No Uber for You
Your new Model X can earn you extra cash without you in it, but only on Tesla’s terms.
On October 16, Tesla released a statement saying that all vehicles it produces going forward will come fully equipped with self-driving hardware.
After a data collection period during which self-driving technologies are disabled but monitor the decisions made by the driver, the company plans to fully activate the self-driving features.
The advantages of self-driving vehicles promise to be enormous. Through the use of effective, autonomous cars, human error on the road can be all but eliminated and daily commutes can be spent engaging in more productive activities. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, equated the new hardware to a “supercomputer in [your] car.”
But before racing online to reserve one of these new vehicles, consumers should take care to read the fine print.
On the company’s website, Tesla recently made clear that “using a self-driving Tesla for car sharing and ride hailing for friends and family is fine,” but “doing so for revenue purposes will only be permissible on the Tesla Network, details of which will be released next year.”
That is, owners cannot use their vehicles to make money through services like Uber or Lyft, but will be able to add their cars to a “Tesla shared fleet” and earn revenue as their cars pick up and drop off passengers while they are away.
Tesla and Uber have continued to be rivals in the race to launch the first fully autonomous vehicles. It appears Tesla’s solution is effectively to ban its customers from working for the competition.
In his “Master Plan, Part Deux” released this July, Musk shed light on his plans for the shared fleet and explained the benefits of such a system for consumers. “You will also be able to add your car to the Tesla shared fleet just by tapping a button on the Tesla phone app and have it generate income for you while you’re at work or vacation,” he explained. His prediction is that the revenue generated in this manner could offset or even exceed monthly lease or loan costs.
“This dramatically lowers the true cost of ownership to the point where almost anyone could own a Tesla,” Musk said.
Regardless of its potential to benefit buyers, this move raises an important question both for Tesla’s customers and the modern consumer in general: what does it mean to own property without being able to decide how to use it?
When another car company, Ferrari, asks customers not to resell its most expensive cars until after a certain point, is it impinging on their rights as owners? When a tech giant like Apple block iPhone users from downloading certain content to their devices in its “walled garden” approach to the technological ecosystem, is it degrading users’ ownership of these items?
These questions are best addressed through the understanding that ownership, and the property it applies to, are not static concepts. Definitions of property and property ownership are produced by the cultures of the societies they belong to, and they continue to evolve over time.
For example, many early civilizations regarded the land and its resources as a common good, while today the opposite is largely true. More recently, the development of the internet and various forms of digital media have forced societies to consider the meaning of intellectual property; issues such as whether parodies are examples of fair use or potential trademark infringements have continued to arise in twenty-first century America.
According to Neil Meyer, Professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology at the University of Idaho, what we often call property “is really the access right to a stream of benefits from a given set of resources.”
This definition in mind, Tesla’s ban of Uber and development of its own competing platform does not deny users access to the key benefits of owning a self-driving vehicle. In fact, Tesla’s plan to implement its own ride-sharing platform allows consumers greater financial autonomy, expanding the affordability of Tesla vehicles to a wider range of individuals. Tesla owners will make a higher margin of profit via the Tesla Network than they might working for competing ride-sharing companies.
“The majority of the economics would go to the owner of the car,” argued Musk in conversation with analyst Charlie Anderson, saying, “Sometimes it’s been characterized as Tesla versus Uber or Lyft…It’s not Tesla versus Uber; it’s the people versus Uber.”
It is also misleading to claim that Tesla is attempting to prevent free competition from occurring by denying customers’ the right to drive for rival companies. Rather, Tesla is asking consumers to decide whether they prefer the autonomy over which ride-sharing service to drive for over the benefits associated with buying into the Tesla ecosystem—limitations and all.
Apple has taken a comparable approach to the tech market, providing consumers with operating systems that are limited in software and hardware compatibilities yet appealing for seamless user experience and strong security features. There are also limitations to the applications are made available for iOS users, as developers must first have their software approved by the company. That said, Apple has emerged as a powerhouse not despite, but because of, its willingness to tell consumers exactly what they are allowed to use its products for.
It is clear that the limitations imposed by Tesla on its customers must be offset by the superiority of its product for the company to succeed. If consumers buy Tesla, they buy into this system of limitations.
It may well be too early to tell what the implications of Tesla’s Uber ban will have on our understanding of ownership. After all, the Tesla vehicles’ self-driving capabilities are not yet operational, and will require huge amounts of data input before they can be used. The company has also not specified how the ban will be enforced or to what degree.
The limits to ownership in a digital age will continue to attract attention as innovative giants like Tesla use whatever means available to prevent their customers from using their technology to benefit the competition. For the present, the concern is not over whether consumers will make gains monetarily using the Tesla Network. What is troubling to many is the lack of freedom to make decisions regarding the treatment and use of personal property.
Where the state has traditionally been the limiting agent with respect to property use–under most governments, you may own your home, but you still lack the freedom to decide to use it as a brothel or meth lab–the modern corporation is increasingly influencing what it means to own a product. In response to corporate power grabs, however, our voices are heard not through the voting booth, but through our purchases. Should the next generation of Tesla cars sell successfully, it is hard to see an end to such a pattern of lost consumer autonomy in sight.