Tesla Giveth and Tesla Taketh Away

Elon Musk’s Tesla announced today that it would be discontinuing sales of its entry-level Model S vehicle given poor sales. Apparently only 4% of customers opted for the least-expensive 40 kWH version, which affords the smallest driving distance (160 miles between charges). Tesla will generously fill all undelivered 40 kWH orders with a 60 kWH battery package, but customers shouldn’t expect to take a leisurely 170 mile drive because the battery will be software-governed to perform like a 40 kWH battery. A software upgrade will be available to unleash the full 60 kWH capabilities, but it will run a cool $10,000, which is the difference in model price anyway.

Welcome to a world in which DRM and OEM-imposed limitations bleed into every corner of our lives. Tesla doesn’t owe anyone more than exactly what the contract stipulated, and the concept of OEM-control is not entirely new (e.g., your cable box since 1980), but it is troubling to see a company artificially diminish the capabilities of its product. The cause is not safety, or maintenance of product quality, but simply to deliver an exacting account of dollars and cents paid per value received.

Surely there would be some upset 60 kWH-buyers if someone that had paid $10,000 less received the same car, but at the end of the day it’s 4% of purchasers who have effectively been EOL’ed before they even received their product. If you’re at the bleeding edge you need to be able to absorb these bumps in the road (so to speak). Furthermore, who will have a longer memory in this case, the 96% who will say “Would’a, could’a, should’a” and then move on with their lives, or the 4% who are driving artificially inferior cars for the next 5-15 years?

In a larger context, it is another encroachment by manufacturers into our lives by their refusal to cut the cord to the products that they have lawfully sold to us. DRM’d musics and books are troubling in this way, but I will avoid that topic as we don’t technically own those (they’re sold as a non-transferable license). More relevant are the cases of cell phone unlocking and tethering. The case of cell phone unlocking is storied – it was illegal, then it was legal, and now it isn’t again, but the FCCWhite House, and some in Congress want it to be legal again. In opposition to unlocking is the Copyright Office, which has recently decided that cell phones are protected by the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) and therefore can’t be modified by owners. Similarly, providers fought tooth-and-nail to stop consumers from using their phones tethering capabilities until they unwittingly gave up their rights to do so in a spectrum auction. After continuing to fight despite their agreements, they chalked it up to a big misunderstanding and allowed tethering to be free (for many but not all). Tethering apps are still forbidden by Apple for the iPhone. I have not found a concise rationale – some commentators suggest it’s not supported by the hardware/firmware, but several short-lived tethering apps prove otherwise; others blame the cellular providers, but that’s no longer the case. Either way, makes me eager to return to Android which is a significantly more liberating OS.

Such constraints may only grow in coming years. CNN Money recently produced a segment describing how cell phone companies would love to monetize the Internet of Things rather than further devolve into dumb pipes. The piece was not very specific or in-depth, but it’s a troubling thought: Do you have a Nest thermostat control? That’ll be an extra $5 on your monthly bill. I don’t generally trust CNN’s quality, and I have trouble believing it will come to that as it would require provider permissions to access certain apps which I cannot imagine Apple or Google would let happen, but it has come to the point where we all understand that world is not beyond the bounds of reason.

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