Tesla Drivers Wake Up to a Serious Upgrade
I’m creeping up the east side of Manhattan on one of the worst days imaginable to be driving in the city. It’s rush hour, it’s been raining, President Barack Obama is about to address the United Nations a few miles away, and police are on high alert after a bomb went off in the city a few days ago. It’s basically traffic Armageddon.
The gridlock would be enough to drive most drivers mad. But not me. I’m sipping coffee and flipping through podcasts while the car pretty much drives itself. I’m in a Tesla Model S P90D equipped with the latest overhaul of the car’s operating system, known as Tesla 8.0. The car has been on Autopilot for the last half hour, and I have to say, it’s been a good ride.
The fact that I’m writing a “review” about a new version of car software should tell you something about how electrification is reshaping the automobile. Almost every aspect of the battery-powered Tesla is controlled by computers that receive major fleet-wide upgrades several times a year.
Previous iterations have suddenly endowed Teslas with surprising new features: the ability to adjust the car’s suspension height with the tap of the finger (November 2013), traffic-aware cruise control (January 2015), Autopilot steering and lane changing (October 2015), and auto parking and summoning (January 2016), to name a few. General Motors Co. says it will follow Tesla’s lead with wireless updates for its upcoming electric car, the Chevy Bolt.
Unlike some previous updates, there’s no killer new function in Tesla 8.0. Instead, there are hundreds of smaller tweaks that add up to a significantly improved experience behind the wheel. The total package, which started rolling out overnight, is the biggest over-the-air update of Tesla’s operating system yet.
I’ve been zipping around New York with an early version of the upgrade for several days. The first thing I noticed after downloading it is the new look of Tesla’s 17-inch touchscreen control panel: a cleaner layout with new icons, new map views, and importantly, a much improved entertainment system. I’ll get to those in a second, but what really stands out is the new Autopilot, which Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk first described a few weeks ago.
Autopilot: Radar vision
Perhaps the biggest change from a technological standpoint is how Autopilot is shifting toward more reliance on its radar than its camera to guide the car through traffic. Radar is a tricky beast—it can distort a crushed soda can to seem like a major obstacle. But the potential benefits are enormous: it’s unaffected by weather, and signals can be bounced beneath and around the cars in front of you. Tesla appears to be solving the radar puzzle, and the instrument cluster now shows obstacles on the road that the driver couldn’t otherwise see—the cars in front of the cars in front of you. The shift to radar makes Tesla unique; other automakers pursuing autonomous cars are using laser sensors, known as lidar, which while more precise don’t work as well in bad weather.
Already, Tesla 8.0 is seeing obstacles in the road more clearly, including an increase in the number of bicycles that are being detected (they appear on screen as motorcycles). The changes are subtle, but Musk says the real value of the radar improvements will reveal itself later, as the fleet of Teslas on the road collect data that will teach Autopilot new tricks.
Autopilot: A little more human
One surprisingly annoying aspect of the older Autopilot was the extreme fidelity to the center of the lane, even when a car is crowding you from the side. The issue also comes into play when passing a semi-trailer on a multi-lane highway. It’s only human to want to give the truck a little more space and hug the outer edge of the lane. With the upgrade, the car is beginning to act a little more human, adjusting its position in the lane to account for perceived threats from the sides.
This also helps in the streets of places like Brooklyn, New York, where cars treat lane markers like suggestions rather than rules. Tesla 8.0 is beginning to steer around the slightly-out-of-lane cars when previously it might have stopped altogether or driven so close to a moving car that it required intervention. Lane nudging isn’t perfect yet, but this is a big step forward, especially in stop-and-go traffic.
Autopilot: Red hands of shame
The first thing to know about a Tesla on Autopilot is that it is not a self-driving car. Think of it instead as the next level of cruise control. Pull the lever once, and the car takes over acceleration and deceleration. Pull the lever twice, and it takes over the steering, too.
Under the right conditions, Autopilot will accelerate itself from a dead stop, keep you locked in your lane during tight turns, and hit the brakes to avoid collisions. But this isn’t full autonomy, and Tesla has been under scrutiny after a fatal Autopilot accident showed little evidence that the driver or the car were paying attention to the obstacles ahead. Tesla has added a number of reminders to keep the human engaged.
First, the icons and warning sounds have been improved to make it clear when Autopilot is, or isn’t, on. This was a problem before—on several occasions in the past I’ve thought Autopilot was engaged, only to find myself veering out of the lane. There have also been reports of crashes where the drivers claimed Autopilot was at fault, and Tesla’s logs showed the feature wasn’t turned on. Invariably, at least for me, the problem occurred when I tried to turn on Autopilot and the sensor or road conditions weren’t good enough for Autosteering to engage. The new warnings in 8.0 make that clear—a safety improvement that most drivers will appreciate.
The second change Tesla has instituted is a series of warnings for people who haven’t touched the steering wheel for minutes at a time (the time limit depends on speed and road conditions). First, a white outline flashes around the instrument panel reminding the driver to touch the wheel. If you are so tuned out that you miss the flash, an audible warning beeps and then Autopilot will disengage. Three such warnings over the course of an hour, and the screen lights up with bright red hands and a stark admonition: “Autosteer Unavailable for the Rest of This Drive.” You actually have to put the car in park to re-engage the feature.
When I first heard of the red-hands-of-shame warning, I thought it signaled a huge retreat for Tesla after that horrific broadside collision made public in June. The idea of turning off the feature altogether felt like a reversal of direction for a company that was pushing the limits of self-driving cars faster than anyone else.
But in practice, the new “time out” feature doesn’t feel heavy handed. It’s actually pretty difficult to trigger the red hands of shame. To get the warning, I had to drive around for a half hour intentionally trying not to touch the wheel. When you do reach the threshold, it’s loud and ugly, and just knowing that it’s coming has the intended effect of making you pay a bit more attention.
To my mind, Tesla did a good job of achieving Musk’s goal of “balance between improving the safety and improving the usefulness” of Autopilot. It does make me wonder, though, whether that balance can be maintained as future improvements make it even more likely drivers will tune out. The problem of the easily distracted human driver is only going to get worse.
Good on music, bad on traffic
The updates that will probably affect the most users are the maps and media player. The Tesla 8.0 media player is much more intuitive, with a powerful search engine that combs through radio stations and podcasts from TuneIn and Slacker. The best new feature is the prominent “Favorites” category, which provides one-touch access to your favorite songs, stations, and podcasts from multiple Internet sources and the radio, all in one place.
Most car media centers are a crude imitation of the apps that are already available on your phone. In this case, the easy integration of content from multiple sources is something I haven’t seen before, and it works great for the car, where you really shouldn’t be digging into apps while driving.
The maps still leave much to be desired. Don’t get me wrong, the integration of Google maps and charging data is superb. The search functionality is great, and the app will tell you how much charge you can expect to have left when you reach your destination. The voice controls, built in-house by Tesla, were much improved and useful for navigation.
The problem is with the traffic-based navigation, which is built by Tesla and overlayed on Google Maps. The directions it provides often offer the most direct route, even if it sends you into a heap of gridlocked traffic. Meanwhile, Google maps on my phone picks the roads less traveled and gets me to my destination in half the time. Also, Tesla’s navigation estimated that I could drive from my home in Brooklyn to my work in Midtown Manhattan in half an hour. That would be difficult to accomplish even at midnight on a Sunday. During rush hour on a Tuesday, it’s laughable. Google’s estimate, coming in at an hour, was a bit more realistic. This isn’t a huge knock on Tesla; no one can do Google maps like Google can. It’s just unfortunate that in bad traffic, I still had to rely on my phone, which looked sad as it rested up against Tesla’s monster screen.
The hot-car problem
Tesla has one last fresh trick, which Musk revealed in a Tweet yesterday. It’s a safety feature called “Cabin Overheat Protection,” and it prevents the interior temperature from exceeding 105 degrees by kicking on the air conditioning even if no one is around. The idea is that this could prevent the accidental death of a child or dog left inside the car (which you should never do). It’s a pretty cool feature that’s only possible in an electric car, and it requires very little battery capacity to operate for a 12-hour stretch. While optional, once it’s enabled, it will always work as long as the car’s battery has a 20 percent charge.
Musk, 45, needs to sell a lot of cars this quarter to pacify investors amid a controversial bid for SolarCity Corp. and additional borrowing to launch the Model 3. The company has done a lot to goose sales already: offering a new 100 kilowatt-hour battery, discounts, and a company-wide push to deliver inventory to customers.
The new upgrade probably doesn’t fall into that sales-goosing category. The new features here won’t convince you to buy a car. Instead, 8.0 is the sign that an upstart car company with plenty of growing pains continues to improve.