Tesla Model S Fans Petition Tesla to Make Autopilot Features a Retrofit for Existing Customers

In the world of consumer electronics, finding out that your computer, smartphone or gadget its incompatible with the latest software update and headlining all-new functionality is frustrating, especially if you’ve recently purchased the said device.

Tesla's self-driving -- or auto-pilot -- hardware is pretty impressive. Now some existing Model S owners want it as a retrofit option.

Tesla’s self-driving — or auto-pilot — hardware is pretty impressive. Now some existing Model S owners want it as a retrofit option.

Yet obsolescence is a recognised and normal part of the consumer electronics industry as one device supersedes another, adds functionality, and improves user experience. In the automotive industry however, it’s pretty much accepted that every mainstream car sold will retain the functionality and capabilities it left the factory with, not gain new ones.

Unlike any other automaker to date however, Californian-based Tesla Motors [NASDAQ:TSLA] has bucked that trend, offering a series of over-the-air software upgrades for free to Tesla Model S owners to add additional functions, modify handling characteristics and improve user experience. It has even offered certain upgrades to customers as post-purchase paid-for upgrades, allowing early Tesla Roadster owners for example the chance to upgrade their car’s interior and performance to the latest specification without changing their car.

But when Tesla unveiled its biggest change to its Model S premium electric sedan since its launch in 2012 — autonomous driving hardware included as standard on all new Model S cars — it said it wouldn’t be offering the autopilot package as a retrofit option for existing Model S owners.

While some Tesla Model S owners are considering a new Tesla Model S Dual Motor, others say they were 'tricked' into buying a Model S ahead of the announcement.

While some Tesla Model S owners are considering a new Tesla Model S Dual Motor, others say they were ‘tricked’ into buying a Model S ahead of the announcement.

Now, an online petition is calling on the Tesla CEO Elon Musk to live up to Tesla’s claim of being a different kind of car company and offer a retrofit autopilot package for existing Model S owners.

Announced two weeks ago at a special event in Los Angeles alongside the unveiling of Tesla’s all-new dual-motor option for the Model S, every new Tesla Model S to come off the Tesla production line now comes fitted with a series of sensors and new control hardware that makes it possible for a Tesla Model S to drive itself for the first time. For now, autopilot functionality is limited to automatic speed assist and lane keep assist functionality, but in the future, more advanced autonomous drive features will be switched on by Tesla in future over-the-air updates.

Future functionality, which is dependent on regulatory approval as well as software development, could include things like fully-autonomous parking, autonomous valet and even hands-free autopilot driving on the freeway.

Spearheaded by Richard Wolpert from Los Angeles, a group of Tesla Model S owners are calling on Tesla to make the autopilot features available as a retrofit option via an online petition, while a counter petition is calling on Tesla to stick to its original plan for the sake of Tesla’s future expansion, future owners and shareholders.

As the San Jose Mercury News reports however, while most of the anger directed towards Tesla is because of its decision to not offer a retrofit autopilot option, other owners are crying foul because they feel that they were pushed into buying a demo, inventory or loaner Model S by Tesla sales staff ahead of the announcement.

The new Tesla Model S dashboard includes autonomous driving information. (Photo: D.Pascual)

The new Tesla Model S dashboard includes autonomous driving information. (Photo: D.Pascual)

Talking with the Mercury News, Wolpert said that when he placed his Tesla Model S order in March this year, he told Tesla sales staff that he would be willing to hold his order if a feature like adaptive cruise control was in the pipeline. But when Tesla sales reps said it wouldn’t be an option for the Model S, he placed the order and picked his car up in June.

Now he feels cheated.

“If Tesla had said it’s coming, but we can’t say exactly when, I would have waited,” he said. “With ‘traditional’ car companies we know there are new models every year, and we factor that into our decision. With Tesla there was no talk or disclosure there would be effectively a ‘new’ Model S, so we bought blind.”

Other owners are similarly perplexed, picking up their cars just weeks or even days before the autopilot features were announced. Even though Tesla has been churning out Tesla Model S cars for more than a month with the autopilot hardware fitted as a standard fit, no-cost item, there’s been something of a lottery for owners picking up their cars.

Essentially, if the car was made before the switch over, those picking up their brand new Model S cars are finding they haven’t got the features included, while those whose cars were made more recently are finding they do have the features added.

Tesla over-the-air updates are the norm: but autonomous drive requires extra hardware too.

Tesla over-the-air updates are the norm: but autonomous drive requires extra hardware too.

In order to bring the autonomous drive features to the Tesla Model S, Tesla has completely redesigned the car’s braking system, as well as adding a front-facing camera, front-facing radar and 360 degree ultrasonic sonar.  While those features may not seem like a lot to the consumer, the cost of retrofitting those items into a Tesla Model S would be inherently high since it would require new front and rear bumpers, an entire new braking system and upgraded electronics to be fitted. The car itself would also need to be stripped and rebuilt. And while many Tesla owners would be more than happy to pay the upgrade fee required to add this feature — some even regardless of price — the economics of doing so simply don’t make sense.

Instead, it makes more sense for Tesla to offer owners a discount on a new model or perhaps more likely, a trade-in deal which allows those who really want the new functionality to trade their car in for a newer model without losing pocket. And since the Tesla Model S is more like a consumer gadget than a car in many ways, that method of operation seems like the sensible way to go.

As for those who just missed out, taking deliveries of their cars a few days before the announcement? As always, Caveat Emptor comes into play here, and there’s always some risk that a purchase will be superseded days afterwards by a newer model, regardless of what it is you’re buying.

Sadly, you won't be able to retro-fit older cars with the technology.

Sadly, you won’t be able to retro-fit older cars with the technology.

But perhaps a sensible, if costly, option for Tesla at this point would be to offer those whose cars were made in the two weeks before the announcement the option to trade their cars in for the newer model, a little-known practice Apple Stores have when customers buy an Apple product a few days before a newer, better model is offered. Yes, it would leave Tesla out of pocket, but we’re sure there are plenty of would-be owners willing to snap up bargain Model S cars without autopilot features just waiting for an opportunity to do so.

Do you agree? Should Tesla offer these features as a money-no-object upgrade? Should Tesla offer to exchange recently-purchased cars for newer models at cost? Or are Tesla owners simply being unrealistic and overbearing?

Leave your thoughts in the Comments below.

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