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Tesla autopilot

Tesla autopilot hits storm over Irma-fleeing software upgrade

When the electric car firm Tesla remotely upgraded some of its cars to expand their mileage capacity to allow people to flee further from Hurricane Irma, little did it know another kind of storm was brewing.

As Irma approached Florida, some drivers of 60kWh Teslas in Florida suddenly found their cars showing 75kWh of range, though they hadn't paid extra money.  

Every Tesla vehicle is equipped with semiautonomous hardware to use with the company's autopilot function, but it has to be paid for to be unlocked. Normally this would cost between $4,500 (4,000 euros) and $9,000 depending on the model and time of upgrade.

Customers with the lower — 60kWh hour — range had been upgraded to the battery's full 75 kWh potential through a software update, and for free.

The boost has allowed Floridians with the Model S sedan, for example, to drive about 230 miles (370 kilometers) at highway speeds with air conditioning use — about 30 miles of additional driving on a single charge. This they will have until September 16.

Tesla only acted after a Florida resident inquired about unlocking the extra capability. Tesla then applied this to the rest of the appropriate vehicles. In March, Tesla said it was discontinuing the 60kWh option on the Model S, because most customers were paying for full capacity anyway.

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Tesla had briefly sold a 60 and 60D trim level of its Model S and Model X vehicles. These models had 75 kWh battery packs installed, but were software-limited to have less range. This was designed specifically to create a more affordable entry-level tier for buyers.

Good PR gone bad?

A good PR move one might think, but it has raised fears of remote interventions and little or no owner accountability. It also raises issues of favoring the more affluent in the event of natural disasters.

As Justin T. Westbrook wrote in the blog Jalopnik, the move taps into "our deepest fears of 21st-century driving."

"It's not hard to imagine a worst-case scenario where a company or corporation becomes a critical decider in disaster scenarios … out of consumer and government control in a critical moment."

Others asked if businesses begin calculating the cost of saving lives over the cost of business in the event of a disaster?

jbh/hg (AP, AFP)

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