No Fixed Abode: Guess You Won’t Be Superchargin’ After All, Pal

[Image: Tesla Motors]

I didn’t learn about the “California No” until I started writing about cars. I was raised on the East Coast, where people have no trouble saying “No” whatsoever. There’s even a song about it. In Ohio, people might be apologetic about it but they will still forthrightly tell you, “I’m sorry, I’m not going to buy from you,” or “I don’t want to meet with you about that.”

That’s not how California works. The so-called “California No” is simply a drawn-out pas de deux in which someone avoids responding directly to your question because they are unwilling to directly refuse or reject you. Supposedly, the California No and the Asian No are related. I couldn’t say. All I can tell you is that I have zero patience for the California No, particularly when it comes from people working in the automotive PR or journalism “spaces,” and I will make attempts to California-No me as uncomfortable as humanly possible, without exception.

To this fine Golden State institution, you can now add the related “California Prohibit,” which is best exemplified by Tesla’s new directive regarding “commercial” use of its Supercharger facilities.

Supercharger Fair Use

To help ensure that Superchargers are available for their intended use, we ask that you not charge your vehicle using a Supercharger if your vehicle is being used:

as a taxi;
for ridesourcing or ridesharing (through Uber, Lyft or similar services);
to commercially deliver or transport goods;
for government purposes; or
for any other commercial venture.

If you charge your vehicle in a manner that does not comply with this Supercharger Fair Use Policy, we may ask you to modify this behavior. We may also take additional action to protect the availability of Superchargers for their intended purpose, such as limiting or blocking your vehicle’s ability to use Supercharger stations.

This Policy applies to all Superchargers worldwide and all Tesla vehicles purchased, either new or used, whether from Tesla or a third party, after December 15, 2017. Tesla may choose to exclude certain Supercharger stations or occasional trips from the scope of this Policy, such as to accommodate specific local circumstances.

Tesla is going to “ask” you to “modify this behavior.” And they “may” take additional action. You can read the whole text at Tesla’s site but there’s nothing any less equivocal than the above. And it’s all headed by the bizarre title of “Supercharger Fair Use.” Well, what’s fair? If you spend a hundred grand on a car with the expectation that you’ll be able to Supercharge on Tesla’s network, what feels “fair” to you? Let’s say you specifically bought a lower-end Tesla with the intention of providing ride-share or livery services, and you baked the availability and cost of power via Superchargers into your calculation? How screwed are you right now?

What’s fascinating about this to me is how closely it mirrors the transition of the computing industry from “you bought it, you use it” to “you’re utterly dependent on our good will.” Prior to the turn of the century, it was generally understood that the purchase of a computer or a piece of software entitled you to do pretty much anything you could manage with said items. In some cases, the product was sold with restrictions — but those restrictions were easy to understand and they didn’t change over time.

Here’s an example. A while ago I worked at an automaker whose name was surprisingly similar to a character in Street Fighter. Anyway, at the M. Bison Motor Company we had a bunch of old Pentium-class PCs that were being used as controllers for industrial robots. The robots had a 25-year lifespan, and they were only halfway through said lifespan, so we ran them on decade-old desktops that generally had no connection to the Internet. This worked surprisingly well. We didn’t update the computers, we didn’t change them, we just left them connected to the robots and disconnected from any network whatsoever.

God help the company that tries a strategy like that in 2017. If you keep a modern device away from the Internet too long, it will progressively lose functionality until you have a paperweight. If I don’t keep my Fire tablet connected to the Internet, I lose the right to watch my movies or listen to my music. I’ve now learned that I need to turn the tablet on the night before any flight I take, otherwise I’ll find out that I have a blank slate at 36,000 feet.

The End-User-License-Agreements (EULAs) that accompany modern software and hardware products are deliberately overlong, overcomplicated, and overly restrictive. They are designed to let the company behind the product evade all responsibility while at the same time retaining total control over what you do with said product. The EULA can be updated at any time, and if you disagree your product can be “bricked.” Never in history have we had this imbalance of power between corporations and consumers. There was just one consolation possible: at least it didn’t apply to the “real world” of homes, cars, meals, et cetera.

Well, it applies now. Tesla can “ask” you to “modify” your behavior. If you fail to comply, it “might” take additional steps. Did you buy a Tesla thinking you’d have unlimited use of a Supercharger? Sucks to be you. Naturally, you can always sue Tesla, whether individually or as part of a class, but in the meantime you’re going to suffer the consequence of Tesla’s whims.

I’ve been racking my brain to think of a pre-electric-era analogy to use here, and the best I can come up with is this: Let’s say that the biodiesel revolution had happened in 1979 and Mercedes-Benz decided to send service techs out in the dead of night to make changes to their cars that would prevent them from running on biodiesel. As some of you will immediately note, it’s not a very good analogy. That’s in large part because no automaker has ever done anything like promise free fillups to its customers. Only a Silicon Valley corporation would do something like that, and the only reason they would act in such “disruptive” fashion would be because they envisioned having the power to change their minds about it after the fact if doing what they promised proved too onerous.

I think this Supercharger restriction business will prove to be extremely unpleasant for Tesla. They’d have been better off just letting the Uber drivers inconvenience everybody else. Restricting access to charging based on the type of use case leads all the Aspie owners out there to imagine themselves a sort of six-figure-luxury-driver Pastor Martin Niemoller. It will dampen enthusiasm for Tesla in a way that a little extra wait for a Supercharger never would.

Those of you who read me here and elsewhere will no doubt have noticed a growing skepticism on my part regarding the societal impact of our Left Coast Illuminati. I can’t help it. There are just too many signs out there that our long nationwide romance with Silicon Valley has degenerated into a spectacularly abusive relationship. And while I remain a supporter of Elon Musk and his big American dreams, I’m now firmly convinced that he’s going to have to adopt a non-Valley approach to attracting, satisfying, and retaining customers.

In short, he’s going to have to learn when to forthrightly say “No” — and when to forthrightly say “Yes,” while meaning it.

[Image: Tesla]