Tesla’s Self-Driving Software Update. SOFTWARE UPDATE.

As of last week, Tesla Model S and Model X owners woke up to a bit of a surprise: their cars could now drive themselves.  Now let me qualify that statement a bit.  This isn’t full autonomous driving, it’s really just for the highway and other fairly-predictable driving situations.  But it’s still a cool step forward.  Self-driving cars are perhaps one of the most exciting things happening in tech these days, and I think they’re awesome.  So again, even though this isn’t full self-driving, we’re making leaps and bounds at this point.  But I don’t want to talk too much about the actual self-driving here, though I think that’s super cool.  What I want to talk about is the fact that Tesla was able to add self-driving as a feature to cars retroactively, after they’d been purchased.

Teslas have always gotten software updates automatically over the internet.  Up until now, however, they’ve mostly been, well software upgrades.  Think navigation system improvements here.  However, Tesla has now pushed a huge new hardware feature onto all their cars, and I think it’s fascinating how they did it.

To be clear, it’s not like any car can self-drive with software alone, there has to be hardware sensors.  But what’s awesome is that Tesla began building that hardware into its cars a year ago, knowing that they had this feature coming.  Talk about foresight!  I also applaud them for their respect of the consumer here.  Most companies say that in order to get new features, you have to pay up for the new version.  Not here.  Tesla could have released a new car with self-driving, and expected everyone who already owned a Tesla to pay up for a new one.  Instead, they rolled out this new feature to their entire fleet.

To be fair, it wasn’t entirely free.  There was a $2500 “self-driving” add on package that many owners simply paid up front on their car, in order to get the features when they arrive.  Owners who didn’t will have to pay up for that now.  But if you think of that $2500 as simply part of the cost of the vehicle, then those customers are now getting this update for free.  Pretty awesome.

More than anything, however, I just love Elon Musk’s vision of cars.  Despite the fact that cars have loads of on-board computer systems, most companies treat them as dumb objects.  They’re made with a certain software package and then left to sink into obsoleteness.  Tesla looks at things radically differently.  To them, cars are smart, connected devices, just like your phone or laptop.  This means that should be constantly improved through software updates (both bug fixes and new features).  This idea seems obvious, but not many people thought about it.  Until Tesla.

I’ve written about Tesla before, and I think they’re an awesome company.  I’m excited to see what they do in the future.  I’m really excited for their Model 3, supposed to be unveiled in 2016.  The Tesla Model S (aimed at the luxury market) starts at around $65k before government tax credits; Tesla’s target for the Model 3 is $35k.  This puts it well within the range of regular consumer cars.  Tesla can change the world for the rich all they want; when they make a car anyone can buy is when they’ll really change the world.  And I get the feeling “world changer” is a label Tesla is gunning for.  ••


Why Tesla’s Open Patents Will Help the World… and Tesla

♦ This post is one of the Best of 2014

Several weeks ago, the recently spotlighted Tesla Motors (famous for making high-end electric cars) made a very unusual announcement.  They said that they will not sue anyone who, “in good faith,” uses their technology in electric vehicles.  This is a hugely different approach from nearly every other big business we see today.  In our trigger-happy lawsuit world, companies patent everything they possible can, fearing that someone out there will rip them off.  However, sharing ideas is the fastest way for people to innovate, instead of forcing them to reinvent someone else’s wheel every time they want to make a product.

Tesla has acknowledged that there are not very many electric cars being sold today.  Tesla wants the world to move away from gasoline, and move towards environmentally friendly, fuel-efficient electric vehicles.  They want other companies to be able to create quality electric cars, so they’re giving them the tools to do so.  I applaud Tesla for using their own intellectual property to support a cause in which they believe.  Tesla didn’t have to share their innovations; they could have kept them to themselves, to try to make people buy their products (and not someone else’s).  By sharing their technology, Tesla is giving a huge engineering boost to anyone who wants it.

As noble as this is, you might think that Tesla is shooting themselves in the foot.  Not at all.  Sure, some people may have been turned off by Tesla’s high prices.  These people may instead by an electric car made by Ford, or GM.  These are potentially lost sales for Tesla.  However, some people may have been turned off from a Tesla car simply because it’s electric.  Tesla does offer free electricity for life at their Supercharger stations nationwide.  But if an individual doesn’t live near many stations, they won’t buy a Tesla.  Fortunately, Tesla has also said that it is willing to partner with other car manufacturers and let them use Tesla’s stations (splitting the operating costs, of course).  This puts Tesla into an enormously positive Catch-22: the more people that buy electric cars, the more charging stations there will be.  The more charging stations, the more people will buy electric cars.

Tesla (as a group of environmentally-conscious people) will benefit from their patent release when they see other manufacturers making electric cars.  Tesla (as a business) will benefit as electric cars become more and more mainstream.  Now I’m not saying Tesla is selfish.  I’m saying they’re ingenious.  The great minds at Tesla have found a perpetual win-win, promoting environmentally friendly transport, and also making some money while they’re at it.  Hey, no one ever said the good guy couldn’t benefit from his actions.  ••