Tesla recently announced all new vehicles coming off the line would fully support its self-driving technology, at least eventually. The company also included some details on how customers who purchase self-driving vehicles are allowed to use their cars. The company’s claims will almost certainly be tested in court, given how Tesla is attempting to execute a fairly massive power grab.
Tesla’s design page for the Model S contains the following whopper:
So. According to Tesla, buying a Model S means you are agreeing to only use the vehicle’s self-driving capabilities to generate revenue if you use Tesla’s own baked-in system. This is a neat window into Elon Musk‘s long-term plans, and it speaks to why he felt comfortable building out the Supercharger system while simultaneously letting Tesla owners charge up for free (it’s unclear if Model 3 owners will pay a monthly or yearly fee for the same privilege). Musk knows self-driving cars are expected to transform the transportation industry, and he’s setting up an early claim to lock Tesla owners into only driving on his network.
Whether this is legal is an interesting question. As Slate notes, it’s the latest salvo fired in a decades-long trend to dilute the very concept of ownership and transform physical products into “licensed” versions that are treated more like software. So how can Tesla know what you’re doing with your vehicle? That’s easy — it tracks the car extensively, both to provide software updates and monitor driver behavior. Last year, Tesla raised eyebrows by sending waves of emails asking certain customers not to spend so much time recharging at Superchargers. In a well-discussed spat with the New York Times, Musk revealed Tesla had exact records of where the tested vehicle had stopped, started, and how much it had been driven (and at what speeds and operating temperatures).
Tesla can tell if you’re using a self-driving car by monitoring how much time you spend driving it (or that the car spends in operation). That’s never been an issue before, but it could easily become one now. And therein lies the rub: To Tesla, your vehicle isn’t just a collection of hardware, it’s a money-earning machine with extremely expensive and proprietary software. Just as John Deere has argued that tractor owners don’t actually own their vehicles, Tesla is rolling out the same rhetoric and applying it to self-driving cars.
If issues related to software ownership and licensing aren’t resolved, the future looks downright draconian. The implicit argument being made here is that the use of algorithms magically transforms products from “owned” to “licensed.” So long as such products were a distinct minority of the things people used on a daily basis, this wasn’t a huge concern. Given that the stated goal of IoT evangelists is to put sensors and software in basically everything, it’s going to be a real problem going forward.
Car manufacturers are already deploying technology that allows them to turn a vehicle off remotely if someone misses a payment. How long until we see even tighter restrictions imposed on people who the manufacturer thinks have breached its Terms of Service? Forcing an end user to only drive for a specific network should be as illegal as forcing employees to buy their goods through a company store. If you pay Tesla $ 70K or more for the privilege of driving a Model S off the lot, you’ve already paid the company everything it ought to be entitled to. I’d sooner pay the company the equivalent of retail gasoline prices to refuel the battery than allow it to dictate how, when, and if I make money by using my vehicle.