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Tesla can change so much with over-the-air updates that it’s messing with some owners’ heads

Tesla can change so much with over-the-air updates that it’s messing with some owners’ heads


Praise for a recent software fix to the Model 3’s braking is met with worry that different update slowed some customers’ cars

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

When Consumer Reports recently found that the braking distance on the Tesla Model 3 was worse than that of a Ford F-150, CEO Elon Musk took the criticism and found a solution. Days later, Tesla shipped an over-the-air update that, according to CR’s testing, improved the braking distance by 19 feet. It’s a wild idea: your car automatically downloads some code, and it’s instantly safer. It also wasn’t possible even a few years ago, and some have held it up as an ideal example of how futuristic technologies can make our lives better. Analysts said it was “unheard of.” Jake Fisher, CR’s director of auto testing (and the person who originally flagged the issue), said he’d “never seen a car that could improve its track performance with an over-the-air update.”

Others, like Navigant Research’s Sam Abuelsamid, looked at the recent Model 3 braking distance issue as a sign of a larger problem with Tesla’s quality control. He wrote this week that the fact there was that much room for improvement on the braking capabilities of the car shows there’s something “fundamentally broken in what they were doing” with the Model 3. Shouldn’t Tesla, which by now has made and sold over 300,000 cars around the globe, have caught this problem before CR did?

We don’t yet know why the Model 3’s braking was underperforming, and we may never know. That matters less than what the update actually signaled.

The brake fix was a sign of just how deep Tesla can dig with an over-the-air update

Tesla has shipped OTA updates to its cars for years now that have changed everything from its Autopilot driver assistance system to the layout and look of its touchscreen interfaces. At one point last year, it even used an update to extend the range of some cars to help customers evacuate the path of Hurricane Irma.

This week was different, though, because it showed just how far the company can go with those updates. With a swift change in the software, the company showed it can reach as deep as the systems that control the brakes. It creates the feeling that you could get out of your car one night, and by the time you get back in the next morning, the car could do some things — maybe everything — in a totally different way.

Tesla is ahead of other carmakers when it comes OTA updates — just look at the recent mini FCA fiasco. But being on the frontline of a new technology means that you have to deal with problems that no one else has encountered, and find answers to questions that people are asking for the first time.

Take this one, posted just a few weeks ago Tesla’s own official forums: ”Did Tesla just slow down our cars?”

In the thread, owners point to how a recent update (specifically 2018.18.3, released in the middle of May) lines up with what could be the possibility that their Model 3s don’t quite accelerate with as much kick as they did before.

“It seems in the latest update that my Model 3 is much slower off the line,” the original poster writes. “It doesn’t throw you into the seat like it used to!”

Then the worry sets in. “Did Tesla purposefully reduce acceleration? Can we please get it back?”

“Did Tesla purposefully reduce acceleration? Can we please get it back?”

“[M]y car is one of the ones who has definitely lost its ‘oomph.’ It is not near as fast as it was prior to the upgrade,” another owner writes. “When I would hit the gas pedal from a complete stop, it would throw our heads back into the headrests, it was that fast! Now it no longer does that.”

Some have veered into conspiracy territory, noting that the perceived acceleration change happened right around the same time that Tesla announced a new “performance” version of the Model 3. “Frankly, nothing Tesla does at this point would surprise me. This would fit perfectly into their ongoing campaign to ‘disappear’ the $35,000 base model, and upsell everyone to the $87k fully loaded model,” a different user writes.

No one seems to have come up with anything other than anecdotal evidence to support these claims. And plenty others say they haven’t noticed a difference. “I don’t feel like the performance changed at all,” one poster writes. “Still pulls like a bat out of hell! Loving this car so much.”

Tesla says it didn’t tinker with anything in the update. In a statement to The Verge, a spokesperson for Tesla said the “Model 3’s acceleration capability remains unchanged.”

But forget for a moment the question of whether Tesla toyed with the Model 3’s acceleration. Something else is happening, and it suggests Tesla has once again charted new territory for an automaker.

By adopting the behavior of issuing regular OTA software updates — ones that can apparently affect things so deep in the car that the company can demonstrably improve braking distance — Tesla has started to open itself up to the same kinds of controversies and conspiracies that some consumer electronics giants have famously dealt with.

Tesla is, once again, charting new territory

Take Apple, for example. iPhone owners spent years worrying, with little more than anecdotal evidence, that their phones were conspicuously slowing down around the same time that Apple released a new version. It later emerged that Apple was programming iPhones to slow down after a certain amount of time, though the company argued it was in an effort to preserve the phones’ battery life.

The way Tesla is using software, and specifically how liberally it’s changing its cars with OTA updates, puts the automaker and its customers in a similar tion, according to Marcelo Rinesi, the chief technology officer for the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.

“Among the qualities we prize the most in our things is their behavior, but as most things have computers inside, this means these qualities are defined by software, and as most things are also connected to the internet, this software changes continuously at the whim of somebody else,” Rinesi tells The Verge via email. 

Rinesi says it’s also hard to define “software” in the first place since much of what modern technology does relies on things that live outside the physical object — in this case, the car. “You don’t buy a car, or a phone, or soon enough a house or a medical implant or whatever: you buy an interface to, or an aspect of, a huge platform-company-ecosystem-whatever that changes by the minute,” he says.

This fluidity with regards to what a Tesla car can do (or, more philosohically, what it is) at any given moment might sound a bit scary, and could be the source of the worry in the forum thread. But Rinesi doesn’t expect any such apprehension to last long. At a certain point consumers will stop being reactive and will become more flexible with the idea, in the same way that we’re fine walking around with devices in our pockets that can track our movements, he says.

Our products “are a bit mysterious, and do cool things, and sometimes they do something creepy or harmful,” Rinesi says

“That seems to be the way we’ve come to relate to our product-platforms in general, at least for now: they are a bit mysterious, and do cool things, and sometimes they do something creepy or harmful that reminds us that we don’t know how or what they are doing most of the time, and then there’s a bit of a PR scramble,” he says. “But it’s more episodic than anything else.”

Take the 2015 Volkswagen emissions scandal. In this case, VW was surreptitiously using software to hide how some of its cars were dirtier than advertised, and it suffered backlash when that truth came to light. People were angry, and heads rolled. But by the end of 2017, sales were way back up.

Customers becoming familiar with, or simply accepting of, “mysterious” products doesn’t mean Tesla is bulletproof, Rinesi says. After all, it’s still a company that makes and sells cars, which are inherently dangerous objects that require a huge personal investment. And he says Tesla is particularly vulnerable because the company hangs so much of its reputation on the idea of “new technology.”

“That’s how Musk wants it, because that’s what allows him to raise money the way he does, but it leaves the company socially exposed,” Rinesi writes. While more traditional auto industry companies get things wrong — like when Toyota’s braking software caused a scandal, or how Goodyear ignored problems with its RV tires — they largely get a pass because they’ve spent far more time lobbying for the idea that death or danger is part of the deal when it comes to cars, Rinesi says.

Even though Tesla might face more scrutiny, the company has made a long list of improvements to its cars over the six years that it’s been shipping OTA updates. That’s another reason customers will roll with whatever uncertainty might pop up now — they see it as a better option than the alternative of going back to a world where the kinds of improvements Tesla makes simply aren’t possible without waiting at a dealer or paying out of pocket, says Karl Brauer, the executive publisher for Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book

“For technology geeks the concept of improving their car’s performance, or just addressing a recall, without ever leaving their garage is pretty cool,” he says. “Over-the-air updates can literally change a car overnight, removing the need to take them to get serviced or swapped for a loaner vehicle.”

iPhone users had the option to switch. No one else offers what Tesla is selling — yet

And where iPhone users have the choice of switching to phones made by Samsung or Google if they’re not happy with what Apple’s doing, there’s no one offering the same kind of experience that Tesla sells when it comes to the idea of an upgradeable car. Other companies are trying, but they’re iterating slowly and making far more mistakes.

One way Tesla could put these customers’ fears to rest is by being transparent, Brauer says. If Tesla tells its customers specifically what they can’t — or won’t — alter, in a more comprehensive way than they do in the release notes, some of these owners’ worries may evaporate. But that’s not likely.

“In a perfect world car companies would provide customers with a comprehensive log covering any and every alteration made through OTA updates,” Bruaer says. “However, a desire to keep some changes from going public might preclude that level of transparency. This is where OTA’s convenience could take a darker turn.”

Again, even if those fears fester a while, and even if we’re talking about changes (or perceived changes) to critical systems like brakes or acceleration, it still might not matter in the long run for consumers. As Rinesi puts it, “once a culture (or an economy) has gotten used to a way of doing things, it can coexist with very high levels of occasional dread without forcing changes.”