2017-09-12 19:26:10 UTC
In the lead up to Hurricane Irma hitting Florida over the weekend, Tesla
did something kind of interesting: it gave a "free" upgrade to a bunch of
Tesla drivers in Florida, extending the range of those vehicles, to make it
easier for them to evacuate the state. Now, as an initial response, this
may seem praiseworthy. The company did something (at no cost to car-owners)
to help them evacuate from a serious danger zone. In a complete vacuum,
that sounds like a good idea. But there are a variety of problems with it
when put back into context.
The first thing you need to understand is that while Tesla sells different
versions of its Model S, with different ranges, the range is actually
entirely software-dependent. That is, it uses the same batteries in
different cars -- it just limits how much they'll charge via software.
Thus, spend more on a "nicer" model and more of the battery is used. So all
that happened here was that Tesla "upgraded" these cars with an
over-the-air update. In some ways, this feels kind of neat -- it means that
a Tesla owner could "purchase" an upgrade to extend the range of the car.
But it should also be somewhat unsettling.
In some areas, this has lead to discussions about the possibility of
hacking the software on the cheaper version to unlock the greater battery
power -- and I, for one, can't wait to see the CFAA lawsuit that eventually
comes out of that should it ever happen. (Some people are already hacking
into the Tesla's battery management system, but just to determine how much
capacity is really available.)
But this brings us back to the same old discussion of whether or not you
really own what you've bought. When a company can automagically update the
physical product you bought from them, it at least raises some serious
questions. Yes, in this case, it's being used for a good purpose: to
hopefully make it easier for Tesla owners to get the hell out of Florida.
But it works the other way too, as law professor Elizabeth Joh points out:
This sounds great until you realize the
power to brick a car is useful to corporations
and the police.
And, of course, there's the possibility that one of these over-the-air
updates goes wrong in disastrous ways:
"Oops! Sorry we accidentally bricked all
the Teslas in the vicinity of the hurricane.
Please accept our condolences and a
year of free credit monitoring."
So, yes, without any context, merely upgrading the cars' range sure sounds
like a good thing. But when you begin to think about it in the context of
who actually owns the car you bought, it gets a lot scarier.