2013 Tesla Model S P85+ Long-Term Update 2
The Unfinished Car
Not long after we received our long-term Tesla Model S, a message appeared on its large touch-screen display: "Software Update: There is a new version of your Tesla Model S software." How strange. This would take about two hours to download, it explained, and commence at 2:20 a.m. the next night. After carefully thinking over whether I'd be driving the car between 2:20 and 4:20 a.m., I clicked "OK" and left.
The following morning, the screen displayed another message: "Update Succeeded – What's New in Release v4.5" In the explanatory notes that followed I learned that the Google Maps-based Nav system was now pre-loaded with all of the Supercharger locations (including pins on the map). It also displays smaller pins at other places you've charged, offers higher resolution when the map is magnified, lets you sort your contacts, manage its battery-conditioning more cleverly when you're plugged-in, adjust the windshield's defogging, and fine-tune how much extra-charging you need for trips. All this happened while I slept, via the car's built-in 3G connection. And that was just the first update.
Now, we're on version 5.8.8. In this case, the on-screen notice arrived while I was on the way to the dentist. However, this time I wanted to watch the update in-person – so I rescheduled the virtual appointment on the Model S's big screen. I spun the wheels to 1 p.m., when I figured I'd be parked in the Motor Trend garage, carefully spooning my yogurt lunch into my numbed mouth. However, the one crown I was expecting turned into two, making me late for my 1 p.m. date. I rescheduled it again for 3 p.m.
At the appointed hour I was seated in the car ready to watch. Messages began to appear – the update was going to take up to one hour and forty-five minutes, it said. And then, suddenly, the car stopped charging (it had been plugged in) and its screens froze. Other weird stuff started happening as unfamiliar information flashed on the screen. And it only got worse until eventually, the headlights started to randomly flash, getting the attention of the Hot Rod guys wrenching on a '57 Chevy nearby. I gave them one of those "who,me?" shoulder shrugs, got out, and quietly walked back to my desk. I couldn't take it anymore.
But when I returned, the car was fine. As if nothing happened. The software mayhem had ceased; the charging had automatically resumed and the screens were normal. Except for a message explaining that this was actually only a minor update. Evidently, it makes the car more perceptive and cautious of any charging anomalies when it's plugged into a 240-volt, NEMA 14-50 receptacle (the sort your electric clothes dryer uses; many, like me, are using it instead of buying a Tesla charger). But this update – along with the recent change to the Model S' air suspension ride-height – raised a controversial question: does this sort of over-the-air software update also constitute a 'voluntary recall'? Making matters even murkier here is that the update is simply making the car savvier in dealing with lousy home wiring. Your lousy wiring, not the car's. More and more cars in the future will have this sort of easy wireless software updating, making the line between old-fashioned defect-fixing (seizing wheel bearings or snapping steering columns) and welcome functional evolution (software that better saves you from yourself), is blurring.
When I've mentioned the novelty of the Model S' over-the-air updates to engineers from other car companies, they've usually scoffed "It's because they hadn't finished the car, that's why," punctuated by a knowing glance. Here and there, they have a point. For instance:
The Model S – for all its brilliance – somehow or other doesn't have second-row cupholders. So recently, when I noticed the availability of retrofit, ones ($150) on Tesla's website, I had them installed.
As with everything Tesla, the process is unusual. I bought the gizmos at Tesla.com and then instructed that they be sent to the nearest service center who's then alerted about what they're supposed to do. Our car was picked-up, a loaner left, and it was swiftly returned sporting two more cup holders. But where were they?
Behind the 2nd-row center-passenger's ankles. Still don't see them? It's because they're actually thin leather straps nominally retracted flat against the vertical carpeting; the strap's ends must be pinched to bow them out when you need them (the cup actually sits on the floor). You're right, they don't work very well; you have to bend over to see the cup and it's easy to bump them with a foot. However, as foot restraints to prevent an eight-year-old Christopher Reynolds from kicking my seat, they're a godsend – just kidding. I think.
But on the other hand, declaring these post-delivery software updates as car-building amateurism is a misperception that traditional car-companies make at their peril. And it's no better demonstrated by the growing capabilities of our Model S' internet-connected, hi-res, 17-inch display.
Take a look at a few of the images I took of the screen the other day. See the one that shows our Model S' previous update from Motortrend.com? There's the story and a picture of the car – on the screen of the actual car itself. That's weirdly cool.
Or check out the image of the nav map populated with location pins. Recently I was showing the car to a Dutch car enthusiast I met at a party, and as I explained how the Supercharger network was rapidly expanding in Europe, I instinctively swiped its spectacular nav system screen toward Europe. And there was the continent with all the new pins marking their Supercharger locations. I zoomed in and tapped on one; my new friend grinned and said he knew exactly where it was. Double cool.
And yes, I said Google Maps. The 17-inch display presents it in spectacular resolution, along with the easiest interface I've ever seen. Just type-in the address in natural language. Bingo. (A few minutes ago I drove a brand new car that still makes you scroll through lists of letters to spell words – argh! Stupid!) But in addition to quick, natural navigation, there's the unexpected discovery.
The other day, while driving daughter Catherine to school in the morning, she asked "Where's the deepest place in the ocean?" I said, "It's the Marianas Trench in the Pacific; actually, James Cameron, who made the Avatar movie, recently went there." She started typing-in 'Marianas Trench.' "No, that won't work" I warned her, but suddenly the screen filled with an X-ray view of the Pacific sea bottom, near Guam, with a pin marking the spot. Did that just happen? Catherine zoomed in to see it in more detail. A routine commute to school just turned into an instant of education. Triple cool.
And here's another one. Recently the Model S' Wifi reception was enabled. Yes, like opening your laptop at Starbucks, when our Model S is parked at work, it can connect to our company's hotspot (which affords much faster internet access – including those Tesla's software updates). I've also connected it to my home's wireless, and noticed the other day that when I searched for networks, our home printer appeared on the list, too. Here I am, parked in my driveway, staring at a connection to my printer. I'm doubt I'll ever have any need to print documents from my car. But if the car were fitted with a 3D printer … maybe I could download better 2nd-row cupholders.
The serious point though, is that the Model S represents a level of connectedness and update-ability that's unprecedented in automobiles. And it points directly at the future. The era of the 'finished' car, one that stays exactly the same, day after day, for the several years you own it -- is now finished.
|Service life||4 mo/11,015 mi|
|Average fuel economy||86.4 mpg-E|
|EPA City/Hwy/Comb Fuel Economy||88/90/89 mpg-E|
|Energy consumption||39 kW-hr/100 mi|