One of the less-considered side effects of car features moving from hardware to software is that important features and abilities of a car can now be removed without any actual contact with a given car. Where once de-contenting involved at least a screwdriver (or, if you were in a hurry, a hammer), now thousands of dollars of options can vanish with the click of a mouse somewhere. And that’s exactly what happened to one Tesla owner, and, it seems many others.
Alec (I’ll withhold his last name for privacy reasons) bought a 2017 Tesla Model S on December 20 of last year, from a third-party dealer who bought the car directly from Tesla via auction on November 15, 2019. The car was sold at auction as a result of a California Lemon Law buyback, as the car suffered from a well-known issue where the center-stack screen developed a noticeable yellow border.
When the dealer bought the car at auction from Tesla on November 15, it was optioned with both Enhanced Autopilot and Tesla’s confusingly-named Full Self Driving Capability; together, these options totaled $8,000. You can see them right on the Monroney sticker for the car:
Tesla officially sold the car to the dealership on November 15, a date I’ve confirmed by seeing the car’s title. On November 18, Tesla seems to have conducted an “audit” of the car remotely. The result of that audit was that when the car’s software was updated to the latest version in December, the Enhanced Autopilot and Full Self Driving Capability (FSD) were removed from the car.
Tesla confirmed the date of the audit—which flagged the features for removal—in an invoice:
A disclosure statement from Tesla to the dealership at the time of the sale does not mention anything about Autopilot or FSD removal:
It’s also worth noting that those repairs on the disclosure were not actually made, which is why Alec took his car to a service center in January.
Let’s recap a little bit at this point: A Model S with Enhanced Autopilot (which includes the Summon feature) and FSD “capability” is sold at auction, a dealer buys it, after the sale to the dealer Tesla checks in on the car and decides that it shouldn’t have Autopilot or FSD “capability,” dealer sells car to customer based on the specifications they were aware the car had (and were shown on the window sticker, and confirmed via a screenshot from the car’s display showing the options), and later, when the customer upgrades the car’s software, Autopilot and FSD disappear.
When Alec asked Tesla customer support about this, this was their response:
Tesla has recent identified instances of customers being incorrectly configured for Autopilot versions that they did not pay for. Since, there was an audit done to correct these instances. Your vehicle is one of the vehicles that was incorrectly configured for Autopilot. We looked back at your purchase history and unfortunately Full-Self Driving was not a feature that you had paid for. We apologize for the confusion. If you are still interested in having those additional features we can begin the process to purchase the upgrade.
This is all very puzzling. Alec bought the car from a dealer based on a set of features that the dealer understood the car to have when purchased at auction. If Alec saw that the car had Autopilot and FSD when he paid for it, how, exactly, did he not pay for those features?
Those features together are worth $8,000, but as they were already on the car when he bought it, it’s hard to understand how he somehow didn’t pay for them?
I realize that these are software features, but they act like any physical feature of a car. You don’t pay a subscription for FSD or Autopilot, you pay a one-time fee, just like you would for an electromechanical cruise control system on any other car.
If you buy, say, a used Ford Ecosport (not my first choice, but you do you) that has lane keeping assist and active cruise control, and Ford somehow thinks you didn’t pay for those particular features and sends over a service tech to physically remove them from your car, I think we’d all consider that pretty wrong. We might even consider that theft. I’m not clear how what Tesla did here is any different.
If Tesla had conducted their audit prior to the sale of the car, and made everyone in the loop aware that the car was being de-contented, then that would be one thing; still kind of shitty, but a bit more defensible.
But this audit happened after the initial sale of the car. The car was no longer owned by Tesla at the time of the audit, and none of the parties involved were aware that features were being removed from the car.
As an experiment, Alec reached out to a Tesla Used Vehicle Sales Advisor to try and see if he could ask for Autopilot and FSD to be removed from a used vehicle.
Alec suggested he wanted a particular car, but wanted to save money by having FSD deleted. The Sales Advisor told him that
“...if it’s added and it’s a used car they just simply will not remove it.”
That goes directly against Alec’s experience, where Tesla did remove FSD from a used car.
Alec isn’t alone in his experience; Tesla message boards have stories from other owners who have experienced similar incidents.
All of what happened here goes completely counter to how we’ve understood the buying and selling of used cars since there were used cars to sell. Whatever equipment the car had on it at the time of sale was part of that sale, period.
Subscription-based services like OnStar would be different, but that’s not what we’re dealing with here; this is an optional feature of the car paid for once, like cruise control or A/C or a radio. You can’t just yank it out after the car is sold with those features understood to be part of the car.
It sets a bad precedent if carmakers are going to be able to de-content used cars after sale; technically, any feature that is available to be activated or deactivated in software could be vulnerable to something like this, and I can’t think of any context where remote removal after purchase is okay.
In fact, it seems like a pretty shitty thing to do, a craven attempt to double-dip and get money for the same features every time the car is re-sold.
I’ve reached out to Tesla for comment multiple times over the week and have gotten no response. I’ll update when, and if, I do.
Updated: Friday, February 7, 2020, 1:27 p.m. ET:
The dealership, United Traders, reached out to me to add some details and more information about the sale of the Tesla and what they knew of its features at the time of the sale:
I saw the Tesla story blowing up on your website and a few others as well. We are the dealership (United Traders) that sold the Tesla to Alec B_____.
I bought that vehicle personally, and used the full self drive on it multiple times. It was working fine. One day, a random message popped up saying your autopilot has been upgraded after a software update. Then it disappeared. I figured it was a glitch. I already had an agreement with Alec to purchase the vehicle.
He did come and test drive it a few days later, and we both agreed it was a technical difficulty or bug that would be fixed by next software update. Since then Tesla has been of no assistance to him, and I have been doing my best to get him some help in this case.
I sell dozens of Teslas a year, and sold my father in law a Model X P90D with ludicrous speed package. 60 days after the purchase of the car, Tesla removed his ludicrous speed package. Upon complaints to them they said he never paid for it. We have video evidence and multiple pictures of the vehicle with it. They even removed the line under the P90D. I am still shocked at these acts.