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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  • Chris O

    Guess Tesla could consider offer a trade in plan for those who bought in the months prior to the upgrade. It buys goodwill and could reduce “obsolescence anxiety” for those considering buying a quickly evolving product.

  • Mark Benjamin David

    basically, Tesla retooled the plant for the 2015 models and included the hardware while they were (obviously) still working on the software, otherwise it would have been offered as soon as they rolled out the new ones with the hardware.nnnThis isn’t a smart phone. And if you buy an iPhone 5s in September, and then see the new iPhone 6 in October with NFC for Apple Pay, you can’t get NFC in your iPhone 5s, so, the smart phone comparison is only valid in that, you can’t just take your 5s in to Apple and have them stuff an NFC chip in it so you can use it like the iPhone 6, it’s just not possible. The phone has been totally redesigned.nnnI think people expect too much. However, Tesla is likely working on a retrofit for existing model S’s, but, it may have involved some design changes at the factory level that simply can’t be done to a finished vehicle.nnnPersonally, I don’t care at all about autonomous driving, but, if it helps get us to mainstream pure BEVs, then, I’m all for it. Just don’t want it. What I want is to get pure BEV prices down. Don’t add the cost of these features to the future model 3, except, perhaps, as an add-on option. The model 3 needs to be inexpensive. And I want to drive one, not be driven by it. (I currently drive a manual transmission.)nnnI have driven cars with radar cruise control and want to turn off the radar part of it…it gradually slows me down so I don’t catch up to the vehicle in front of me, but, I’d rather catch up so I can pass.

  • Joseph Dubeau

    So much for customer satisfaction. Can we live without these myths?

  • The Autopilot feature won’t be available to Dec/Jan, so it’s not the some recent owner didn’t get the feature, they will not be able to upgrade to have it. Autopilot is really a set of features and I suspect it will be rolled out in phases over the next year and will continue to evolve.nnSomething similar occurred with early buyers of the Model S in some came with hardware that could access supercharging, will others did not. I believe the hardware was some relays and wiring harness that was included with the dual charger option. nnFor Autopilot, it is not just adding a sensor, but includes a redesigned braking system, many sensors and wiring throughout the vehicle. There is also likely an upgraded computer to handle processing of the sensor data (realtime vision and graphics). The upgrade cost would be much more than adding in production due to custom labor to disassemble and reassemble the car with newer components. As owners wanting to upgrade for 60 to 85 kWh battery pack have discovered, there a number of other changes that had to be made in addition to swapping the battery. nnIf Tesla were to offer an upgrade window that recent buyers could upgrade a recent purchase, then there would be another group of owners just prior to that window that would feel they just missed out. Such is the case with custom production without inventory stock.

  • Jesuis

    I took delivery on my Model S P85 in December 2013, hoping that some day it would be offered in AWD. I gambled that since the long-delayed Model X AWD was touted as the next rollout, it would be some time before we saw a Model S AWD. At the same time I gambled by buying stock in Tesla.nnNow I want the AWD, second charger, and certainly lane change warnings for this beast- never mind autopilot. I have a feeling that’s going to cost me a lot, but I do have an emotional attachment to such a wonder.nnI’ve always liked new cars, gadgets, etc. iI’s the way I am, and I pay the price for it. There are others who prefer to wait until everything is tested and retested and the price has gone down. It’s a good thing that we have so many different types of people, because things balance out.nnI have faith in Elon Musk, and I can’t say that I have faith in much of anything else, other than the love from my dogs. And I love my Tesla. I can only hope that my trade-in number is better than I would have expected!

  • CDspeed

    It happens, you buy a new car, and a the next model year upgrades come you wish you could have had. Let it go, enjoy your car, let’s not get spoiled now.