Tesla's demon-haunted cars in Irma's path get a temporary battery-life boost

Tesla sells both 60kWh and 75kWh versions of its Model S and Model X cars; but these cars have identical batteries -- the 60kWh version runs software that simply misreports the capacity of the battery to the charging apparatus and the car's owner.

This is a model of technological fuckery with a long, dishonorable tradition -- think of Intel's processors that disabled their math-coprocessors in the "low-end" models. When product capabilities come without any marginal costs, markets provide perverse incentives to companies to deliberately break some of their finished products to offer a price-differentiated spectrum of products to their customers. Otherwise, the company has to leave some money on the table: either the company prices its products for its deepest-pocketed customers (and excludes the less spendy ones), or it prices them for everyone and "undercharges" the richest customers (or those who value its products the most).

But there are a lot of "negative externalities" to this kind of model. Once Tesla sells you a car, it's yours. You have "that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe" (this being the favored definition of private property among the property-worshiping classes). A well-functioning market would emerge businesses that provided firmware unlockers for your Tesla, letting you buy the discounted 60kWh version and then upgrade it to 75kWh (the same way you can buy a two bedroom house on a big lot and then pay a builder to add a third bedroom).

Tesla's strategy requires that the company do two things: first, it must design the software in its cars to treat the cars' owners as enemies. The software has to lurk, it has to sneak. There can't be a flag in the firmware labeled $TURN_OFF_FUCKERY that you can flip from 0 to 1. Tesla's cars have to run code that is obfuscated, code that lies about which processes it is running, code whose filesystems pretend that certain files are not in key directories, lest you overwrite or modify them.

Second, the company has to rely on laws that ban treating your property as if you own them. It has to rely on the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (1986), which felonizes violating terms of service. It has to rely on Section 1201 of the DMCA, which provides prison sentences of 5 years for first offenders who bypass locks on the devices they own.

They have to haunt their car with demons, make them into cheaters who use law and technology to hide what they do and frustrate their owners.

The reason Tesla's demon-haunted 60kWh cars are news is that the company pushed an over-the-air firmware update to people in Irma's path, letting them use their cars' whole capacity to try to outrun the storm (in addition to noblesse oblige, Tesla has at least two other motives for doing this: first, dead people don't make car payments; and second, lawsuits from grieving relations are bad PR).

The implications of this are grim. A repo depot could brick your car over the air (and it would be a felony to write code to unbrick it). Worse, hackers who can successfully impersonate Tesla, Inc. to your car will have the run of the device: it is designed to allow remote parties to override the person behind the wheel, and contains active countermeasures to prevent you from reasserting control.

Tesla says it reduced cost across its fleet by haunting its cars with demons. A future Kitchenaid could likewise reduce the costs of its toasters by deploying models that refused to toast unauthorized bread, offering a "bread subsidized" version and a "full-featured" toaster that turned off its vision system and allowed you to toast bread of your choosing.

By including countermeasures and EULAs in its cars, Tesla goes beyond the anodyne cruelty of "choice theory" -- it has felonized the owners of its products, taking away the property rights that they should by all rights enjoy in their cars -- rights that are centuries older than cars themselves -- and transferring them to their shareholders.

Up until a few months ago, Tesla sold a 60kWh version of its Model S and Model X vehicles — but the battery in those cars was actually rated at 75kWh. The thinking: Tesla could offer a more affordable 60kWh version to those who didn’t need the full range of the 75kWh battery — but to keep things simple, they’d just use the same 75kWh battery and lock it on the software side. If 60kWh buyers found they needed more range and wanted to upgrade later, they could… or if Tesla wanted to suddenly bestow owners with some extra range in case of an emergency, they could.

Tesla flips a switch to increase the range of some cars in Florida to help people evacuate [Greg Kumparak/Techcrunch]