At some point, everyone who carries a mobile phone with them will have “butt-dialed” someone, committing the act of inadvertently making a call via unconscious but sophisticated buttock actions while a phone is in a pocket. The consequences are generally low, just subjecting someone to a muffled bit of eavesdropping. Occasionally, the consequences can be much higher, as in the cases of people who have butt-upgraded their Teslas via the Tesla mobile app, often resulting in thousands of dollars in unwanted purchases.
References to this happening are from the beginning of this year, when a Tesla owner accidentally had a $4,333 Enhanced Autopilot purchase added to his car. More recently, on September 24, Dr. Ali Vazri did effectively the same thing, finding a $4,280 Enhanced Autopilot charge to his account.
Dr. Vazari had a credit card on file with the Tesla app to pay recurring charges for “premium connectivity,” and that’s the card that was used for the Enhanced Autopilot feature, which, it’s worth mentioning, isn’t really an Autopilot.
Vazari spoke to CNBC about the incident:
“My phone was in my jeans. I took it out, put it on this charger that comes with your Tesla and that’s it. A minute later? I got the text. I’ve never purchased anything through the Tesla app before.”
Vazari was able to put a stop payment on the purchase, though as of this writing it does not appear that Tesla has refunded his money.
This seems to have happened a few times before, with the earliest case seemingly coming from the back in January:
In this case, Nassim Nicholas Taleb went through much the same thing. The Tesla app uses some “dark patterns,” which are user interface tricks that guide people into spending more money, including automatically checking off the $4,000 Enhanced Autopilot software option, no user input required. All of these shady-ass practices were explored by Ted Stein back in January.
CNBC reports that the app has been changed to now require more user input before purchases, and I should mention that after getting Tesla CEO and failed submarine designer Elon Musk’s attention via his tweets, Taleb did get a refund.
While there’s all sorts of problems here, most are fundamentally fixable. Tesla’s app was using some really shitty dark pattern UX methods that a company like it really shouldn’t be doing, but it seems they’re fixing that now.
What’s less fixable is the fundamental willingness to pull this shit in the first place, and the way they justify it, specifically as seen in one of the responses Taleb got when he was trying to get his refund.
This is the response that I think is worth talking about:
The section I’ve highlighted there is the real crux of the problem:
“This would be similar to the situation of paying for an addition to a house, deciding you don’t like it, and then requesting a refund from the contractor.”
This statement is in every possible way wrong and misleading, and the fact that it came from Tesla customer support is appalling.
Let’s think about it for a moment: Taleb accidentally (and, in large part because of the predatory UX design of the Tesla app) purchased $4,000 worth of software that would be downloaded to his car’s computers remotely.
The process here, on Tesla’s side is automated: a server gets the instructions, the data is sent over the cellular network, it’s downloaded into the car and the code is executed to unlock the Enhanced Autopilot feature.
The code that’s sent to the car from Tesla is infinitely reproducible, requires no physical materials, and all of the associated labor to create it was accomplished once, a while ago. No additional labor is required to specifically install it on a particular vehicle.
The analogy of the addition to a house, on the other hand, is not like this at all. A home addition requires custom planning and design from an architect, site-specific input and design from contractors of all sorts, physical materials must be purchased for the construction and actual skilled human physical labor must be employed to construct it.
This has precisely fuck-all to do with downloading software to a car.
Building an addition to a house uses labor, time, and materials that are unique to that situation and cannot be undone once used. In fact, removal would require more costs, in terms of demolition and waste removal.
Getting rid of unwanted software should just require a bit of new data and instructions sent automatically to the car, over the air, like magic.
The fact that the Tesla rep would suggest that the two situations have any commonality at all is absurd and deliberately designed to intimidate and pressure the purchaser.
The policy stated that “there are no refunds available for software purchases” is ridiculous, especially since it’s not like Tesla owners are rampantly pirating Autopilot software on floppy disks like it was a copy of Lode Runner in 1984.
I suspect Dr.Vazri will eventually get a refund, and Tesla has already made changes to their app. That doesn’t change the fact that they were willing to behave like this as long as they could get away with it.
Making refunds on software features this difficult is absurd; if someone orders Enhanced Autopilot and then asks for it to be gone that same day or within a few days, it’s pretty obvious they didn’t intend to buy it. Or maybe they changed their mind? That should still be fine. It’s $4,000 of software that costs negligible money to turn on or off for a user. Any decent company would make reasonable provisions here.
As always, I’ve reached out to Tesla for comment, but I’m guessing you know how I think that will go. Luckily, I’m sure I’ll get plenty of commentary from Tesla stans, and I’m very curious to see how they’ll defend this.