2013 Tesla Model S P85+ Long-Term Update 7
Living with the New Version 6 Software - and Thoughts on Consumer Reports
Not a week goes by that somebody doesn't ask me, "Still have the Model S long-termer? I thought it would have gone back already." Yes, its one-year temporary residency here formally ended a few months ago, but I made a plea that we keep it longer because, unlike other cars, its frequently updated software makes the whole experience an ever-changing proposition.
And I really like driving it, too. Hey, Ayn Rand said selfishness is a virtue. I've sunk to a new low, haven't I?
Redemption came soon enough, though, when a request appeared on the car's nav screen to download the latest Version 6 software. I tapped the Accept button, and that night the Tesla's 3G connection magically filled the car's mind with some pretty nifty new ideas. At the time, the car was parked in my driveway; it might have been 12:30 a.m. when I noticed its headlights flashing outside. It's in REM sleep again, I mused, having another automotive dream. What was it learning?
The next night, while driving down the street to my house, the car automatically rose on its air suspension a few seconds before I turned into my steep driveway. Previously -- and only if I remembered -- I had to stop and push buttons to raise it. What's happening is that the car is recalling everywhere I've requested greater ride height and now does it without waiting to be asked. To my knowledge, I think this is the first time an aspect of a car's vehicle dynamics has been reprogrammed by over-the-air instructions, and it previews how the Model S' recently announced Autopilot (semi-autonomous driving technology) will also be incrementally deployed. All the tricks its sensors will eventually allow -- like opening your garage door and parking itself, for instance -- will simply be rolled out by these nighttime over-the-air software updates. All of a sudden, one morning it'll be able to do something new.
More smarts: The nav system already knows where I live and work (it's previously asked me to be sure) as well as the hours I typically go back and forth. Now, when I set off on a weekday, a message sometimes appears indicating if there's more traffic than usual on my normal route and suggests how to save a few minutes. Understand, it's not rerouting a trip I've just actively requested from the navigation system. It's happening passively, by just watching my habits.
Both this and the automatic ride height are early signs of predictive software in cars. Your behavior is observed, and the software steps in when it figures it's helpful. I'm sure the Big Brother aspect of this horrifies some of you (Ayn Rand fans have fainted dead away two paragraphs ago), but you can opt out if you're too freaked out.
Less spooky is the new pop-up calendar screen. When you enter an event in your phone's calendar, it's passed to the car's calendar via Bluetooth where today and tomorrow's schedules appear on the big screen. If you've included an address, tapping that event on the Model S' screen instructs the nav system to automatically route you there. For instance, when I recently attended the Model S P85D event, I entered "SpaceX, Hawthorne, CA." (Actually, it was the airport next door, but I was close.) The Google Maps nav system understood where SpaceX is and routed me there. I never had to type anything into the car.
A week or so after it downloaded Version 6, a request for another download appeared on the screen. This one puzzled me. Was it a screw-up, the system trying to download Version 6 twice? At that moment we were testing cars for our Car of the Year program, and I didn't want to be distracted, so I rescheduled it for 23 hours later. And as with everything scheduled 23 hours in advance, I completely forgot about it.
Twenty-three hours and fifteen minutes later I climbed into the car, already half late for an appointment, to find the Tesla in the middle of its reprogramming. Nuts. What to do? Although you're asked not to disturb the car during these updates, I had no choice but to drive off. The big screen seemed confused for a while, but the car drove without protest, and when I arrived, a new message appeared that basically said: "We'll try this again later, OK?" It turned out to be an especially early update to Version 6.
This screen-resetting thing reminds me of the recent Model S Long-Term report from our friends at Consumer Reports whose need to repeatedly reboot the infotainment screen and door handle issues resulted in headlines. Everywhere you'd turn, you'd read or hear "Consumer Reports says its Model S has had more than its share of problems."
How about our car, you ask?
As I've previously mentioned in our regular updates, MT's long-termer did indeed have a motor replaced along with a right front steering knuckle, new tires (the rear's wear rate is on the high end, though that's true of all serious performance sedans), and few minor tweaks. Eyebrows raised?
At first the motor change startled me. I'd taken the car in to have a squeaky sunroof checked (the squeak's since disappeared), and it wound up with a new motor and a fresh right-front steering knuckle. Quite honestly, I hadn't noticed anything at all wrong with the motor, but I had recognized a slight bit of play in the steering at full lock. (It might have been an issue for me eventually if it worsened.)
The service manager reported that they'd heard a clicking sound in the drivetrain and -- not being able to open these things up -- elected to be proactive and just change the whole thing, along with the knuckle, which I also hadn't mentioned. Does this really constitute a reliability concern? Or is it remarkably aggressive servicing (free of charge)? If they hadn't told me about the motor change, I'd never have known about it.
The episode reminded me of recently returning some shirts to a Nordstrom department store because they didn't fit the way I'd hoped. (After washing them! Yes, I know.) I'd expected the register guy to be simply amused. However, he swiftly took the shirts, smiled, and said, "Go get the ones you want." I was startled. Extraordinary customer service is so rare these days that we're suspicious of it. Let me know the next time you take your Chevrolet or Mercedes-Benz in for a squeaky sunroof and get a new engine because a mechanic (not you) heard a clicking sound you didn't.
Our car now has 33,700 miles under its belt; Consumer Reports' car was at 15,743 miles. As I've been piling on those additional miles on my way to work, I've sometimes listened to Bloomberg or CNBC on XM/Sirius, and for a while they were rife with Model S critiques. "Consumer Reports says it's had to reboot its touchscreen, and its car has also had door handle issues!" the reporter darkly announced. On cue I've tapped on our car's perfectly operating multi-touchscreen. "Hey, did you hear that? They're talking about you!"
Let me tell you about rebooting the touchscreen and the door handles.
Yes, like Consumer Reports', our door handles have been sometimes balky, mainly if you grab them before they've fully extended (requiring you to lock and unlock the car again). It happens rarely and virtually not at all with newer Model S examples we've tried.
But here's another perspective you haven't heard on the hyperactively reported news-bite news channels.
Awhile back I picked up some kids to take to a nearby soccer camp. One of them, Noah (9 years old), walked up to the rear door and for a moment just stood and stared at it. It was flush with the bodywork. He'd never encountered a door handle you touch to make electrically extend. But before I said anything, he touched it, it extended, and his eyes widened. I slightly smiled. While it would be smart aerodynamics for all cars in the future to have flush door handles like this, their charm factor (they also extend whenever you're nearby with the key) hasn't quite made it into those bad-news-sells 24-hour-a-day news alerts. Would I prefer the door handles worked perfectly 100 percent of the time instead of 98 percent of the time? Sure. Would I prefer a conventional door handle? Would you rather have a rotary telephone because your iPhone 5 is puzzling sometimes?
Same goes for rebooting the big infoscreen. Yes, I've rebooted ours many, many times — way more, I suspect, than Consumer Reports has. Sometimes it's because I've forgotten to put it into its screen-cleaning mode before a car wash, tapped too many things too fast, or just wanted to show somebody how easily it can be rebooted. All it involves is holding down the steering wheel's two thumb wheels, and after a few seconds the screen is refreshed (even while driving; it doesn't matter). Big deal. To perceive this as evidence that a car has "more than its share of problems" strikes me as the predictable bleating of the usual narrow minds confounded by the automobile's evolution into its new and starkly different role -- as a large, rolling, connected electronic device. Rebooting is commonplace with complex devices; is it suddenly headline news that an iPad-like device in a car might behave the same way?
The payoff here is the utterly fascinating range of possibilities the large multi-touchscreen offers. When I neared that soccer camp I mentioned, the boys in the back seat leaned forward and watched as I swiped through the Google Maps display, spread my fingers to zoom in on the satellite image of a playing field, and arrived with time to spare. By their silence, I could sense their intrigue. All three were fascinated by a car -- OK, a screen in a car -- but captivated nevertheless, and in a way that's directly counter-rhythm to the drumbeat of trends positing that tomorrow's young males will lose all interest in the automobile.
The actual Consumer Reports analysis of its car was the solid and fair work you'd expect. The disservice here is covered with the fingerprints of the reporting machines that compress a professional critique into a quick-digest sound bite designed not to inform you but to startle you -- and to make a buck. All the while, the reality of it is quietly hidden in the cracks of nuance, in the gleam in eyes of a 9-year-old boy who watches a door handle electrically extend to meet his hand.
More on our long-term 2013 Tesla Model S P85+:
|Service life||33,700 mi|
|Average fuel economy||86.2 MPGE|
|EPA City/Hwy/Comb Fuel Econ||88/90/89 MPG|
|Energy consumption||39 kW-hr/100 mi|