How Tesla Keeps Proving Cars Shouldn't Be in Beta

Boombox? Video games? What?

Key Takeaways

  • Tesla keeps adding dangerous, broken, or illegal features to its cars. 
  • Tesla is run like a tech startup, not a safety-first car company. 
  • Car software updates should be safety tested. 
The interior of a Tesla vehicle showing the infotainment screen.

Bram Van Oost / Unsplash

Tesla has had to issue yet another recall for software updates that may endanger people. It feels like this is starting to become a habit. 

We're used to most of our computerized devices being in a permanent beta state. We deal with glitches daily, and we know that when things get really screwy, we have to "switch it off, then on again." The problem is, almost everything has a computer in it these days, including cars. Viewed in this light, pushing updates to vehicles without enough testing seems reckless.

Maybe car makers should be forced to submit software features to safety tests, just like the cars themselves. 

"Vehicles should absolutely have their software subjected to safety tests if it can control the vehicle's hardware in any capacity. It makes absolutely no sense to bypass this step, especially from an ethical standpoint," Nicholas Creel, assistant professor of business law and ethics at Georgia College and State University," told Lifewire via email. "Tesla is a classic case of what happens when a technology's application outpaces both the legal and ethical standards of society."

Hardware Is Software 

It’s one thing to lose data to a cloud sync bug on your phone, but quite another to die because your car was not safety tested. Cars were built, sold, and driven for decades before crash testing was introduced, but today it seems impossible that cars were not rigorously assessed to see how well they protect passengers in a crash. 

"Vehicles should absolutely have their software subjected to safety tests if it can control the vehicle's hardware in any capacity."

And yet manufacturers can, and do, push software updates to cars in active use. Shouldn’t these updates be just as rigorously tested before deployment? After all, a modern car relies heavily on software, from cruise control to Tesla’s AutoPilot to rearview cameras and parking proximity warnings. 

Google “Tesla recall,” and you’ll see all kinds of glitches, in addition to the general hardware safety recalls that Tesla lists on its site. 54,000 cars could drive through stoplights without stopping in auto mode, thanks to a faulty software update. 356,000 cars had rearview camera problems, and 119,000 had front hood problems.

And it’s not just essential system controls that are affected. Should Tesla have been allowed to push an update that allows you to play video games on the big dash-mounted screen? That hardly sounds like something that should be anywhere near the eye-line of a driver, let alone available for them to play. 

“Tesla is really crossing the line with some of its innovations. For example, in-car entertainment devices like video games can cause some serious safety hazards. Also, National Transportation Safety Board recommended Tesla a few years ago to add an infrared camera for improving driver monitoring. However, Tesla did not respond to it,” Adam Grant, car specialist and founder of Car Fuel Advisor, told Lifewire via email. 

The latest bug is actually a feature. Tesla has to recall 579,000 vehicles thanks to an update that lets them blast music through external speakers. This antisocial feature is called Boombox, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that it drowns out the safety warning noise emitted by electric cars. Boombox has been in use since December 2020. 

“Tesla is a classic case of what happens when a technology’s application outpaces both the legal and ethical standards of society,” says Creel. 

Closeup on a black Tesla steering wheel with the infotainment system in the background.

David von Diemar / Unsplash

Silicon Valley Kids

Tesla is a special case because it is not run like a regular car company. Tesla boss Elon Musk runs it more like a Silicon Valley startup. These US tech companies tend to act first and ask questions later. Uber, for instance, ignores taxi laws until forced to comply, even though Ubers are obviously taxis. Meanwhile, Apple refuses to comply with the spirit of Dutch laws forcing it to allow third-party payment methods in dating apps. 

"[Tesla]is almost entirely controlled by the whims of one eccentric multibillionaire," says Creel. “So, the sort of natural bureaucratic structure that tends to slow down most larger corporations when implementing anything just isn’t there with Tesla. If Musk wants to do it, that’s all it takes.”

US tech companies have a global reach, and if they act like global laws don’t apply to them, it’s because, in practical terms, they often don’t. If the EU bans Facebook from exporting data on EU citizens, and Facebook decides not to comply, what’s the punishment?

Fines are little more than the cost of doing business, and even if the EU shuts down Facebook’s operations in Europe, users can still reach the site—it’s the internet, after all. The EU could block Facebook entirely, but then it takes the blame for cutting off hundreds of millions of people. 

It’s not an easy problem to solve, but the US government seems to finally be doing something about it with its tech antitrust investigations. And that can only be a good thing.

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