Tesla Can Detect Aftermarket Hacks Designed to Defeat EV Performance Paywalls
You wouldn’t download a car—but would you download a quicker 0-60 mph time?
The battle between automakers and aftermarket tuners is a war that has been waged for quite some time. While some manufacturers have embraced the movement, others are still fighting to protect their vehicles from being altered after they leave the factory, even going as far as encrypting vehicle ECUs to prevent tuners from fiddling with things. Electric vehicles have opened up a new front—manufacturers like Tesla can now create lower- and higher-performance versions of the exact same car using nothing but software.
Predictably, the aftermarket is working to defeat those pesky firewalls on the cheap to unlock a vehicle's full potential for everyone. Plugging in a dongle sounds simpler than wrenching, at least. But this new realm of modding comes with an equally new risk recently highlighted by a Tesla Model 3 owner on Reddit (as reported by Electrek)—that your connected car knows when you've hacked it, and it might be logging that data to use against you in a future warranty claim.
The image you see above is a warning message popped up on the man's Model 3 infotainment screen after he installed the latest over-the-air OS update from Tesla a couple weeks ago. Prior to the update, he had also added an aftermarket module from an outfit called Ingenext that allows the dual-motor Model 3 to achieve its quickest 0-60 mph time without Tesla's requisite $2,000 "Acceleration Boost" option. Its presence didn't trigger a warning prior to the software update, and though the car still drove normally, the owner couldn't get the display to clear.
Ingenext is a Canadian company focused on activating the latent performance and comfort features baked-in to Tesla vehicles. One particular modification developed by the company is called "Boost 50", a $1,458 upgrade which claims to shave up to a half-second off the zero-to-60 MPH time when installed in a Model 3 equipped with dual motors but not the performance option.
A savings of $500 isn't much considering the warranty trouble this could bring, but the tiny module also includes access to some other neat things like Drift Mode (which disables traction control), ambient lighting, rear heated seats, custom battery heating, and the ability to open the driver's door when the owner approaches the car. And if you're not looking to spend the full amount for the upgrade, or don't own a Model 3 with a compatible dual motor configuration, Ingenext offers a cheaper "Bonus Module" that just enables the convenience features.
Regardless, the upgrade is billed as a transparent, undetectable modification that a driver can install in minutes for a fraction of the price (with more features) than Tesla's official offering. And Tesla does has a history of implementing user-suggested features into its vehicles via OTA updates. Who is to say that Tesla won't bake these types of changes in later on?
"The Boost 50 module is undetectable remotely." writes Ingenext on the product page for the Boost 50, "However, when visiting a Service Center or when a technician visits your home, it is recommended that you remove the device beforehand."
Ingenext always suspected there would be a game of cat-and-mouse afoot regarding its tiny box-o-software. It even published a pages on its website to tell owners if a vehicle software update was safe to upgrade to without detection.
As it turns out, the Reddit user was one of several owners who installed a new OTA update without first referring to the "safe updates" page. Fortunately, the update didn't disable the modification or force the car into limp mode, but things could have gone worse. What if something had gone wrong with the car while the module was installed and Tesla had a potential avenue to fight a warranty repair? Nobody wants to fight a hypothetical battle against the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of this entire debacle is not knowing exactly what happens when the car detects a modification and shows this warning to the driver. Is it recorded in the vehicle's history? Is it sent back as an alert to the Tesla Mothership? Nobody except Tesla really knows the answer to this right now, but knowing that my car could potentially tattle on me to its mommy is a bit unnerving.
Ingenext's founder Guillaume André told The Drive that he feared Tesla could use the detection of aftermarket parts to justify blocking vehicles from using the Supercharger network and make customers "a prisoner of the Tesla system". The owner of the Model 3 that began getting the pop-ups told us that he planned to visit a Tesla Supercharger to ensure normal functionality, but has not yet reported the results of his findings.
A simple solution might have just been not to upgrade the vehicle's software. While this would work today, it's definitely not a long-term fix either. Tesla has a history of forcing software updates to fix deprecated features with its vehicles, meaning that one day, those who are putting off updates may have no other choice than to bite the bullet.
So Ingenext got to working on finding just how Tesla detected its "undetectable" mod. After some prodding, it was determined that the vehicle had used a separate communications network to detect the presence of the module and ultimately determined that a second small hardware module could be installed to combat the detection. Ingenext dubbed its fix the "Nice Try Module" and has already begun shipping it to customers.
The Tesla community is torn on this matter. Some argue that owners who purchased the module knew the risk of not going through the official channels, akin to using a cheat code to unlock a DLC upgrade in a video game.
Others bring up the very valid point of right to repair—but does that also include right to modify? After all, you do own the vehicles you spent upwards of $40,000 on. Nearly every enthusiast-focused vehicle has an off-the-shelf tune of some sort that can be purchased. The owners of some modern BMWs, for example, can fire up an app on their phone and flash their car's ECU to unlock gobs of extra horsepower, or a different app will even make their all-wheel-drive put power down to only the rear wheels.
Ingenext says that this is only the beginning of a fight that it anticipates will be an uphill battle, if not for it, than for all aftermarket companies who develop performance mods for Teslas.
"We anticipate that Tesla will continue to try to block us, because I believe they want to prove that they are in control and that they have the last word." André told The Drive. "As some customers say, you don't really own a Tesla because [the company] control[s] it remotely and can do whatever they want."
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