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As Hurricane Irma bore down, Tesla gave some Florida drivers more battery juice. Here’s why that’s a big deal.

Owners of Tesla Model S cars, such as the one above, received updates that enabled them to flee Hurricane Irma. (Paul Sakuma/AP)
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As Florida residents fled Hurricane Irma over the weekend, some Tesla owners got a little surprise from the automaker to help them get out of the danger zone.

On Saturday, Tesla began pushing a software update that increased the battery capacity of some Model S sedans and Model X SUVs. All the cars that received the update belonged to those living in what emergency officials had identified as the evacuation area.

The real-time update extended the range of the cars by unlocking extra battery power, meaning the vehicles could now go farther on a single charge. The change will not be permanent; Tesla said the temporary upgrade will be reversed on Sept. 16, presumably once the immediate danger has passed.

The decision reflects a key distinguishing feature of Tesla’s business, one that could divide consumers as they consider the future of car ownership.

Irma’s strength is truly historic. These photos show why.

The Model S and Model X vehicles updated Saturday were all built with a 75-kilowatt-hour battery. At full capacity, that’s enough for a Model S to travel about 250 miles. When those cars were first sold, Tesla gave customers the option of a lower-capacity battery at a more affordable price, and some decided to take the savings rather than purchase the full 75-kWh battery.

But downsizing didn’t mean replacing the big battery with a physically smaller one; it just meant using a bit of computer code to restrict how much of the battery the car could access. If the customers wanted, they could later have Tesla lift the software lock by paying an additional fee, which can run into the thousands of dollars.

Over the weekend Tesla temporarily lifted that software lock at no cost to owners, after receiving requests for help from customers whose cars were stuck in Irma-related traffic.

Video from Brickell, Miami shows scenes before and after Hurricane Irma struck. (Video: Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

Irma weakens to tropical storm, batters Florida with powerful winds as it heads north

The decision highlights one of the most innovative aspects of owning a Tesla. The company’s ability to use software to instantly add range to a vehicle is something no conventional car can achieve. You can’t simply make a gas tank bigger at the click of a button.

This isn’t the first time Tesla has used wireless software updates to expand a car’s capabilities. The total value of all the optional software upgrades Tesla now offers adds up to tens of thousands of dollars, according to some estimates. Nor is the concept of unlocking software a novel one; from video-game expansion packs to premium Spotify subscriptions, software is now commonly used to expand the range of features available in other products.

For consumers, however, this is the first time they’ve seen the practice extended to their cars. And, like it or not, it forces us to think a bit differently about what it means to truly own our own vehicle.

Tesla’s decision to offer lower-priced cars with certain performance compromises could be viewed as expanding consumer choice and giving users flexibility. At the same time, because the underlying hardware remains the same no matter what level of software you’ve purchased, you could say that Tesla has locked the full potential of its vehicle behind an arbitrary paywall.

This is a paradigm shift. When you buy any other car, you get its full capabilities. In many cases, though less so now than in decades past, you can open up the hood and tinker with everything yourself. This has historically been the way we’ve thought about buying a car. When you roll it off the lot, you get the whole thing, and you can basically do with it whatever you want.

What Irma is leaving behind

In Tesla’s case, it’s not quite the same. Sure, there’s a community of amateur hackers who poke around inside their cars and sometimes make fascinating discoveries, but the company has a significant degree of control over the vehicles, even if it doesn’t exercise it all the time. As we’ve seen, Tesla can remotely install new software, including code that enables and disables features unilaterally.

This can be a gift, such as when getting caught with the “wrong” feature package during a hurricane. At the same time, it highlights the tremendous power your car manufacturer can have over your ownership of the vehicle and poses questions about whether it’s customer-friendly to charge you thousands of dollars to access hardware that takes just a few keystrokes to turn on. The debate has already taken off on Reddit.

Tesla's investors hope the recently launched Model 3 will help the company turn a profit. (Video: Reuters)