Do you own your Tesla or does your Tesla own you?

Among all the hype and excitement about the wonders of self-driving cars — an age that Elon Musk says could start next year if regulators allow it — comes an interesting thought by a writer from the LA Times, asking whether we control our vehicles or does the manufacturer of the vehicle have a control on us? Let us explain.

Tesla issued a press release last month about the company’s new autonomous driving hardware. In the statement Tesla made it clear that owners would be able to share their car with family and friends using its Full Self-Driving capability, but prohibited from using it to generate income through competing ride sharing services such as Uber and Lyft. But in an age where ownership is largely dictated by a person’s action of purchasing something to own, such as a Tesla, do you really own it if Tesla can dictate how you use your car? Can you truly say you own it?

The issue comes down to the End User License Agreement (EULA). This legal agreement dates back to the 1980s when software companies began attaching one to their programs. At the time, there wasn’t much opposition from customers, regulators, or courts. Today, every EULA is thousands of words of dense legal jargon largely unintelligible to the average person (and most lawyers).

Corporations are constantly seeking ways to maintain control over their products after they pass into the hands of consumers. John Deere prohibits farmers who buy its software enabled tractors from doing their own repairs. According to the Los Angeles Times, General Motors has told the U.S. Copyright Office that motorists who purchase its cars “mistakenly conflate ownership of a vehicle with ownership of the underlying computer software in the vehicle,” even though the vehicle is basically inoperable without the software. Hewlett Packard and Lexmark printers are programmed to reject other makers’ ink cartridges.

Tesla doesn’t prohibit people from working on their cars, but it severely restricts access to repair manuals. Even when access is granted, as required under Massachusetts law, the cost is prohibitive for most individuals. Is it fair to say a car you can’t repair yourself and cannot use as you see fit is truly owned by you? Or are you merely a licensee of the technology contained within it?

The question for the future is what happens when and if Mother Tesla decides to further limit how owners can use their cars? Geofencing is common today. Top speed can be electronically limited. What if Tesla decided to cooperate with law enforcement to limit the maximum speed of cars owned by people with multiple moving violations? Would Tesla ever shut down the operation of one of its vehicles at the request of the police or federal authorities? Could Tesla disable a car it the owner falls behind in loan or lease payments?

No one is saying that Tesla is planning any of these actions, but the ability to implement them exists. All it takes is appropriate language in the EULA to make it all legal. Tesla’s ban on using its cars for Uber or Lyft duty may not give most people pause, but it means the company has already taken one step down a slippery slope. Tesla owners need to be vigilant for further intrusions on their rights as owners.

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