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The Nannification of Tesla

The Nannification of Tesla
by Roger C. Lanctot on 01-26-2017 at 12:00 pm

I can’t tell you how many times I have sat down with executives of large companies and startups who have tried to get me excited about geo-fencing. Geo-fencing is a clever little technology that can allow a device maker to restrict access to a device, service or content when that system roams beyond a particular zone of acceptable use either based on time of day or location.

Geo-fencing is a powerful tool for security applications – as in preventing a car from operating outside of a time or geographic-delimited area – or enabling notifications when said vehicle is so misused. But my reaction always takes me back to my teen years and the finky-ness underlying the technology. The creators of geo-fencing always describe it as a godsend for tracking family members – which it might be – but for many including me it is an intrusion and an unwelcome one at that.

It looks like Tesla Motors is getting into the geo-fencing game and this may well unwind some of the pizzazz many associate with the brand. The latest incarnation of Tesla’s vaunted autopilot now limits use to certain classes of roads and to posted speed limits and won’t drive faster than 45 miles per hour.

There are several serious implications to these changes – and they are reflected in the responses of Tesla owners on public forums ranging from rage to minor vexation. The two biggest implications, though, are A) the use of map data integrated with autopilot and B) the impact of taking away functions via over-the-air software updates.

The first implication is huge. Tesla is clearly using map data to determine acceptable areas for using autopilot – at least according to Model S owners who have taken recent deliveries. These owners report that autopilot is no longer available on secondary roads. To be honest I haven’t been able to confirm this phenomenon, but if it is true it reflects Tesla implementing geo-fencing to restrict access to the autopilot function.

This is a first-time implementation in the automotive industry with very serious implications regarding the vehicle’s location awareness, privacy, security and the rights of the owner. The Tesla ownership experience has always been one that requires a surrender of some control – and this is not the first time that vehicle functions have been altered or removed – but the fact that vehicle performance characteristics are determined by location is something new for the automotive industry.

Like most geo-fencing applications, the objective is to enhance safety and protect the driver, but the reaction among Tesla drivers in public forums suggests a growing level of frustration. The amazing and terrifying thing about the original autopilot was that it could be used anywhere, any time at any speed (or so it seemed). It seems that the autopilot party is coming to a close in the interest of safer driving.

Location awareness alone is a big deal and the impact of Tesla’s integration of map data with semi-automated driving in a production vehicle shows Tesla leading the way in automated vehicle driving development even as it is perceived by its customers as subtracting capabilities. Tesla owners are most annoyed, though, at the function being limited to posted speed limits or speed limits + 5MPH.

Other car companies, such as Ford Motor Company, have found ways to integrate local speed restrictions with their cruise control functions – but no other car company has introduced defined geographic areas for the use of cruise control.

Tesla autopilot users are predictably and justifiably complaining that driving at or below the speed limit is actually creating a more hazardous driving situation – backing up traffic and frustrating drivers who are trying to pass. Tesla has morphed from the auto industry’s bad boy to teacher’s pet. What’s next? Scanning the license plates of scofflaws and reporting them wirelessly and anonymously to local police?

Not likely. But restricting the functionality of autopilot has instantly converted the feature from a liberating other-worldly experience into soul-crushing, predictable, and more or less run-of-the-mill adaptive cruise control (with passing). The challenge, for Tesla, will be to use this new level of map integration to enhance rather than restrict functionality.

The integration of the map may ultimately allow Tesla to deliver a fully automated driving experience or, in the short term, an enhanced ability to transfer between highways or from highways to secondary roads and back again in an automated manner. For now, though, Tesla must cope with customers crabbing about capabilities that have been downgraded.
The function downgrade enabled by an over-the-air software update will give some consumers – and car companies – pause to reconsider their automotive software update strategy. The reality is that no reconsideration need take place. Like smartphones, cars will need to be updated and sometimes features or functions will be altered or removed. It’s best we all get used to that as soon as possible. There is no future in making updates optional – especially when safety is at stake.

Bottom line: Tesla has upped the finky-ness of autopilot with map integration. It’s worth noting though that for now Tesla has not made the full descent into sending drivers latte coupons when they drive near a Starbucks. While the rest of the auto industry is trying to turn artificial intelligence into a contextual marketing tool to distract drivers, Tesla once again demonstrates its laser-like focus on enhancing, refining, and advancing the driving experience. Tesla’s technology leadership continues unabated.
For the full debate within the Tesla Motor Club:

*According to the reports of some new Model S owners, Autopilot will no longer work in urban setting such as New York City – CNET video:

Roger C. Lanctot is Associate Director in the Global Automotive Practice at Strategy Analytics. More details about Strategy Analytics can be found here:

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