With Irma goodwill gesture, Tesla's remote control raises eyebrows

September 12, 2017

Electric car maker Tesla helped its owners fleeing the path of Hurricane Irma, offering a complementary boost to the car battery's range to allow them to travel further before needing to recharge.

The goodwill gesture was a publicity boost for the Silicon Valley firm, but the ability to remotely access to its customers' cars also drew some attention.

As millions of Floridians were ordered to evacuate, Tesla offered free software upgrades increasing battery capacity on the Model X, Model S and SUV to 75 kWh from 60 kWh. That extended the driving range by 30 miles (48 kilometers) to 230 miles (370 kilometers).

A company spokesperson on Monday confirmed the news, which was first reported by the specialized blog Electrek. Tesla made the decision to offer the range boost after one Florida owner asked for the upgrade during the evacuation.

The upgrade, which normally costs $4,500 to $9,000 depending on the model, is only temporary for Irma evacuees and will expire on September 16.

Investors hailed the decision, and the company's share price closed up nearly six percent on Monday in New York.

But it also highlighted how drivers remain in ' hands, long after they have driven off the sales lot.

Auto blog Jalopnik said Tesla's move was "praiseworthy and appropriate" but also illustrated "a terrifying prospect of our automotive future."

A dystopian automotive future?

Jalopnik reporter Justin Westbrook speculated about a possible "worst-case scenario where a company or corporation becomes a critical decision maker in disaster scenarios," such as favoring richer car owners in a future evacuation.

Auto analysts contacted by AFP recognized automakers' growing power over drivers, but did not share the more extreme fears.

While Tesla may be more advanced in its remote abilities, most automakers have some degree of control over their increasingly electronic and connected cars.

"Many consumers don't know that GM can remotely shut a car down," said Karl Brauer, executive publisher at Cox Automotive.

"If police officers come to GM and say, 'Shut the car down,' they could," said Brauer. "I don't think they want everyone to know that they have been doing it over a decade."

Ed Hellwig, senior editor at Edmunds.com, said other automakers eventually will catch up to Tesla's level of control.

"Going forward though, they will probably have the same level of abilities to update a car and control it to some degree," he said.

But Hellwig doubted ordinary consumers should be concerned their cars could be hacked by hostile actors.

"If there is enough motivation, it's possible," he said. "But we don't have to worry about it on an everyday basis because the systems are very sophisticated."

In 2015, US researchers succeeded in remotely controlling a Jeep Cherokee, turning on its windshield wipers, turning on its radio and even releasing the brakes.

Tesla itself received a warning in 2016 from a Chinese security firm which revealed remote access vulnerabilities in the Model S.

The Palo Alto, California company remedied the flaws with a software update. Like all Tesla updates, it was distributed remotely.

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not rated yet Sep 13, 2017
Increase battery capacity through software ? That means their software prevents fully charging battery ! Then they want to charge you to charge your battery fully ? Imagine a gasoline tank where you could only fill it 66% unless you pay a fee to the automaker to fill it the other 33% !
not rated yet Sep 13, 2017
Increase battery capacity through software ? That means their software prevents fully charging battery !

There are several factors here

1. You don't always build different variants. It is often cheaper to buy something in bulk and package it into your product with various limitations in software than buy specific variants for each.
An example are USB sticks. Many USB sticks contain chips that are far larger than it says on the tin (e.g. a 8GB stick can often contain a 64GB memory chip where some sectors didn't pass quality control and the controller just limits you to the use of 8GB. Building dedicated 8GB memory chips would require an extra/costly assemby line)

2. Warranty. Tesla gives 8 years of warranty (guaranteeing 80 or 85% capacity after that time). In order not to have too many expensive cases of people coming in for a battery change the batteries are designed with room to spare (pretty much like the SSD many people now have instead of harddisks)
not rated yet Sep 13, 2017
3. Consistent user experience. The user of an EV pays for a certain range. If the range drops over the years then that is not a good user experience. So having some extra capacity that you can trickle in over time keeps the range experience more consistent.

Imagine a gasoline tank where you could only fill it 66% unless you pay a fee to the automaker to fill it the other 33% !

Maybe not a gasoline tank but there are many automakers who will put in identical motors in different variants of their cars - but just limit the hp output (sometimes they have to limit it for legal reasons, too. Or to stay below certain insurance thresholds in some countries).

Dieselgate effectively showed us that automakers do this 33% trick with the amount of fuel in your car, too.

4. Charging batteries fully degrades them over time. 80% charge is better for the lifetime of the battery.

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