Wunderkind electric car brand Tesla probably thought they were doing something nice this weekend when they boosted the battery power capacity for their drivers escaping the perilous path of Hurricane Irma. Owners of Tesla Model S and Model X cars who’d bought the “cheaper” versions with battery limits of 60-70 kilowatts hours (kWh) got an unexpected bonus when the carmaker remotely boosted their batteries to 75kWh, if they were in Irma-affected areas. According to car enthusiast blog Elektrek, the bonus boost bought about 30-40 miles of extra driving range for those trying to elude the storm.
But just like that one time Apple put the U2 album on your iPhone without asking, Tesla’s act of corporate charity has sparked suspicions about which other aspects of automobile ownership Tesla may be inclined to just up and change on its customers. And it confronts Tesla owners with an awkward truth about the precious vehicles for which they waited on years-long waiting lists — if someone a thousand miles away can just flip a switch and change the performance features of your car, then you don’t really own that car.
“You’re bringing a consumer electronics mentality to a durable-goods product,” Oppenheimer Bank managing director Colin Rusch told the New York Times. “Adding incremental functionality is an ongoing process for Tesla. We’ll see them continue to participate in that over-the-air market.”
“Over-the-air” means changes to the product you supposedly own are rolled out digitally or wirelessly. Maybe the manufacturer notifies you, and maybe they don’t. And in the case of Tesla, the buyer was made fully aware that they were getting weaker battery life in exchange for a price tag of roughly $6,000 less. The buyer can upgrade to a full-powered battery at any time.
But this assumes a transaction in which the manufacturer is completely up front about costs, benefits, and drawbacks. I’ve lived through enough iOS updates to know that it doesn’t always work that way.
In fact, it doesn’t always work that way with Tesla and their glorified “computers on wheels”, either. Last month, Tesla removed automatic emergency braking in some of their models, which had been billed as a standard feature. Owners, naturally, had no say in this. They simply lost something they’d paid for, and Tesla also has a history of promising software updates but delivering them behind schedule.
As former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration head David Friedman told NPR, “I do worry that some companies are being a little too cavalier when it comes to trying to apply the Silicon Valley software model to two tons of glass, metal and plastic that can cruise down the road at 70 miles an hour.”