In a scrapyard in Massachusetts, the YouTuber known as Rich Rebuilds runs a pair of jumper cables from a broken down Tesla Model S to a deep cycle battery.
“We may hear some clicks,” he says, as he prepares to connect the second lead. “We may hear some buzzing. The car may explode. I don’t know what’s gonna happen.”
As a self-described “Doctor Frankenstein of Teslas,” this is Rich Benoit’s modus operandi. On YouTube, he’s chronicled his journey to learn how the cars’ internal systems work—and how to repair them after floods, fires and wrecks.
In a new Motherboard documentary, Benoit shows us the scrapyards where he scavenges Tesla parts, the basement where he categorizes them, and an auto body shop that lets him use its equipment. He shows us deep under the hood, where he wrestles with the motors, high-powered batteries and tangles of electronics and cables that make Teslas tick.
Benoit first started tinkering with Teslas when he was shopping for one of his own.
“I was looking for a Tesla, and I thought the prices were way too high,” Benoit told me. “They start at like $80,000, which is insane. I came across one on the internet, but they said it was in a flood. I thought ‘How hard can this be? You throw it in a bag of rice.’”
He ended up buying a second broken-down Tesla for parts, cobbling the two together in a repair process that he documented in-depth on YouTube.
Motivating Benoit is a deep belief in the “right to repair”—the philosophy that manufacturers shouldn’t be allowed to intentionally prevent consumers from repairing their own devices. Massachusetts has the country’s only automotive right to repair law, which was passed in 2012 and requires auto dealerships to sell repair parts to independent dealers. This has helped Benoit a bit, he said, but Tesla technically doesn’t have “dealerships” and so he’s had to scavenge for many of his parts. Legislation that would expand right to repair to other electronics has been proposed in a handful of states around the country.
Benoit, who holds a day job in information technology in Boston, has an ambivalent relationship with Tesla. He loves the company’s electric cars, which he thinks are elegantly designed and represent a sustainable vision for transportation. But the company wants to retain control over how its vehicles are serviced and repaired. In 2016, for instance, the company refused to allow a former Tesla employee to open a repair shop in Denmark that would fix broken Teslas (it has since become Tesla-approved.)
“If you drive around, you’ll see a place that only fixes only Saabs, or they fix only Volvo,” Rich said. “Places like that are so important. You have to have these little mom and pop shops that know these cars well, that’ll fix it for a decent price, so that the manufacturer can’t monopolize the repair.”
Since his first Tesla restoration—he’s now working on a second—Rich has become a point-person in the Tesla repair community. He runs a Facebook group for people who want to sell and trade parts and has helped other enthusiasts across the country and as far away as Norway, Germany and South Africa.
Rich’s dream is to open a third-party Tesla repair shop, but he worries about the legal repercussions
“I’d like to, but I know how that ended for another set of people who tried to do that,” he said. “They shut them down within months. And Tesla doesn’t give them the tools they need.”
A Tesla spokesperson declined to give Motherboard a statement about the specifics of this documentary, but said that, for a fee, it will inspect salvaged vehicles to assess which repairs are needed. It added that the repair of salvaged vehicles by unqualified mechanics could be dangerous to the mechanic and to other drivers on the road. It said that customers are free to do whatever they want with their cars, including repair them
Back in the scrapyard, Rich connects the battery to the derelict Tesla. There’s a grinding of electronics, and he cries out in excitement as the vehicle’s distinctive pop-out door handles push out, indicating there’s still life to the car.
“No frickin’ way!” he says. “The door handles just extended. Oh Jesus. Oh my god.”