Over-the-Air Tinkering Keeps Tesla’s Model S New

Tesla CEO Elon Musk last week said that the company’s line of high-end electric cars will get some autonomous driving capabilities via an over-the-air software update this summer. The new features will let drivers give their vehicles control of certain tasks on major roads, possibly even highways.

Other software updates for the Tesla S, including Range Assurance, Trip Planner and new safety functionality, already are rolling out.

“Tesla is one of the only automotive OEMs that can offer this sort of update,” said Egil Juliussen, Ph.D., senior director of automotive technology at IHS Technology.

“This is almost as simple as updating infotainment software,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Autopilot on Public Roads

Only a handful of states have passed laws that legalize autonomous vehicles, and those laws seem to have been written to cover the testing of the technology rather than actual use by consumers.

However, there is nothing in Tesla’s current autopilot system that would be violate any regulations, the company maintained.

“There is no conflict here,” said Praveen Chandrasekar, automotive and transportation research manager at Frost & Sullivan.

“This is really an advanced cruise control system that can be used in two situations,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“This can be used in a low-speed environment or in high-speed highway driving, so this would fall under the Level 2 autonomous vehicle system,” he added. “It will not work with normal driving on city roads.”

Range Finder

Though they’ll have to wait a bit for the autonomous driving technology, Tesla S drivers can enjoy other new functionality, rolling out in a series of downloads over the next few weeks.

The most notable could be Range Assurance, which will run in the background even when navigation is not in use.

It is designed to communicate with the network of Tesla Superchargers and destination chargers to ensure that drivers aren’t left on the side of the road. Toward that end, Tesla also is increasing the number of charging stations. Over the next year, it will provide coverage for most of Europe and North America, as well as much of China, Japan’s main islands and southern Australia.

“A large cost of the vehicle is its control system. Upgrading this software … can help it get some extra range out of the battery and extend how far the car can travel,” IHS’ Juliussen noted.

“Range is one of the biggest restraints for electric vehicles,” said Frost & Sullivan’s Chandrasekar.

“The infrastructure is a challenge, and there has been a perception that there was a limited range for these vehicles, but this has been continually addressed,” he explained.

In addition to alerting drivers to nearby charging locations, new functionality in the navigation system can factor in altitude changes, such as when climbing a mountain pass, as well as weather and windspeed to determine vehicle range with extreme accuracy.

“This will let drivers know if the trip is feasible, and this is to ease the consumer concerns,” noted Chandrasekar.

More Goodies

Other new improvements to the Tesla S include a trip planner, which can help map out routes that include charging options, and even coordinate charging stops with restroom visits and meal breaks.

The Tesla S updates include new safety features such as automatic emergency braking, which activates in the event of an unavoidable collision in order to reduce the impact; blind spot warning; side collision warning; plus a valet mode that can limit speed, lock the glove compartment, and hide personal information.

The ease of making updates could be instrumental in getting more drivers behind Tesla wheels.

“This is one of the significant competitive advantages that folks often don’t talk about with Tesla. The car was designed to be updated both in software and hardware,” said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

“What folks don’t get is that Tesla isn’t selling cars — they are selling a car service,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“The software upgrades are free, making the car actually evolve to become better over time. The hardware upgrades are far cheaper than buying a new car — yet they effectively give you most of the advantages of having a new car,” Enderle explained.

“Essentially, here is a car company acting like a mobile phone company that will add functions via updates,” said Frost’s Chandrasekar. “At no point does your vehicle become out of date.”

Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who has covered consumer electronics, technology, electronic entertainment and fitness-related trends for more than a decade. His work has appeared in more than three dozen publications, and he is the co-author of Careers in the Computer Game Industry (Career in the New Economy series), a career guide aimed at high school students from Rosen Publishing. You can connect with Peter on Google+.

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