Tesla's Radical Update Is Just More of the Same

The Model S has autopilot! Just like the Ford Focus.

Purveyor of tradition.

Photographer: Jerry Lampen/AFP/Getty Images

Tesla Model S owners the world over woke up today to the long-awaited Version 7.0 software update, beamed to their vehicles' operating systems as they slept. Having dominated public perceptions of the electric car market, Tesla is trying to stay at the forefront of the emerging automotive technology arms race by delivering self-driving features to its rabid fans. But as lukewarm initial reviews of the new autopilot and other features begin to pour in from media outlets and Tesla owners' forums, it's becoming clear that the company's need to chase futurist hype is as much a liability as an asset.

In a business dominated by companies that have mastered the art of manufacturing highly reliable vehicles at low cost and huge scale, Tesla has clawed out a niche by recapturing the automobile's ability to point the way toward an exciting future, rekindling the spark once lit by Detroit's rocket-powered and jet-inspired concepts. But with Google and Apple moving into the crowded market, Tesla has little choice but to push forward from alternative energy to autonomous driving. And in that realm, it's hardly breaking new ground.

QuickTake Driverless Cars

Tesla insists that self-driving capability "is a core part of our mission," but the evidence indicates that this is a relatively recent pivot. Chief executive officer Elon Musk's 2006 "secret master plan" for Tesla was focused entirely on emissions-free driving and made no mention of autonomous technology. In fact, older Model S builds don't even have the sensor arrays needed to enable the new autopilot software featured in Version 7.0, forcing early adopters to buy a newer car if they want the update. As the firm's goal  of offering solar-powered, zero-emission power has stalled and Google's "self driving toaster" has stolen the imagination of automotive futurists, Tesla has discovered the newly-sexy realm of autonomy. 

On the road, the 7.0 update only demonstrates how modestly Tesla is moving the ball forward. The core features of the autopilot -- lane-keeping, auto-steering, adaptive cruise control, collision prevention and automatic parallel parking -- have long been standard in luxury flagships like the Mercedes S Class, and many are now available in the affordable price range of the Ford Focus and Subaru Impreza. 

Tesla's key new party trick -- the ability to change lanes by flicking the turn indicator -- is a cool one, but it's hardly a game-changer. It requires the driver to check the blind spots that are not covered by the car's forward-looking radar, and since Tesla's lawyers say you shouldn't really take your hands off the steering wheel anyway it's not entirely clear why the driver wouldn't just use the 100-year-old method.

The Tesla concepts that dominate the headlines -- autopilot, the Gigafactory, Ludicrous Mode and Falcon Doors -- are all less innovative than Tesla gets credit for. The company's cutting-edge image and buoyant stock price speak mostly to Musk's ability to play up the narrative that traditional automakers are stodgy, greasy-handed dullards just waiting to be disrupted by the brilliant minds of Silicon Valley. The real breakthrough today was not auto-technology but the way it was introduced: The ability to push software updates to cars, like the direct-sales model it enables, may not generate breathless media coverage, but these are Tesla's most significant contributions to the actual business of building and selling cars.

In the end, Tesla is more of a much-needed kick in the pants than an existential threat to the auto industry. Indeed, what's really scaring automakers is Google's push for fully autonomous driving. Musk's electricity evangelism is downright old-school compared to Google's messianic mission to reduce road deaths. As Google's ground-up re-think of motorized transport matures and begins to merge with Uber's digital markets in commodified  mobility, Tesla will find itself every bit as challenged as the decades-old companies in Detroit, Stuttgart and Yokohama. 

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