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Tesla’s Updates Make Other Cars Feel Like ‘Owning a Horse’


Nov. 14 2019, Updated 5:19 p.m. ET

Recently, US electric carmaker Tesla (TSLA) released another OTA (over-the-air) software update for its cars. The new firmware version (build 2019.20.4.4 edb5360) improves some important existing security, safety, and fun features in Tesla cars.

In April, CEO Elon Musk said during Tesla’s Autonomy Investor Day that owning cars other than Tesla “would be like owning a horse in three years.” But Tesla’s frequent software updates for its cars seem like they could prove Musk’s comments to be true much sooner.

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What’s new in Tesla’s firmware update?

Driving visualization: Tesla’s new OTA update adjusts its driving visualization feature to zoom in and out automatically. The feature allows users to better utilize screen space. It also alerts them when the car finds any vehicle in the driver’s blind spot.

Improvements in sentry mode: To minimize the risk of car theft and break-ins, Tesla released its Sentry Mode security feature on February 13. Enabling Sentry Mode activates “the car’s external cameras to detect potential threats” and notifies the user with an alert or an alarm depending on the threat’s severity.

After the software upgrade, Tesla car owners will see the Sentry Mode icon at the top of their car’s touchscreen when the car is parked. The update will make it easier for users to enable or disable Sentry Mode by tapping the icon.

The car can also automatically activate Sentry Mode whenever it’s parked anywhere other than user-defined safe locations.

Lane departure avoidance: Vehicles such as commercial trucks have used the lane departure avoidance feature for nearly the last two decades. Tesla introduced this safety feature for its cars in May as part of its Autopilot system. The feature helps drivers avoid unintended lane departures when their Tesla cars are running between 25 and 90 mph.

The new firmware upgrade gives drivers three options of lane departure avoidance to choose from: assist, warning, and off.

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Tesla’s latest software update also makes an adjustment to its touchscreen display brightness and improves Dog mode. On the lighter side, this update adds Toybox to access Easter eggs and Arcade to access games in the application launcher. The development brings the Tesla edition of Beach Buggy Racing 2 to its cars.

Tesla cars are more advanced

The concept of connected cars with built-in network connectivity existed before Tesla cars. However, Tesla has increased the level of connectivity and the features it offers since it launched its first premium electric SUV Model S in 2012.

The NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) and SAE International identify five and six levels of vehicle automation, respectively. Level 0 is for vehicles without automation. Tesla’s Autopilot system arguably offers vehicle autonomy between NHTSA’s Level 2 and Level 3—not much different from the autonomy offered by automakers such as General Motors (GM) and BMW.

Nonetheless, in reality, Tesla gets the advantage of having all-electric cars. Its built-in software is also capable of adjusting car performance with the help of OTA updates.

In 2015, Musk called Tesla’s cars “a very sophisticated computer on wheels” that can be updated similarly to “updating your phone or a laptop.”

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Tesla versus other carmakers

GM, Ford Motor Company (F), Toyota Motor (TM), Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCAU), and Honda Motor Company (HMC) are racing to make their cars well connected and capable of receiving similar OTA updates. Nonetheless, these carmakers still seem to be trailing Tesla in their efforts. Let’s take a closer look at the top two US automakers’ efforts in this area.

In May, GM launched a new electronic platform it says is necessary for its next-generation smart cars, including electric cars. GM is likely to introduce the feature in its 2020 Cadillac CT5 car model later this year. Its new electronic platform will be capable of receiving OTA updates. GM expects the new electronic platform to be available for most of its cars by 2023.

In October 2018, Ford partnered with software company Wind River to start using its OTA update technology in Ford vehicles. The use of this technology is likely to help Ford reduce its software-related vehicle recall costs.

In February 2017, Ford committed to investing nearly $1 billion in Argo AI. The autonomous car technology company was founded by former employees of Google (GOOG) and Uber (UBER). Currently, Ford owns the majority stake in Argo AI. Uber and Google’s Waymo are also actively developing self-driving cars.

Last week, Ford deepened its ties with European auto giant Volkswagen to work on autonomous and electric cars. Under this partnership, Volkswagen will invest nearly $2.6 billion in Ford’s Argo AI.

Fiat Chrysler, Toyota, and Honda are still far behind Tesla in terms of offering OTA updates. The software updates these large car companies currently offer are limited to map updates for navigation and other basic features.

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Is Tesla getting credit for its contribution?

Earlier this year, Navigant Research mentioned Waymo, GM’s Cruise Automation, and Ford’s autonomous vehicles as the top players in the automated driving space. Surprisingly, the report didn’t even include Tesla in its list of the top ten companies in the segment.

Waymo started developing technology for self-driving cars in 2009. At the time, not many automakers were making the aggressive efforts to develop fully autonomous cars they’re making today. Back then, self-driving car technology was largely limited to prototype or concept cars. These prototypes were used primarily for testing purposes and for the demonstration of the technology.

When Tesla started offering an advanced autonomous driving feature called Autopilot in 2015, it kindled mainstream automakers’ interest in developing autonomous cars.

We believe that Tesla isn’t getting proper credit for its contribution to igniting automakers’ and consumers’ interest in self-driving cars.

Software updates are helping Tesla save

Despite its not getting proper recognition for its efforts, Tesla continues to receive huge cost benefits due to its advanced OTA updates. These OTA software updates are not only capable of improving existing features in Tesla cars better but also able to fix any software-related issue in them, avoiding huge vehicle recall costs.

To fix most of the software-related issues in their vehicles, large automakers GM, Ford, Fiat Chrysler, Toyota, and Honda must spend millions on safety recalls.

Such safety recalls are also frustrating for consumers, as they need to bring their cars to their nearest service station to get the problem fixed. In contrast, Tesla’s OTA updates can fix such issues hassle-free, without owners needing to take their cars anywhere.

For example, in June, Ford had to recall nearly 123,000 units of its F-150 pickup trucks to fix transmission-control software issues. To get the issue fixed, the affected F-150 truck owners had to take their vehicles to Ford dealers for the appropriate software calibration.

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Like Tesla, its Chinese peer NIO (NIO) also offers only electric cars that are capable of receiving OTA updates. Last week, NIO announced its second-quarter car deliveries, which were better than analysts’ estimates but still weren’t very impressive. They fell nearly 11% on a sequential basis to 3,553 units.

Tesla stock in July

So far in July, Tesla stock is outperforming the broader market. Month-to-date, it’s up 9.7% compared to the 3.0% gain in the Nasdaq. Tesla’s record second-quarter car deliveries and production figures drove its recent stock rally. A recently leaked company email that indicated a plan to improve car production further added to optimism. Read Tesla’s Leaked Email Is a Nightmare for Bears and Other Automakers to learn more.

Meanwhile, GM, Ford, Fiat Chrysler, Honda, and Toyota stocks are up 1.8%, 2.5%, 2.2%, 2.5%, and 3.0%, respectively, this month.

In the same period, NIO is up a massive 35.3%. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is up 5.8% in July. Car-sharing giant Uber is down 5.2%.


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