As Hurricane Irma headed toward Florida, thousands of people evacuated. Electric car owners were no exception, and some Tesla owners received an unexpected boon: a software update that unlocked the full range of battery power available on their vehicles, giving owners additional mileage in order to flee the coming storm. But Tesla’s actions also drew the eye, and the ire, of the internet community.
It all started in 2016, when Tesla released a line of vehicles equipped with 75 kilowatt-hour battery packs. Customers had the option to purchase cars with a software cap which limited the amount of battery available to 60-70 kilowatt-hours of power. This reduced the mileage range of the cars, but it also reduced the price by up to $9,500.
In the days leading up to Hurricane Irma, some Tesla owners worried about the impact of reduced battery availability on their evacuation plans. They contacted Tesla, which pushed through an over-the-air software update, temporarily unlocking the remaining battery power, for free, for Tesla owners in evacuation zones – allowing their cars to go farther on a single charge.
With Irma bearing down on Florida, most people would agree that Tesla did the right thing by removing power caps. The flip side is that Tesla’s good deed put the spotlight on its use of paywalls to disable functionality of features already built-in to their cars, raising fears of future private sector extortion over our transportation system in times of crisis. Tesla, after all, has no common-law duty to act, and could easily charge desperate customers a fee for this service.
But – importantly – they didn’t.
Many Tesla owners seemed grateful for the extra mileage when it was needed. But others (by all appearances, non-owners), who either didn’t know about the cap, or alternatively, knew about the cap but already decided Tesla had too much corporate control over a vehicle to purchase one themselves, criticized the company for using software to regulate the battery power in the first place. Some went so far as to discuss a dystopian future where only those with the cash to enable full functionality of their vehicles would be able to escape disasters because of the level of corporate greed. You can’t pay? Too bad for you.
However, Tesla owners were well aware of the artificial cap on their range, and willing to take the reduced mileage in exchange for a lower price. Our daily lives are saturated with products with their full capability only accessible through a paywall – think video game expansion packs, Amazon Prime, and airplane tickets. Most of us have come to terms with these caps, but the functional nature of a personal automobile has pushed some to call for action. But what would this action look like? A statutorily imposed duty to remove caps on car capability in times of crisis? Design-flaw product liability lawsuits? Regulations that prohibit the use of such technology in the first place? Would new laws encompass just the auto industry, or span others as well? What would these changes actually accomplish?
Finally, we need to consider whether these actions would do more harm than good by creating a disincentive for other companies to act in good faith during future crises. After all, if a company knows they’ll be punished for helping out, they might not offer in the first place. By not allowing Tesla’s good deed to go unpunished, we have to be careful not to inadvertently punish ourselves in the process.