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Tesla’s autopilot bait-and-switch does a disservice to early buyers who took them at their word

Along with several other changes in the last few days, one thing Tesla has done is completely reworked how “Enhanced Autopilot” and “Full Self-Driving” are differentiated.  Features for both of the systems have been shifted around, and FSD, which for a few months wasn’t even available on the cars, is back and available for purchase.

But one of the changes is that Tesla is offering Model 3 owners who already bought the car, but who didn’t previously purchase Enhanced Autopilot or Full Self-driving, a discount to purchase the software unlock for either of those systems.

The problem with this is that these systems were originally billed as increasing in price if ordered after delivery, rather than decreasing.  Now, early buyers who took Tesla at their word, and paid full price for these systems, are being left out of the price drops, and will end up having paid more than people who buy it now.

Of course, price changes happen on many products, and especially on Tesla products.  There are often price premiums associated with being an early adopter of a product, and this has happened with Tesla products often enough that it shouldn’t be a surprise.

The difference is, usually early adopters have the benefit of using the product before everyone else does.  But now, for owners who purchased Full Self-Driving before delivery, but still have never used the system at all (because it hasn’t been enabled), they are being left out of a price drop of a product they haven’t even used, simply because they took Tesla at their word that they would benefit from ordering it earlier rather than later.

So this is not equivalent to a price drop on a product that is already in the marketplace – like recently happened with the S/X/3.  It’s more similar to if Tesla had told Model 3 reservation holders, who put money down on the first day, that they would need to pay more for the car than those who did not reserve it.  Clearly people would be rightfully aggrieved by this concept.

On any other product, if the product is ordered and the price is dropped before that order is fulfilled, the purchaser could simply cancel the order and then purchase the product again at the lower price.  Since no FSD orders have been fulfilled yet, it does not seem fair that they be locked out from a lower price for a product which hasn’t been shipped yet.

Consider an early Model 3 owner who purchased both AP and FSD before delivery (*the author of this article may fall into this exact category).  For these two options, they will have paid $8,000, being told at the time that if they were to purchase them after delivery it would have cost them $10,000 (or $11,000 after Tesla raised the post-delivery price of FSD – and before they removed the package entirely due to “confusion”).  Now, compare that to an owner who purchased neither AP or FSD – that owner can receive the same benefit today at a cost of $5,000, which is $3k less than the first owner paid (or $5k less than what they were told the post-delivery price would be).

The first owner did benefit from having autopilot for the last year-or-so of ownership, which is the price early adopters sometimes pay for gaining a benefit before others do.  But now, compared to an owner who purchased AP but did not purchase FSD, that owner can get FSD today for $2,000 (according to CEO Elon Musk’s twitter anyway).  This means that, for an option from which the first owner has received no benefit, and which they purchased with the promise that they were getting a lower price than if they did it post-delivery, they are now out $1,000 – or $2,000 if you compare to what Tesla said the post-delivery price would be.

Musk stated on twitter that “If anyone already paid $3k, they should get $1k back,” but this was in response to someone asking about the recent price change, and the fact that Tesla’s ordering system has not yet updated with the new price.  When asked if this truly means anyone who paid $3k (including early owners), Tesla could not confirm this to be the case.

Musk stated that unfortunately, early buyers just have to deal with these changes:

His rationale is a little hollow though, because Tesla is making an option retroactively cheaper for owners who already own the product (the Model 3), who were told what the price would be gong forward, but who hadn’t purchased the option yet.  Other owners are not being given this same courtesy.

The problem is, the rationale behind this isn’t even apparent.  It all seems rather random, as so many of Tesla’s price changes do.

And the price changes are so random and strange that even the company’s communications seem to conflict, as Tesla’s blog states that owners who bought a Tesla prior to this week can upgrade to Full Self-Driving for $3,000, whereas Musk says that the same option costs $2,000 on twitter.

The one consolation they have offered to people who already have FSD is to invite those owners to Tesla’s early access program to test early versions of in-car software.  But many owners won’t care about (or necessarily even want) this, may have access to it already, or may have gained access to it through the referral program.  One could expect the overlap between the most loyal customers, who ordered FSD before gaining any benefit from it and essentially offering Tesla a free loan in the process, and high-referring customers may be somewhat high.  And given Tesla’s history of being a little slow to deliver on referral awards, one wonders how long it will take FSD owners to actually see benefit from their invite into the early access program.  Regardless, doing alpha testing on software doesn’t seem like a benefit worth four digits worth of money, at least not to everyone. (Update April 23: Tesla never did invite FSD buyers to the early access program, and has denied some owners’ requests to be invited, and has deleted the blog post where they promised to do so)

This all sounds a little bit like the Performance Model 3 price drop situation from a few months ago, where Tesla released a product and then dropped the price just a month later, leaving the earliest buyers a bit miffed at overpaying for something and having the price drop so soon after.  The problem in that case wasn’t so much the price drop, as that it happened so soon after the product was released.  But at least those owners got to use the product early – FSD buyers haven’t used the product at all yet.  And Tesla eventually compensated those owners for the price difference (on request), as well.

These random price changes also conflict with Tesla’s original philosophy, which is to have simple, clear pricing so every customer pays the same price for things and nobody feels jilted.  Obviously prices will change over time and features will be added, but seemingly random price changes like this just don’t meet the goal Tesla originally laid out in making people feel like they were being treated fairly.  This behavior feels more like the standard dealership experience of everyone getting different prices for no particular reason.  For customers who wanted to order from Tesla to get away from this experience, this is a shame.

And if it all seems confusing, it is.  I’ve completely lost track of how Tesla’s pricing works, and am having a hard time trying to find any sort of rationality in any of it.  Just ask me about how good the car is (it’s fantastic), but don’t ask me how much any of it costs.  Even if I did know, that information seems likely enough to be outdated by the time I finish the sentence 🤷‍♂️

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Avatar for Jameson Dow Jameson Dow

Jameson has been driving electric vehicles since 2009, and has been writing about them and about clean energy for since 2016.

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