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Heavy load: is Tesla using software to force customers to buy its parts?
Emails from Tesla appear to show the company is coupling safety software to use of its branded tow hitch, forcing owners to forego less expensive aftermarket parts.
Something seriously funky is going on with Tesla and tow hitches.
As reported by James Gilboy over at The Drive, Tesla Model X and Model Y owners have been raising alarms online that the company is refusing to enable a critical, safety-oriented software feature dubbed “Trailer Mode” unless the owners buy and install Tesla’s tow package, a pricey $1,300 OEM option that is out of stock in countries like the UK. Failure to enable “Trailer Mode,” the company contends, will put the driver at risk of physical injury and may void the warranty on the car, leaving some Tesla owners in a bind.
UK resident Scott Helme (@Scott_Helme) wrote on Twitter last week about his experience after buying a Tesla Model Y - a car he purchased in part because of the prodigious towing capacity of the U.S. automaker’s electric vehicles. After purchasing the car, Helme purchased an aftermarket tow bar and had it fitted on his Model Y by a reputable service provider for £695. Once installed, Helme said the hitch worked fine with his Model Y.
However, when he went to enable the required “Trailer Mode” software on his vehicle, as instructed by Tesla, he was unable to locate the button to enable the feature on Tesla’s in-car system.
“I expected that I could just buy the car, get the tow bar fitted and be able to tow stuff,” Helme told Fight to Repair.
Unable to locate the button, Helme began a series of emails and phone calls with his local Tesla dealer to try to diagnose the problem. Initially told he needed a software update, Helme eventually learned that Trailer Mode was not available because he had not purchased the OEM tow package from Tesla.
For example, an October 28 email to Helme from a Tesla support representative named “Sean” informed him that use of the Model Y Tow Package, which includes both the Tesla branded hitch and the software, is required…and also that Tesla branded hitches were not available for purchase due to a “microprocessor supply issue.”
I can confirm your vehicle is not able to tow anything, as it does not have the tow package installed.
I am currently working on getting you an ETA as to when these will be available, as discussed last night, this is due to a microprocessor supply issue.
— Tesla support representative “Sean”, October 28, 2022
An email from the same support representative on October 27 repeats the claim that the Model Y must use the Tesla Tow Package and includes a link to the company’s website that describes the contents of that package, including the tow bar.
“Please do not operate your vehicle with a trailer or anything on the Tow (sp) hitch. Once the Tow package (sp) has been installed, you will be able to tow using your vehicle,” the email reads.
Helme said he was not told prior to purchasing the vehicle that use of a Tesla-branded hitch was required. With previous vehicles, Helme was free to choose from a wide range of aftermarket trailer hitches. However, Tesla informed him that using any hitch on his vehicle without the Trailer Mode software enabled put him at risk of an accident and would void the vehicle’s warranty, and that Trailer Mode was only for use with Tesla’s Tow Package, Helme said.
According to Tesla documentation, “Trailer Mode must always be active when towing a trailer” and is designed to sense when the owner connects a trailer's electrical connection while the vehicle is in Park. In Model Y vehicles, Trailer Mode should automatically engage, but it can also be manually engaged and disengaged.
Tesla documentation for the Model Y makes clear that towing without Trailer Mode enabled is dangerous and should not be attempted. However, it makes no mention of the requirement to purchase the Tesla Model Y Tow Package to use the Trailer Mode software.
Safety features…for a price?
Trailer Mode performs a number of important functions that change the performance of the vehicle to account for the added load. Among other things, it disables some Autopilot features, as well as the car’s rear parking sensor functionality when a trailer is attached. There are also changes to a number of functions like the Traffic-Aware Cruise Control and side collision warnings, to prevent sudden jerks in steering that might cause a vehicle with a trailer to swerve dangerously. It also changes how the vehicle brakes, with added brake force provided by Automatic Emergency Braking limited when the car is pulling a trailer.
Even if Helme wanted to abide by Tesla’s policy and use the Tesla branded Tow Package, however, he couldn’t. “It’s been out of stock for months and it’s still out of stock,” said Helme, who is based in the UK. “There’s not even an estimate of when it will be in stock.”
Helme isn’t the first Tesla owner to encounter the company’s restrictive policy. A post to a user forum at teslamotorsclub.com from November 2021 from a Tesla Model X owner in Yakima, Washington complains of the same problem getting Tesla’s software to recognize an aftermarket tow hitch. Tesla refused to enable the Trailer Mode software citing “warranty complications,” he wrote.
Other users on that forum also cite the difficulties of using non-Tesla tow hitches, with some claiming they have simply used aftermarket hitches with their Tesla vehicles without enabling the Trailer Mode software, while many other says they simply bought the more expensive OEM package to avoid complications.
“I know for sure there is (sp) cheaper alternatives! However I just don’t have time to deal and match aftermarket parts with Tesla’s integrated trailer system,” wrote a user with the handle “Tsaico” on October 25.
However, owners of other Tesla models report no issues using third party tow hitches with their vehicles, raising questions about whether the “policy” regarding the Model X and Model Y is new, or whether there is a misunderstanding within the ranks of Tesla’s support organization.
Tesla did not respond to numerous email messages to both its European and U.S. operations seeking comment for this story. We will update the story if and when they do respond.
The FTC is watching
If the requirement to use Tesla’s branded Tow Package is company policy, it may violate federal antitrust law in the U.S., which prohibits so-called product“tying” arrangements. Both the Sherman Antitrust Act and the Magnusson-Moss Warranty Act, prohibit “tying arrangements” in which the purchase of one product necessitates the purchase of a separate product that the consumer did not intend to buy.
The Magnusson-Moss Act specifically prohibits manufacturers from conditioning a warranty on the “use of only authorized repair service and/or authorized replacement parts for non-warranty service and maintenance.” (There are exceptions to that in cases where the article of service is provided without charge, which is clearly not the case with the Tesla Tow Package.)
The FTC has taken an interest in companies that flaunt that law. On October 27th, for example, the Commission voted unanimously to approve final orders against motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson Motor Company Group, grill maker Weber-Stephen Products, and the manufacturer of Westinghouse outdoor power equipment, MWE Investments, for illegally restricting customers’ right to repair their purchased products.
Those cases, announced in June, alleged that Harley-Davidson and MWE Investments included terms in their warranties that claimed that the warranty would be void if customers used independent repairers or third-party parts, in violation of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act and the FTC Act.
However, the case against Tesla might not be as straight-forward as those cases, according to Aaron Perzanowski, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School and author of the book The Right to Repair.
“There’s definitely a Magnusson Moss issue if they’re requiring the use of particular parts,” Perzanowski said. “The tricky thing is whether the Tow Package counts as an upgrade rather than a repair.” If so, he said, requiring the purchase of the Tesla Tow Package could “slip outside of the warranty,” depending on how the Tesla warranty is written.
Even if Tesla’s handling of the Tow Package isn’t seen by the courts as a Magnusson Moss violation, the company may still be guilty of engaging in false advertising, Perzanowski said. If Tesla is found to be promoting the towing capacity of the car as a feature to potential buyers, but not disclosing the requirement of the $1,300 Tesla Tow Package and the Trailer Mode software as a precondition (parts the company is unable to provide in some countries) it may be misrepresenting its product to buyers.
Or, if there is some compelling reason for Tesla customers to be required to use its Tow Package, that justification would need to be articulated clearly and in advance of the purchase, Perzanowski said.
“From where we’re sitting this sounds like an opportunity to squeeze more money out of customers. And (Tesla’s) lack of transparency doesn’t help,” Perzanowski said.
Proving “tying” claims under the 19th century Sherman Anti Trust Act is more difficult, but Tesla’s activity could run afoul of that law, as well. “You have a situation where, to get the software you want, have to buy parts that you don’t,” Perzanowski said. “If Tesla’s using their control over the software to force people to purchase a product they don’t want, that would be a violation of the Sherman Act.”
Tesla owners: not giving up
Helme said he doubts he’s the victim of a big misunderstanding.
“The one thing I’ve gotten is that this is Tesla policy,” Helme said. “It’s not a matter of what you’ve done or not done. They have no concerns about anything like that.”
In the meantime, Helme said he isn’t taking “no” for an answer. “There are several reasons not to let this rest. It’s not fair and not right. It’s completely unreasonable from them to inhibit me from using this functionality,” he said. Finally, Helme said there are “genuine safety concerns” to using his Tesla without the Trailer Mode features enabled.