Tesla’s battery stunt backfires

Tesla expanded the battery capacity for its Florida customers to help them escape Hurricane Irma, but critics were quick to highlight the flip side of Tesla’s generosity: the company has been limiting battery capacity to earn more money. John Dyer reports from Boston.

Tesla gave helped its customers escape Hurricane Irma by temporarily expanding the battery capacity. While some appreciated the extra boost, others criticized the company for deliberating holding back on battery capacity to earn more money. (Image credit: Tesla Motors)

Electric car manufacturer Tesla played an unusual role in helping its customers escape the wrath of Hurricane Irma. Many of its drivers celebrated the unexpected help when Tesla activated extra power to the batteries. But others warned that the company’s intervention via the internet is a sign of how people are dangerously dependent on major corporations.

Activation per internet

As Hurricane Irma’s winds and rain cut power off to millions in Florida, the batteries in Tesla’s electric cars got a boost.

As all Tesla vehicles are permanently connected to the internet, engineers in Silicon Valley were able to remotely the 60 kilowatt hour batteries into 75 kilowatt hour to give drivers extra time – or around 48 kilometres more distance – to evacuate the southern tip of the state.

“Due to these exceptional circumstances, and to help you better prepare to evacuate and get to safety, your vehicle has been adjusted at no cost to you to temporarily access the additional battery capacity,” Tesla wrote in an e-mail to owners, according to the well-known Tesla Motors Club blog.

“You will notice the badging on the instrument cluster will read 75 during this period. We hope that this allows you to travel to your next destination with confidence and ease.”

Pay more, drive farther

The batteries always had the extra capacity, but Tesla limited the batteries’ power unless customers paid a premium of as much as $9,000. Curtailing the power is called “binning”, and it lets Tesla produce the same battery but sell it at different prices depending on how much power customers can access.

The trigger behind unusual move was a call from a Tesla driver in Florida, who asked the company if anything could be done to give him more power as he fled the storm. Tesla unlocked his – everyone else’s – battery in the region through to September 16.

Many Floridians expressed their gratitude on social media.

“Whoa,” tweeted Austen Allred. “Tesla just silently upgraded every 60D Model S in an evacuation zone to give it a longer range. For free.”

Held ransom by giant corporations

But as Irma has moved on, critics began highlighting the flip side of Tesla’s generosity.

“Wow, now my car can do what it was always physically capable of, because the battery is no longer held for ransom by a giant corporation!” wrote Sebastian Besselsen‏ on Twitter in response to Allred’s post.

Bryan Beal was similarly snarky. “New iPhone will only let you use 75% of the battery installed in your iPhone unless you pay an extra $100,” he wrote. “Just kidding. That is Tesla.”

The popular car blog Jalopnik said Tesla’s remote, unannounced upgrade tapped into “our deepest fears of 21st Century driving”.

Blogger Justin Westbook imaged scenarios where corporate executives became “critical decision makers” during disasters, supplanting government officials and citizens in potentially critical moments. Meanwhile, if companies like Tesla opted not to unlock dormant technology to help people in emergencies, only citizens with more money might be able to survive.

“We now face a reality where we know our vehicles may hold more potential than we have access to, and that gets complicated in life or death scenarios,” wrote Westbrook.

Superchargers remained online

While the extra battery charge was a mixed win for Tesla, the company gained some other good press from Irma.

While conventional gas stations were either packed or shuttered during the storm, most of Tesla’s approximately 18 supercharger stations in Florida were remained online. The stations in the Keys were offline because those areas were ordered evacuated, but Tesla drivers with their extra charge could usually make it to a station to fill up with electricity again.

“Thank you @TeslaMotors & @elonmusk for the wonderful Model S. just evacuated Florida,” wrote Belle on Twitter. “Gas stations were a mess! Tesla chargers a breeze.”

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