The Tests of Tesla

By Aharon Hirsh Cohen

Tesla showroom in Amsterdam on October 23, 2019. (Photo by JOHN THYS / AFP) (Photo by JOHN THYS/AFP via Getty Images)

Everyone is well aware that cellphones, computers, or even cameras or mp3 players can possess internet capabilities. But when buying a car, one wouldn’t think they have to be worried about it becoming a hazardous device. With the invention of electric cars with internet capability, certain cars have also entered into the long list of electronic devices that require a filter. And thus the war against tech hazards is being fought on a new front.

How they work and their Popularity

Tesla (TSLA) was founded in 2003 and named after the 19th-century inventor Nikola Tesla, famous for discovering the properties of rotating electromagnetic fields.

All-electric vehicles, also referred to as battery electric vehicles (BEVs), have an electric motor instead of a gas engine. The vehicle uses a large battery pack to power the electric motor and must be plugged in to a wall outlet or charging equipment, also called electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE). Because it runs on electricity, the vehicle emits no exhaust from a tailpipe and does not contain the typical liquid fuel components, such as a fuel pump, fuel line, or fuel tank.

Worldwide sales for the U.S. electric-car specialist Tesla rose by more than 350,000 cars in 2022, according to the company’s latest official production and delivery figures.

A Driver’s Perspective

“When I lived in Boro Park, I was apprehensive about purchasing a Tesla as I felt it was a ‘fancy’ car and I didn’t want to show off,” Yitzchok* of Linden tells us. “Living among only heimishe Yidden, I felt uncomfortable. However, after I moved to Linden and here there are a number of yungeleit who own them, the peer pressure is less and I also have my own private parking space. I feel it’s a good investment as it’s very cheap to maintain. The electric factor makes it a little like a toy and the children love it.

“Since I commute to Boro Park every day, I save a lot of money on gas by driving a Tesla, as opposed to a regular car. When driving on the highway it can be set to autopilot, which results in a less stressful journey. However it’s not so practical as a family car, as it has limited space. A friend of mine has a Tesla as ‘his’ car for commuting to work, and then a Jeep, in which he drives his family.”

Internet capabilities

“The idea behind Tesla’s internet access is in order to be able to constantly monitor and update the system.” Chaim,* a Tesla car owner, explains to the Yiddish Hashmiyeini publication (published by Hashomrim): “A special app is installed in the car which enables it to be opened, locked and perform various other activities remotely. There is also a navigation system and special Tesla Waze which are run through this app.”

But obviously, once it has internet for those capabilities, it doesn’t stop there. 

Yisroel Dovid Bender of Lakewood, a Tesla car owner, tells us a little about the cars and what he has done to raise awareness about their risks.

“Until now, someone who wanted to connect to the internet had a few options; they could pay for a subscription to an internet provider or connect a device to Wi-Fi at areas that offer free service. While access to Wi-Fi installed in offices and private houses is normally restricted to those who have the password, many areas such as public libraries, cafes and other locations emit internet waves to the surrounding area. Tesla cars provide open internet access, via Wi-Fi, much like an unfiltered laptop or cellphone, which currently cannot be blocked. Even devices such as filtered smartphones and cellphones can have hot-spot capabilities, allowing the car to connect to the phone’s data signals. Even though the phone’s internal internet is filtered or disabled, the data it makes available through a hot-spot to other devices, including Teslas, is not. A Tesla vehicle can also pick up Wi-Fi signals if parked in places which have free service, such as public libraries.

“The more expensive models have a screen in the back which has parental controls that enable the driver to deactivate them, but the front screens obviously do not have such controls in any of their models. I realized how dangerous such a machine is for the heimishe tzibbur — both adults and children.”

A filter technician speaking to Hashmiyeini says, “The more expensive models come with free internet service when the car is purchased. However, many of the models are extremely expensive and beyond most people’s price range.”

However, Tesla is not the only company that produces machines with Wi-Fi access. Companies such as Volvo and Audi also reportedly have models with this feature.

On this note, Rabbi Moishe Drew of TAG asserts, “Ironically, the standard Tesla models are very cheap compared to both other electric vehicles and regular gas cars, making the michshol all the more accessible.

Charging the car at special charging stations takes about an hour. “The charging stations offer free Wi-Fi internet connection to ensure the passenger is occupied while the car charges.” Chaim,* a Tesla owner relates to Hashmiyeini. “Even if, for whatever reason, one doesn’t have Wi-Fi at the station, one can always call in and immediately receive access for just $10 a month.”

Yisroel Dovid explains what he did next.

“I called up Tesla, who told me that if I get enough people to call in with complaints about this matter, maybe they would be able to do something. So, I thought that’s what I’ll do. I spoke to the owner of The Lakewood Shopper magazine, Reb Yaakov Wenger, who helped publicize it. I also put announcements on social media platforms, and the word got around.

“A lot of people have been calling in. I spoke to someone from Tesla yesterday about it, and they told me that they have received more calls this week about this subject than the whole year about all other subjects combined.”

(Getty images)

When asked how many calls they actually received, he tells us, “They didn’t tell me the number of calls so far. They just said the phones are ‘ringing off the hook’ just for this. When I asked what they’re planning to do about it, they said they know the higher-ups are taking the matter very seriously; however, the customer support team is only informed a day before any changes are made in the software.

“It’s not actually possible for me to get to any higher-ups, just the regular customer support people. The highest one I did reach was a supervisor who also didn’t know anything.”

He continues, “They cannot get through to the tech support, which is deliberately done by the company, since if they would be able to, people would be calling all day long, and the tech support wouldn’t be able to do their job. They therefore have a separate customer support department, which does not transfer anybody to the tech department. Any inquires they receive are passed on.

“I found, through my own research, a phone number that is officially the number of a higher-up of the company, but when I tried to call it on several occasions it was unavailable. We also tried reaching Elon Musk, via someone who was said to have received a comment from him on social media, but we have not been successful.”

He explains, “It is not at all far-fetched to think that they can easily come up with a solution, as they have done so for numerous other requests when the demand was high. The representatives said that, in the past, Tesla has changed things like the design of the car and the software, after people called in. They recently changed the font to a larger size to accommodate older drivers who were having a hard time reading it, after numerous calls with this request.”

He discusses an existing PIN system which the vehicles have to prevent theft and how such a system could be implemented in the cars.

“They have a PIN system called ‘PIN to Drive’ which provides entry to the car solely for those who have the PIN for that device. It allows the driver to set a secure four-digit verification that must be entered before the vehicle is driven. The same system could be employed for their internet access as all homes and private offices have on their Wi-Fi hotspots.

“Therefore, a PIN could be created for the internet of each vehicle and it would remain unknown to the driver; Tesla would keep those passwords in their database.”

(Obviously the owner would ultimately be able to access the password, unlike the heimishe filtering companies who block certain categories even for the administrator of the filter.)

“There are some people who will want to create the PIN themselves because they don’t want anyone else to know it. Obviously, for them, it won’t work, but for the majority of people it would definitely be a good solution.”

When asked if this would be a practical solution, Rabbi Moshe Drew of TAG responds, “Some level of shemirah is necessary — it shouldn’t just be open in front of people to access. Over the past few years I’ve spoken to various members of Tesla as a representative of TAG. Every time they say they’ll pass it on, but nothing has actually happened so far. Yisroel Dovid Bender deserves amazing credit for his awareness campaign. The internet is not a problem for Rabbanim, TAG, or any other askanim; it’s Klal Yisrael’s problem. If thousands call in and do their share to fight against the internet it will get noticed. I think it’s an amazing idea, and people should call.”

Hamodia reached out several times to Tesla, both via email and phone, and received no response.

Rabbi Drew continued, “I am considering making a petition website where if you get a certain number [of signatures], they will definitely consider it. However, it might take two or three years for them to resolve this issue. Our hope is that if Tesla does end up doing something, it should be done in such a way that gives full coverage to the block — which means fully secured and with the ability to have a third party, such as TAG, to have that code. It also has to be a PIN which is effective for all internet access and not just browsers, since blocking the browser will not help for any devices which have apps. These apps can still be transformed into unfiltered internet.”

When confronted about the issue by a friend, Yossi*, a Tesla owner, responded, “My car is no worse than any tablet or similar device, which can also become a hot-spot!”

His friend answered, “The difference is a tablet’s capability to become a hot-spot can be blocked, whereas Tesla cannot!”

“The danger of Tesla is so apparent, because as a car, it’s a device which changes locations and can easily enter in Wi-Fi zones, and there is currently no way to filter them. However, people should be aware of another major problem,” warns Rabbi Drew. “Some of the most dangerous items are the unprotected laptops and basic phones, which people mistakenly assume that, since they didn’t subscribe to service, cannot connect to the internet. Every flip-phone has regular Wi-Fi capabilities when purchased and must be filtered. If not, they can easily connect to free internet access when they come in proximity to a Wi-Fi hot-spot, which are readily available all over. Even if one keeps the device at home, anyone in the vicinity who has a hot-spot can enable any device to connect to their Wi-Fi.”

An askan who is very active in campaigns for technology awareness, who spoke to Hamodia on the condition of anonymity, expressed surprise that there are members of our community who drive such vehicles. He said, “A heimishe Yid using a flip-phone creates a kiddush Hashem, and using a smartphone can create the opposite, but at least smartphones can be filtered. However, these cars cannot be filtered. And now that their dangers are a known fact, how can people still go and drive them?” n

*Names have been changed.

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