Commentary: Tesla Boosted Range Prior to Irma, Raises Connected Car Questions

By Nathaniel Bullard(Bloomberg View) -- | September 18, 2017

Last week, as millions of Floridians evacuated ahead of Hurricane Irma‘s landfall, Tesla owners received some unexpected help: added vehicle range. That boost – done over the air via the cars’ dedicated communications systems, and without the owners needing to take any action – is an advance notice on the challenges and opportunities that millions of connected cars will bring.

Tesla once offered the option to buy its model S and X cars with a 75-kilowatt-hour battery, which was software-limited to 60 kilowatt-hours. That extra range physically existed in the form of a larger battery but it could only be unlocked by Tesla, via software, remotely, for a fee. With Irma bearing down on Florida, the company simply pushed that upgrade to owners of the 75-kilowatt-hour battery packs free of charge. While many new cars today have a cellular connection, no other manufacturer has yet to use this over-the-air capability for critical functions in the way Tesla has.

I see a number of ways of thinking about this. The first is: Good for Tesla. Its decision to remove limits on battery packs was an act of altruism, and it was also remarkably effective. It cost nothing (or nearly nothing) on the margin; it was immediate; it could well have saved lives.

Another is: That’s a bit spooky. Despite all of their entertainment systems and obvious computer-controlled systems such as anti-lock brakes, most consumers view a car first and foremost as a vehicle that they own, not as a two-ton metal codebase subject to the whims of distant programmers.

But – if we look past the spooky bit – it is worth asking ourselves a few questions.

The first is, Why don’t other automakers take full advantage of such over-the-air capabilities? It’s not as if today’s cars aren’t connected. In its last six quarterly reports, AT&T says that it has added at least 1 million new “connected cars” through agreements with auto manufacturers.

At the moment, a software update in a car that isn’t a Tesla requires a dealer visit and a physical connection via the vehicle’s diagnostic port. There’s no fundamental reason for that rather old-fashioned way of updating except that it returns business to dealer networks.

The second is, How many things in a car are connected? The answer: basically everything. In a presentation last year, auto-parts maker Delphi presented its vision of just how connected cars will be in the future. It expects to more than triple the number of what it calls diagnostic parameters – things that can be measured – from 2015 to 2020; by 2020, the company expects every vehicle to have 100,000 nearly-instantaneous data exchanges.

For Delphi, all those connections means a massive ramp-up in code. The company expects to ship 200 billion lines of code a day to vehicles by 2020, and to increase its revenue from software 30-fold from 2010 to 2020.

A final question: What could other auto companies do along the lines of what Tesla did? There, the answer is: plenty, in theory, but we might not like it very much. Exploring that question takes us beyond business questions, and into ethical quandaries.

Tesla’s act seems generous – but what if a company remotely disables the software that limits vehicles’ top speeds so that all drivers of its vehicles could flee ahead of a disaster faster? What if it removed emissions controls as well, without notifying drivers? That has happened before, and people weren’t happy about it. And, if self-driving cars arrive, what if a luxury automaker solves the trolley problem definitively on behalf of its passengers?

At the moment, only Tesla and its over-the-air update capabilities faces these questions. Eventually, every automaker will – and every vehicle on the road will be a rolling ethical codebase.

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