To help base-model Tesla owners evacuate areas that were about to be hit by Hurricane Irma, the electric automaker decided to give them a gift. On Saturday, it sent out a software update that remotely extended the range of cars with 60-kWh batteries. So instead of having to recharge every 210 miles, drivers were temporarily able to travel closer to 250 miles between stops. But what was intended to be a helpful gesture has people asking all kinds of questions.
Tesla was able to remotely extend the range of 60-kWh Model S and Model X EVs because the battery pack is actually the same one in the 75-kWh model. The only difference between the two cars is that the less-expensive version has its range electronically limited. In fact, if owners decide they need the extra range, Tesla will let them purchase the upgrade.
As the Washington Post points out, people are used to paying to unlock extra features with things like video games and subscription services, but something like a car’s range is completely new. After all, an automaker can’t remotely increase the size of a car’s gas tank. We’re also not used to automakers being able to control what our cars can and can’t do after we’ve purchased them. If features can be added and taken away on a whim, do we even truly own our cars anymore?
On the one hand, it’s nice that Tesla offers a more-affordable version of its cars, even if that means they have less range. And if the accountants say it doesn’t make sense to produce a 60 kWh battery pack, the only way we were going to get that less-expensive Model S is if Tesla can find a way to further de-content the 75-kWh version. Incidentally, Tesla quietly discontinued that version earlier this year, so it appears there wasn’t much demand for a more-affordable Model S.
On the other hand, both cars cost the same to produce. A cynic might say Tesla is using software to hold 20 percent of the car’s range hostage until you pay up. And if you were to modify your car to gain access to that range, Tesla could theoretically remotely update your software to eliminate your modification.
Modifying your Toyota 86 might void the warranty, but if Toyota doesn’t like the changes you made, it can’t force you to remove that supercharger. It’s your car. But in the era of over-the-air software updates, maybe it’s not. Would Volkswagen be wrong to remotely reset every APR-tuned GTI? Over the next several years, we might actually find out.