Earlier this week, Tesla remotely upgraded select Florida Tesla owners’ cars to expand their mileage capacity in an effort to ease and assist with Hurricane Irma evacuation efforts. The move was praiseworthy and appropriate, but at the root of the gesture lies a terrifying prospect of our automotive future.
Tesla briefly sold a 60 and 60D trim level of its Model S and Model X vehicles. These models had 75 kWh battery packs installed, but were software limited to have less range to artificially create a more affordable entry-level tier for buyers. Buyers still had the option to upgrade to the full capacity for a charge if they changed their minds, and Tesla would “unlock” the capability via an over-the-air software update.
With category four Hurricane Irma headed straight for Florida, Tesla unlocked the full capacity of 60 and 60D model owners in Florida to give them about a 30 mile range boost while evacuating. It was genuinely helpful and an extremely savvy public relations move for the company.
But what it also previewed is our imminent future of unprecedented corporate control over how we drive and what we drive. I briefly mentioned it in the article yesterday, but it’s not hard to imagine a worst case scenario where a company or corporation becomes a critical decision maker in disaster scenarios, like with Hurricane Irma, out of consumer and government control in a critical moment.
Now, I’ve never been one to play into the fears of autonomous driving or ridiculous theories of car hacking, though I recognize vehicle computer security as one of the most important developments in the automotive industry going forward. But this issue is concerned with the relationship between the company and the company’s product.
What would happen if Tesla didn’t unlock the range of those cars? It’s not likely that any of the owners would become stranded, as Electrek reported most of Tesla’s charging network was still functional at the time. But that could have easily been the scenario, and then we face a situation where people were physically capable of evacuating sooner but limited by an option box they didn’t check. We now face a reality where we know our vehicles may hold more potential than we have access to, and that gets complicated in life or death scenarios.
With Tesla, every vehicle they produce today is equipped with their semi-autonomous hardware to use with the company’s Autopilot functionality, but you have to pay to unlock and utilize it. You have one of the most advanced autonomous systems on the road with the potential to save lives, and it’s behind a multi-thousand dollar paywall. Of course for everyday use, this is consumer choice and, within the framework of capitalism, completely rational.
But the issue boils down to the company having complete control over when it gets to remotely intervene in extreme situations with virtually no accountability to its owners. In the Tesla scenario, Tesla only acted after a Florida resident reached out and inquired about unlocking the extra capability, which Tesla then generously applied to the rest of the appropriate vehicles.
As vehicles become more advanced and reliant on software systems that can be tweaked instantly, from anywhere, owner control and access diminishes and is yielded back to the company. It’s more like you’re using the company’s product instead of owning it.
Evacuations are the perfect scenario for working out this issue of corporate control. Many theories and questions have come up concerning how autonomous cars and infrastructure will be designed to handle mass migrations in the event of a crisis. In a future where autonomous cars still share the road with human-piloted cars capable of autonomy, but limited by a paywall, will the company always act to optimize autonomous evacuation by temporarily unlocking those features?
If millions of people flood the roadways, with (let’s assume) wealthier populations having access to the optimized and controlled hive of the autonomous network, and everybody else is left with the hardware but limited by how much they spent whenever they bought the car, we’re putting the lives of wealthier people at a higher value, and leaving those who remain with a purely-financial barrier to survival.
Now, that’s not a new issue. Rich people have always been much quicker and had it easier than everyone else, but that’s because not everyone has access to a boat or a private plane or a second, third, fourth house to crash at. What’s new is that vehicles will now have the functionality to help most, if not everyone, but only when the company determines it necessary—if it’s even determined to be necessary.
And that won’t be by the owner of the car. It won’t be by the government. In the few days or hours that are most critical to a call being made, the decision will come down to a company and culture focused on profits and business. In most cases, the publicity will overwhelm the debate and the right call may be made.
But how will society view these decisions? If a company doesn’t act, will we see it as fair, being that certain people didn’t pay for the full functionality, so it’s their fault they didn’t make it? Or will we blame the company, who now has the power of choice to ensure the safety of its customers? How will we hold foreign companies accountable for events that happen on a global scale?
The way we’ve established our economy and our process of business is founded on the concept of paying more to get more. But with vehicle safety features, it more closely resembles a health care issue versus an issue of economics or business. Will we continue to let companies charge a premium for safety and security, with the hopes that they swoop in like the divine to save us when there’s opportunity? Will businesses begin calculating the cost of saving lives over the cost of business in the event of a disaster? Opting out of the access to the car’s semi-autonomous or fully-autonomous safety system would be like opting out of a health care policy.
We’ve seen recent examples of companies struggling with the moral concerns of business with the General Motors ignition switch and Takata airbag lawsuits, where companies suppressed information or ignored a problem that resulted in the deaths of consumers.
But this issue isn’t about costly, time consuming and resource-heavy recalls. This issue is about an instant solution to a life or death scenario. Why cede the power of decision when we, as owners and citizens, sit on the cusp of revolutionary change, facing the opportunity to adjust the corporate dynamic to ensure companies are accountable for the products they sell and the people they serve?
We shouldn’t rely on manufacturers to rescue us, but we can seek a means of ensuring that consumer safety and human survival is the highest priority, and not locked behind a paywall. Otherwise we rest our hope in the corporate machine, running the numbers while balancing the lives of its consumers, whose fate now rests in the accessible functionality locked behind a software update that may not come.