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Tesla Sneakily Removes Autopilot from Used Model S, Adds It Back Without Explanation

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 2/14/2020 Motor Trend Staff

Turns out, Tesla not only can add features to its vehicles via over-the-air updates—it can also take them away. As reported by Jalopnik and thenextweb.com, a person going by the name Alec purchased a used Model S from a dealership that had bought the car from Tesla at an auction late last year. The listing for the Tesla Model S included the sedan's optional (and window-sticker-listed) Autopilot driver-assist features, as well as the option for (future) autonomous driving functionality known as Full Self Driving (FSD). The car's AutoPilot functioned normally after the dealership bought the car, and through its pre-purchase inspection by Alec; then, just before Alec took delivery, Autopilot disappeared.

Both Alec and the selling dealership figured the software's disappearance was a fluke, a code ghost that could easily be remedied at a Tesla service center. So Alec took his new-to-him Model S home and set about figuring out where the features he thought he'd paid for as part of the car's overall purchase price might have gone. Because Tesla had informed the selling dealer of an impending service that was needed when it sold the car at auction, Alec decided he could kill two birds with one stone, taking care of that and his missing software. Not so fast.

After the service, he was given an invoice stating the work performed, as well as news that the Autopilot and FSD features had been removed as part of an earlier software update dated about the same time when those features stopped working on his car. Alec was informed that the software was taken away via a software update because, allegedly, "It was found that the customer did not purchase the software," valued when new at around $8000. Except, someone had bought them: the original owner.

a man sitting in front of a computer © Motor Trend Staff

Here is where things turned truly bizarre. Despite having removed the features, Tesla didn't inform anyone involved with the car—not the selling dealer nor the new buyer—what happened until Alec happened to come into a service center later. The dealership had purchased the car from Tesla at auction under the notion it had Autopilot and FSD, and turned around and listed and sold it under the same assumption. Tesla offered to sell the features back to Alec—something customers can do with their own new or used Teslas later, after they've left the factory. So what happened? And why?

We should pull over for a second to explain why this matters. Normal cars leave the factory and, for the most part, will keep whatever optional features they were fitted with originally throughout their lives unless explicitly modified by an owner. Teslas offer certain features that are simply lines of code that are activated or not, which can happen without anyone ever physically touching the car. In fact, Tesla can even add new digital features after a vehicle leaves the factory using the onboard data or a Wi-Fi connection—and it has.

a close up of a car: 2019 Tesla Model S exterior views 6 © Motor Trend Staff 2019 Tesla Model S exterior views 6

We reached out to Tesla earlier this week about Alec's case and have yet to receive any response. Nor, apparently, has Alec received anything resembling an explanation for why Tesla might have thought he didn't pay for those features—and whether it's regular practice to erase them from cars where that assumption is made on Tesla's part. Forum users on Teslamotorsclub.com have pointed out that disappearing software isn't an isolated occurrence, but there isn't much clarity on when or why it happens. The prevailing theory floating around the internet is that, when Tesla sold the car on through an auction and it was picked up by the third-party dealer and subsequently sold, the new owner's profile lacked proof he had paid for Autopilot and FSD.

But that's fishy, given you'd think Tesla would have known that the car had those features at one point—when it was sold new—calling into question whether it uses driver profiles or its own record-keeping to determine what features its cars are or aren't supposed to have. Furthermore, why did it take a software audit after the car's sale at auction to pull back those software-enabled features if Tesla didn't believe the car should have them? After all, Tesla itself sold the car at auction—why not wipe the features before selling the car?

On the upside, media scrutiny over this story appears to have triggered those features returning to Alec's Model S, no charge. The obvious downside, of course, is that used Teslas sold through third-parties might suffer similar fates. Except that we don't actually know—because, again, Tesla hasn't outlined publicly when this may happen, or even if it's supposed to, or any policy regulating such situations. So we await word as to whether or not Tesla intends to wipe optional software from its cars each time they're sold to a new owner—so that, a cynic might allege, it can potentially charge the new owners to re-enable those features—something we sincerely hope isn't the case.

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