Tesla’s Damaged Goods Problem

TechCrunch: Tesla has pushed an over-the-air update to some of its vehicles in Florida that lets those cars go just a liiiittle bit farther, thus helping their owners get that much farther away from the devastation of Hurricane Irma.

Tesla owners in Florida may be grateful for this mileage boost as they escape the ravages of Irma but I suspect that some of them will be upset when they have more time to reflect. How could Tesla increase the mileage at the flick of a switch? The answer is that owners of the Tesla 60kWh version of its Model S and Model X actually have the same battery as the 75kWh vehicles but the battery has been purposely limited or “damaged” to provide only 60KWh of mileage. But why would Tesla damage its own vehicles?

The answer to the second question is price discrimination! Tesla knows that some of its customers are willing to pay more for a Tesla than others. But Tesla can’t just ask its customers their willingness to pay and price accordingly. High willing-to-pay customers would simply lie to get a lower price. Thus, Tesla must find some characteristic of buyers that is correlated with high willingness-to-pay and charge more to customers with that characteristic. Airlines, for example, price more for the same seat if you book at the last minute on the theory that last minute buyers are probably business-people with high willingness-to-pay as opposed to vacationers who have more options and a lower willingness-to-pay. Tesla uses a slightly different strategy; it offers two versions of the same good, the low and high mileage versions, and it prices the high-mileage version considerably higher on the theory that buyers willing to pay for more mileage are also more likely to be high willingness-to-pay buyers in general. Thus, the high-mileage group pay a higher price-to-cost margin than the low-mileage group. A familiar example is software companies that offer a discounted or “student” version of the product with fewer features. Since the software firm’s costs are mostly sunk R&D costs, the firm can make money selling a low-price version so long as doing so doesn’t cannibalize its high willingness-to-pay customers–and the firm can avoid cannibalization by carefully choosing to disable the features most valuable to high willingness-to-pay customers.

The classic paper in this literature is Damaged Goods by Deneckere and  McAfee who write:

Manufacturers may intentionally damage a portion of their goods in order to
price discriminate. Many instances of this phenomenon are observed. It may
result in a Pareto improvement.

Note the last sentence–damaging goods can be beneficial to everyone! Consider: Without selling to the high willingness-to-pay customers at the high price the good might not be produced at all because the profit from customers who are only willing to buy at a discount aren’t enough to support the R&D. Thus, the high willingness-to-pay customers aren’t worse off from the existence of a discounted version and the low willingness to pay customers and the firm are clearly better off.

Unfortunately, I fear that Tesla may have made a marketing faux-pas. When it turns off the extra mileage boost are Tesla customers going to say “thanks for temporarily making my car better!” Or are they going to complain, “why are you making MY car worse than it has to be?”

Hat tip: Monique van Hoek.


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