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Tesla steals batteries?

15 August 2019

EVs are the future of personal transport, I think that's something of a foregone conclusion.

The most iconic EV company to date is Tesla. Thanks to the charismatic (if not "expert") leadership of founder Elon Musk, Tesla has become "the" EV company in the eyes of many. Sure, other brands have outsold the Tesla marque and arguably many offer better value but just as Henry Ford kicked off the era of mass personal transportation, Elon has kicked off the EV market.

One of the best things about the Tesla is its very high level of computerisation and elegant simplicity of design.

Rather than a sprawling array of dials, gauges, instruments, switches, dials and levers, the Tesla dashboard consists pretty much of just a giant LCD screen which interfaces with all the car's control, entertainment and information services. It's a bit like my office in terms of simplicity... ie: if you want to know where something is --in the case of the Tesla "it's on the screen" and in the case of my office, "it's on the floor".

This high level of computerisation and integration is also one of the key reasons that the Tesla has made EVs a practical alternative to ICE-powered vehicles.

By having ultra-fine control over every aspect of the vehicle's operation, the last gram of range, performance and functionality can be squeezed out of today's battery, motor and drivetrain technologies.

Sounds great doesn't it...

But, if it's so great, why are a group of Tesla Model-S and Model-X users taking a class action suit against Tesla?

Well it seems that it's partly due to this highly sophisticated and highly integrated level of control that the computer system has over all aspects of the vehicle's operation.

A while back, Tesla was slated for having rather poor braking performance in safety tests. Under emergency braking, the vehicles tested took much longer to stop than they should have.

Tesla responded by simply firing out a software update that altered the braking curves and tweaked some other aspects of the car's inner-most workings. Voila... the braking performance was dramatically improved without the need for a single part to be replaced or a single screw to be turned.

What's to complain about that eh?

Well it seems that such "over the air" software updates can be good (as in the case of the brakes) or (as happened recently) not so good -- at least from an owner's perspective.

So what's got owners all riled up and talking to their lawyers?

Well the owners of Model-S and Model-X Teslas woke up recently to find that they'd lost as much as 80Km of range from their vehicles -- without warning.

Was this a mistake on the part of Tesla? Had they done "a Microsoft" and released an automated update that was buggy?

No, not at all. Tesla deliberately downgraded the capacity of the batteries in these vehicles by as much as 10%.

Apparently, the "update" occured in the wake of a few battery fires (including the one in a Chinese parking garage). It seems that the risk of batteries going "bang" increases very significantly during the last part of the charge process -- so Tesla, in the interests of safety and battery longevity, has apparently opted to limit charging to about 90% of maximum capacity in these older models.

Although this is promoted as an essential safety update, some owners are claiming that it's simply an attempt to dodge warranty issues by "artificially" extending the life of the battery. It's claimed that as many of these vehicles now clock up a lot of charge-cycles, the risk of batteries qualifying for free warranty replacement is growing significantly and Tesla doesn't want to have to carry that cost. Limiting charging to just 90% of actual capacity is a great way to stretch the battery life *just* past the warranty period. If Tesla can do that they'll be turning a huge liability into a huge revenue earner, as owners will have to pay for the new pack rather than Tesla.

Some owners are claiming that, by denying them access to battery capacity they've bought and paid for, Tesla is committing a fraud on them. I guess it's a bit like buying a car that claims to have 400HP and then, a few years into ownership, finding that the manufacturer has turned that engine down to 300HP without your consent.

So that raises the interesting question as to what you're actually buying when you purchase a Tesla -- or any modern car, device, appliance, whatever -- that is controlled by computer and subject to automatic "over the air" updates.

Tesla owners have paid for a battery of a certain KWH capacity. If they find that they now have what amounts to a smaller battery, do they have grounds to complain? If you bought a car with four wheels and went into your garage one morning to discover that the manufacturer had visited in the night and taken one of the wheels away (for safety reasons), would you be happy? Would that even be legal?

How many manufacturers make it clear exactly what power they have over the post-sale specificiation of their equiment? Should it be a legal requirement to declare that "specifications may change at any time, including after sale"?

A number of Tesla owners have also said that they'll now be turning off their "over the air" updates to avoid further unauthorised changes to the specifications of the cars they've bought and paid for. I wonder if Tesla also has a watchdog system that will brick their cars if they can't "phone home" within a prescribed amount of time.

Now wouldn't that be interesting and a field day for the lawyers!

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