When your car owns you

When we try to illustrate the dangers of displacing consumer ownership with a model that relies on software licensing, it's easy to come up with troubling hypotheticals. Would you buy a car with DRM-enforced licensing terms that forced you to buy gas exclusively from BP? Or one that limited you to licensed replacement tires? What about a car that required you to pay an extra fee to carpool? 

To many, these sort of examples probably seem far-fetched. But we've already seen carmakers leverage their control over software to clamp down on independent repair shops. A combination of state-level legislation and industry groups coming to their senses helped address that particular problem. And Ferrari limits resale by insisting on a contractual right of first refusal on used cars. But this week, we got our clearest glimpse so far of the power software and license terms give manufacturers over your vehicle.

As Ars Technica reported, the new Tesla Models S & X can be equipped with "Full Self-Driving Capability" as a $3000 option. The software to actually enable autonomous driving isn't ready yet, but will be at a future date. But once it goes live, there will be one important string attached that could significantly reduce the feature's value to Tesla owners. As the company explained: "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."

In other words, if you want to make money by charging for rides in your self-driving Model S, Tesla is going to get a cut; no competing ride-hailing services for you. You'd think for $70,000, Tesla owners would get the right to use their cars as they see fit. But Tesla doesn't think so. 

Tesla may have good technological reasons to worry about the integration of its software with other car sharing networks. But it also has strong anti-competitive motivations for this sort of restriction. If Tesla owners can't opt for Uber or Lyft, Tesla will be in a much stronger position to dictate pricing and terms for its ride-sharing service and may be at an advantage when it launches its own fleet of on-demad self-driving vehicles. But regardless of the company's motivations, car owners should be troubled by the claim that a manufacturer can dictate how and for what purpose they drive their vehicles.