Is Tesla open source? Roadster certainly isn't...

by Denver Gingerich on December 21, 2023

There appears to be some debate over whether a certain billionaire said on November 22 that "Tesla Roadster is now fully open source", or maybe that "All design & engineering of the original @Tesla Roadster is now fully open source". In any case, as the people who work every day on whether or not what companies say is FOSS really is FOSS, we reviewed the materials Tesla provided on the Tesla Roadster Service Information page. We found no source code — and last time we reviewed the Open Source Definition, providing source code was mandatory to meet it. But this situation is worse than that. Tesla did include several copies of the Linux kernel in only binary form, with no offer for source whatsoever. That's a GPL violation. We immediately emailed Tesla to ask them where the source code was but (now 3 weeks later) we have still heard nothing back.

Tesla's violation is not surprising, given their past behavior. We've written before about Tesla's prior inabilities to provide complete source code. But now Tesla has completely backslid from incomplete source code all the way to "no source or offer". Instead of learning from its past mistakes, Tesla has increased its erratic behavior to make even more mistakes of the same type.

Now you may wonder why we care about a company that is decidedly not open source, and about code that is relatively old at this point. Well, we believe that people should have the right and ability to repair their software, no matter how old, and that this applies to everything that contains software, including TVs, wireless routers, and (in this case) cars.

The need for being able to repair here is not hypothetical. The dangers of Tesla drivers' inability to fix the software in their cars is palpable. After discussing safety concerns in the software on its cars with the NHTSA, Tesla recently did a voluntary recall on all cars it has produced in the past 10 years. This recall is *due to faulty software*, which was only discovered to be faulty after many drivers died. Neither NHTSA nor the public has the right to review Tesla's actual software for safety. If Tesla at least complied with the GPL, regulatory bodies and the public could review those portions for safety. (Of course, we think Tesla should be required to make the source for even those parts of the software not governed by GPL available to the public for security audits and review.)

Tesla has taken a strong and disturbing position: they'd rather keep their source code secret than increase safety for software in cars. Furthermore, rather than letting car owners fix their cars, they were forced to wait for Tesla to both agree that there was a problem, and then work on Tesla's own schedule to release a fix for the problem. If owners had the source code, the owners (and the press, who uncovered the systematic problems in this case) could more quickly identify that there was a problem to begin with, and then implement a fix right away, instead of waiting for Tesla to decide they wanted to do something about it.

By refusing to comply with the GPL agreements, Tesla is not only violating licenses - it is making its cars more dangerous, and removing the ability of owners to fix problems when they arise. This cannot continue, and we again call on Tesla today to give all its customers the complete source code for all copylefted software Tesla has distributed to them. This is common sense, and is merely what the agreements require.

Of course, we're just as concerned as anyone that owners might make software modifications to their car that decrease safety. We support certification requirements for any software that is installed to drive on the road. Just as it is completely legal for a consumer to build their own car from parts, and be subject to safety inspection before driving it on public roads, so too should that apply to software. Tesla, sadly, continues to maintain the fiction that they know better than everyone what's safe for software in cars to do — even after it's been shown that Tesla's software is killing people. As a for-profit automaker, in this regard Tesla is actually held to a lower burden than a hobbyist who built their own car.

We hope you will stand with us in calling on all companies to follow the terms of the copyleft agreements they are bound by. Violating the GPL and using proprietary software is not, as Tesla claims, the only way to keep drivers safe, instead it's downright dangerous.

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