and if we hear back from them as well.
Matt was able to talk to another car importer, not one with experience shipping and repairing wrecked Teslas to Ukraine, to get their opinion on how this sort of business could work. Here’s what they said:
“If we’re actually talking about that thin of a margin ($5k-ish), the only logical/legal thing i can think of, is that they’re packing the shit out of a 40ft container with them. Maybe 6-7 cars at a time (more?) and cheap labor once they’re there?
So total load maybe gets them $20-30,000 in overall profit? Still seems not worthwhile, but nothing else would really make sense from an economical perspective if those facts are true.”
Sure, maybe $20,000 to $30,000 doesn’t seem worthwhile to a mainstream importer, but given the wartime situation in Ukraine right now, perhaps that does make sense? There may also be significant demand, since cars have been getting destroyed or abandoned due to the Russian invasion.
UPDATE: We got to speak to one of the importer, see more at the bottom.
While I’m not going to pretend to fully understand all of the causes and implications of what’s going on here, we can see some interesting things. Maybe the biggest one is that we need to start treating getting rid of a modern car, especially one as internet-connected as a Tesla, like getting rid of a smartphone. Log out of everything, wipe all the memory, do a factory reset. What do you do if it’s wrecked and the user interfaces in the car, like the touchscreen, no longer work to get access to the car’s computers, which may still work? I’m not sure. Perhaps cars in the future should have a hard-wired factory reset button right on the computing hardware itself? But you’d still have to be able to get to it, somehow? What if it has no power, but the memory remains intact, and could be accessed if salvaged for another car? This isn’t a problem with easy answers.
Because these cars are showing up in Ukraine, it’s easy to speculate that they may be involved in war effort activities, but from what I can see and guess at, this doesn’t seem to be the case. For one thing, Teslas are probably too valuable for that when there’s still a supply of Daewoos and Ladas and Dacias to turn into fighting vehicles, and I think there’s just a lot of demand for new cars in a country where cars may be hit by shrapnel or had to be abandoned.
Mostly, though, I’m impressed with how the people doing this are able to repair these Teslas and turn them around and, I assume, make some money. I suspect that we’ll be hearing from more Tesla owners who have old former cars pinging them from across the world. Perhaps they can use this unusual form of connection to make some new friends across the globe, dealing with a very difficult time, easing the pain by playing Drake on Spotify.
UPDATE: Here’s what we learned from an importer, Nicholas, who runs a repair shop and car selling business near the Ukrainian border with Poland. He actually shared his Instagram account, where you can see his company repairing various imported cars. According to Nicholas, the cars come in via shippers on the Baltic, which makes sense given the proximity to Poland.
As an example, he sent us an image of a wrecked Model X his company purchased:
And here’s the after:
As we suspected, the margins are not huge, though it’s apparently model specific. On the low end, after repairs and customs/tariffs, a car might be worth $1,000. On the higher end, for a specific and desirable Tesla like a Model X, the margin can reach up to $10,000.
Another former importer/exporter said he believed you could fit approximately four vehicles, depending on which models, in a 40-foot container.