There was a time when if you wanted additional features or capabilities in a new car — say, a better engine or heated seats — you had to pay to them when purchasing it. The vehicle would then be figuratively set in stone, constantly having those attributes or capabilities — and them unless you brought it into a shop for additional modifications.
That paradigm will soon be a thing of the past, industry experts say, as auto makers increasingly become effective at adding or taking away features on the fly.
Tesla provided an ideal example recently when it expanded the battery range for a few car owners fleeing Hurricane Irma in Florida. The electric-car manufacturer added an additional 50 to 65 kilometres of charge range to Model S and Model X vehicles equipped with 75-kilowatt-hour battery packs which were differently software-limited into 60-kWh or 70-kWh capacity.
The temporary boosts were created remotely, with the cars getting them through their wireless connections.
“It is getting an intelligent system, it is like it is breathing,” says Fakhri Karray, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo. “This is the transition we are in, where we are going, from obsolete hard technology to more flexible, reconfigurable kinds of systems.”
While Tesla garnered praise for its altruistic battery expansion — which it did for free — it also raised concerns about the equity of artificial software limitations on vehicles, in addition to the possible arbitrariness of changes.
When the cars that were affected were sold, customers had the choice of purchasing the whole 75-kWh capacity, which would give the Model S about 400 kilometres, or a lower cost capacity for a lesser cost. But rather than getting a smaller battery, clients who chose the less costly choices were simply limited by software locks from accessing its whole capacity. They were also given the option of buying that updated ability later.
Following the hurricane-related increase, some observers contended in online forums that it was unjust for Tesla to artificially constrain capacity and this kind of miniature access to features is not the standard when it comes to automobiles.
Others suggested that while there is truth in that debate, the standard is changing to where automobiles are increasingly resembling other consumer products. Tiers and optional updates are prevalent in consumer electronics, video games, streaming solutions and programs.
“It’s simply not as prevalent in automotive, therefore the general public is not used to it,” states Olivier Trescases, associate professor in the electrical and computer engineering department at University of Toronto. “The difference is that [electric vehicles] are more range-constrained to start with, so people are more sensitive to it.”
A spokesperson for Tesla declined to comment, but other auto makers agree with the notion that the standard — where automobile capabilities are ordered by static, unchanging hardware — is shifting.
“If [you] start considering the consequences of what you can do with code and software rather than the hardware that you have bought from the beginning, that opens up an entirely new conversation,” says Ted Graham, head of open innovation at General Motors.
Some commenters suggest new rules will be necessary to stop car makers from issuing arbitrary changes that could possibly affect drivers negatively.
For instance, the U.S. Consumers Union points to another current Tesla move, where the provider remotely disabled automatic emergency braking in certain newly manufactured vehicles. Tesla said it was analyzing data to be sure that the system functioned properly and that it would restore the attribute within six weeks.
David Friedman, director of automobiles and merchandise policy and evaluation at the Consumers Union, told U.S. National Public Radio that producers could become “cavalier” with these changes.
“It is important for government to have a definite role in driving automobile manufacturers to provide consumers with clarity on what their cars can and can not do, and not to allow car companies to in a whim change the performance of a car, especially if security is involved,” he said.
The increasing fluidity of automobile capabilities also raises some intriguing possibilities. Karray suggests automobile makers could offer rate tiers to motorists, which could then affect insurance rates, for instance. Drivers who elect for lower high speeds in their cars may pay lower premiums, while those who wish to go quicker could see higher prices.
“We’re at that transition where we are between something that was very, very organized, to something that will be so,” he says. “This is only the start.”
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