The blurring lines of ownership

There was a time when you owned your car. Once you drove it off the lot, you could do whatever you wanted with it (subject to the laws of your local jurisdiction and the laws of physics). The manufacturer had no say in the matter — indeed they had know way of even knowing what you did. But this is beginning to change.

As hurricane Dorian approached the US coast, Tesla unlocked extra range on cars in the evacuation area. That’s right: Tesla 1. has the ability to change your car’s settings remotely and 2. is selling cars that intentionally reduce the range below maximum.

Let’s take a look at the second part first. Tesla, in order to offer a lower entry price, withholds some battery range by software configuration. You can pay them to get the full range. I understand they do this because it’s cheaper for them to have a single battery. But it feels scummy to me. Tesla’s costs are the same whether you buy the short-range version or the long-range version. So unless you pay them extra, you’re forced to drive around with extra weight. It’s like if Honda required me to keep two gallons of fuel in my gas tank that I could never use.

Tesla fans will defend this, and I understand their arguments. But it strikes me as a very uncomfortable middle ground between me owning the car and Tesla owning the car.

Tesla also, as I mentioned, has the ability to change this setting remotely. What else can they change? Presumably just about anything. I got to ride around in my friend’s Tesla earlier this year and you can do a lot from the app. Lock/unlock the doors, turn on the air conditioning, turn on the seat warmers. Unless the app is down., of course. (In Tesla’s defense, owners really should have a physical key of some kind with them because computers are the worst.)

None of this is me picking on Tesla, they just happen to be a convenient example and perhaps the furthest along the evolutionary line. At some point in the future, I suspect that individual ownership of automobiles will decrease dramatically. But we are not there yet. But we’re also no longer in a model where individuals fully own their cars. As cars get “smarter” the amount that the nominal owner actually owns them will decrease. Eventually we’ll cross a tipping point.

In the meantime, you have to decide how much you trust you car’s manufacturer. How smart do you want your car to be? Google, Amazon, Facebook, and the tech industry at large have shown little respect for the privacy rights of users. Does Tesla? If it does now, will it in the future? If Ford buys Tesla tomorrow, will they shut the servers down and suddenly your car is much less than it was.

This isn’t limited to cars, either. If your smart thermostat’s manufacturer shuts off the servers tomorrow, will your heat still turn on? If your abusive ex works at the manufacturer, can they access your data? Can they change the settings on your thermostat? Abusers are already putting connected devices to nefarious use.

None of this technology is bad per se, but we are woefully ill-equipped to handle it at this point. Existing laws and regulations were written largely for a different time. As a society, we have not yet come to define what reasonable boundaries are. The nature of ownership is changing. We need to change our concepts of ownership to keep up.

3 thoughts on “The blurring lines of ownership

  1. I drive a 2011 Corolla. I’m going to keep that thing running with duct tape and baling wire as long as I can, because i really don’t want a “smart” car.

    Although back cameras are neat. I’d go for those.

  2. Back cameras are amazing. My boss at Microsoft had a fancy SUV with a 360-degree camera. It was like magic.

    But generally my position on “smart” anything is they’re great if I can keep the network calls and dependencies local. Which is pretty hard to do.

  3. > My boss at Microsoft had a fancy SUV with a 360-degree camera.

    Microsoft could upgrade him to 365 but it’s going to cost an arm and a leg.

    On a more serious note, I have mixed feelings on this. On one hand, open devices and more generally the right-to-repair movement is definitely something I support. On the other, if we’re going to have any chance of mitigating climate change, it’s going to require a lot of people transforming their ideas around automobiles, autonomy, and ownership into a more shared, transit-oriented model for transportation. Ironically, despite their hype, Teslas probably aren’t doing much on either front.

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