A Seeking Alpha member who goes by the name of Drewstefer has found two really interesting videos on YouTube which appear to show that a recent Tesla (NASDAQ: TSLA) firmware update has disabled some of the safety sensors on the Model X Falcon Wing doors.
There are actually two videos with Part 1 showing a Tesla Model X owner describing that his vehicle has had a new firmware update and that previously operable contact sensors on various edges of the Falcon Wing doors are now no longer operable. Part 1 also shows that without the contact sensors that the closing door sliced a cucumber in half!
I guess the cucumber slicing episode was intriguing to the Model X owner who then filmed Part 2 where he uses a force gauge to record the pounds of pressure exerted by the force of the downward closing doors. As the owner shows and also comments, such pressure could sever a human hand that may be touching the door opening while entering the vehicle.
There are a lot of issues in all this for me which are:
- Tesla apparently doesn't disclose to owners what is being updated in ongoing "over-the-air" (OTA) firmware updates
- Tesla doesn't disclose to anyone what may not work properly in its vehicles which it can then attempt to "fix" surreptitiously with undisclosed firmware updates
- Tesla's Autopilot system is also updated through OTA updates
- There are no published specs on what the sensors used in Autopilot can or cannot do at this point and so there is no visibility about what may not work well in Autopilot
- Tesla this week announced that there will be another Autopilot update "within a few weeks" and so it is now critical that Tesla discloses what does and does not work in its vehicles
How this relates to Autopilot
One of Tesla's possible competitive advantages is their innovation in configuring and programming their vehicles to be able to continually receive "updates" to the firmware controlling the systems in their vehicles. Although I do believe that is a very important innovation and also a competitive advantage currently, such capabilities also effectively enable Tesla to hide from its vehicle owners what does and does not work in its vehicles.
Hopefully Tesla is working on fixing things that don't work well in its vehicles and the ongoing updates will address those things. The Model X owner who posted the video has the impression, however, that Tesla is also willing to use firmware updates to disable things that were apparently not designed properly and which can't be fixed at all. The Model X owner provides a great and thorough demonstration of which sensors on the Model X Falcon Wing doors are still working and also shows sections of the doors where he claims that sensors previously operated but which are now disabled. The owner's speculation as to the reason why is that Tesla can't figure out how to correct original design flaws in how the doors were configured.
Autopilot also apparently has some issues in my opinion in that I believe blind spots in its field of vision have caused these four collisions:
As I've also written about in a previous article, Tesla has also already had its representatives appear before the staff of the Senate Committee on Auto Safety ten weeks after Collision 1 referenced above and the information given was that Tesla still hadn't figured out what had failed.
Elon Musk also sent out a cryptic Tweet in mid-July about working with Bosch, the radar sensor manufacturer for the Tesla Autopilot enabled features, to say that "significant improvements" were possible through OTA updates. That statement itself says some other interesting things which are as follows:
- Tesla implemented Bosch's radar sensors without a complete understanding of their capabilities
- Implementing a component without a complete understanding of both its capabilities and possible limitations shows both incompetence and an objective of rushing not completely tested features to market
- Tesla's overall approach to business is a risk to its customers (and investors as well)
The upcoming Autopilot update
Tesla also announced this week that the next version of Autopilot will be available "within a few weeks." But, at this point, we don't even know what does and what does not work well with Autopilot. In my Tesla test drive article, I thought that the Autopilot responses were both delayed and abrupt but at this point we don't know how well the overall system works or how it works. Since Tesla is willing to send out firmware updates for other vehicle control systems without disclosing what is being updated, I would guess that there will be no disclosures about what is being changed with Autopilot and what previously did not work effectively. Since no system is ever perfect, we also won't know without full disclosure about all Autopilot specs what still may not work very well after the next update.
All of this also signifies to me a completely out of control company with no moral compass that makes it feel like its activities need to be visible to any of its constituencies. What is especially both ironic and appalling about such a business approach is that the company also recently effectively begged its customers to spend $135,000 on a new version of the Model S and Model X as "buying such an expensive vehicle helps fund the development of the Model 3."
Aside from the fact that the May 2016 equity offering of $1.7 billion was also described as supposedly being to fund the development of the Model 3, such an ongoing dissembling narrative shows that Tesla is unwilling to be honest with anyone who either buys its vehicles or invests in the company. This week's disclosure in the S-4 for the Tesla and Solar City merger also saw another example of that given the disclosure that a company that raised $1.7 billion less than four months ago that was claimed to support a vehicle launch occurring in "late 2017" will now require even more financing roughly nine to 12 months before that vehicle is launched.
Tesla's OTA software updates are conceptually a competitive advantage for the company. No other auto manufacturer currently has such capabilities and probably won't for at least another two years. The recent example of Tesla disabling safety sensors in the Falcon Wing doors of the Model X shows that there is unfortunately another very troubling side to the capability of such updates.
Effectively Tesla can always proceed in any of its activities with no visibility as to what does or does not work on its vehicles. If there is an originally installed feature or capability that was improperly designed, Tesla can just disable it with no disclosure about what it is doing. I've already expressed my opinion that the NHTSA needs to have far greater scrutiny into Tesla's vehicle systems given Tesla's apparent rush to introduce such features in its vehicles. The latest instance of now finding that Tesla will disable features without any disclosure should require a full investigation into all of the Tesla's vehicle systems.
Disclosure: I am/we are short TSLA.
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