While today’s Tesla Model S electric car may look just the same as the first one that rolled off the line two years ago, it’s had quite a few hardware updates under the surface.
But from a Tesla owner’s point of view, the car has been improved far more by numerous updates to its computer software than by a handful of hardware changes — many of which can’t be retrofitted.
That’s because all owners of a Tesla Model S car get those software upgrades automatically, over the air — for free.
Try doing that with your new wiper-blade defroster.
Virtually every aspect of Model S operation, from the climate control system to the suspension, is controlled by software. “A computer on wheels,” some have called it.
That software, of course, can be updated. The Model S is unique among cars in that it can be reprogrammed remotely from the factory over its 3G or WiFi network. Since the Model S first hit the streets in June 2012, there have been a number of major software updates — on average, one every few months.
As a Model S owner for more than a year, I can testify that the cumulative effect has been to significantly improve the car.
I’ve come to look forward to those mornings where I’m greeted by a surprise message on the 17-inch touch screen: A new software update is available; would I like to download it now, or schedule it for later?
To download the new software, the Model S must be in Park for about two hours, so I typically agree to the car’s default suggestion of a download at 2 am the next morning.
First new features
The software update program kicked off in October 2012, after just a few hundred Model S cars had been built.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to pin down the precise timing of many of the various software updates.
There were often long lags between the time when the first and last cars in the fleet were updated. Many sub-versions were issued that had only trivial changes from previous versions — and not all versions were sent to all cars.
Here, then, is a rough chronology, with approximate dates, of the various Model S software upgrades over the past two years:
After explaining how the over-the-air software update process worked, that first October 2012 update (actually three separate updates dated the same day) introduced several new features. Among them:
*Supercharging. The first Superchargers were set to open two months later; the update enabled the on-board Supercharging software.
*Driver profile. Different drivers could now store into memory their preferences for seat, mirror, and steering-wheel positions, along with preferred settings for lights, locks, maps, and display formats.
*Creep Mode. This new feature mimicked the slight forward motion of a standard car when idling, and could be toggled on or off by drivers.
*Lower Rated Range. Based on a newer, tougher EPA range standard, the new algorithm reduced the typical full-charge “rated range” readout from 300 miles to 265 miles. The new “rated range” was simply more realistic, although the actual range of the car remained unchanged.
Other minor updates included a quicker “wake-up” on entry and various improvements to the GPS map.
A couple of months later, with production finally starting to ramp up in earnest, software update 4.0 introduced a bundle of new features. Among them:
*More aggressive throttle response. Which just added to the car’s embarrassment of riches, in terms of sheer performance.
*Voice Command for Audio, Navigation, and Phone
*Sleep Mode. To reduce the power drain from the battery, computers and displays would be powered down when the car was off.
Additional tweaks made it possible to control the fan or sunroof via the thumb-wheel on the steering wheel; make calls from the GPS map, and access music from a USB drive.
Also, for the first time, the release notes for the updated software version became available on the car’s touchscreen, by tapping the “T” logo at the top of the screen.
My 2013 Tesla Model S was delivered in February of that year, so it came from the factory with version 4.0 installed.
Missing, however, was the sleep-mode feature; it had apparently proved so troublesome and bug-ridden that it had been disabled fleet-wide.
My first update, Version 4.3, allowed owners to set a specific time for their vehicle to start charging. The idea was to take advantage of some utilities’ cheaper overnight rates.
Unfortunately, my utility company offers no such time-of-day rate structure, so I’ve never used the delayed-charge feature. For some owners, though, scheduled charging has been a big money-saver.
Version 4.5, introduced in summer 2013, had a slew of new features. Among them:
*Supercharger Locations Displayed on GPS Map. But as I discovered, without the Tech package and its GPS route-instruction feature, the distance to the Supercharger shown on the display turned out to be a straight line between the two points as-the-crow-flies, not the actual road mileage. Pretty useless.
*Flexible charging Limits. Originally, the Model S had only two charge modes: Standard (90-percent charge) and Max Range (100 percent). With update 4.5, owners could now set whatever charging limit they wanted.
So what charge limit did I choose as my default setting? I wanted to keep it as high as possible without compromising battery longevity.
Tesla wouldn’t give me a recommended number for maximum battery life. So I looked to my Chevy Volt, which has extremely conservative charge and discharge limits in the name of battery longevity. A “full” charge on the Volt is only about 80 percent, so I settled on that number as my default charging limit for the Model S.
In addition, update 4.5 made improvement to map fonts, defrost functions, battery heating, and the phone contact list.
Waiting for sleep mode
Having calculated that I lost about 4.5 kilowatt-hours each day of “vampire” power when the car was parked — equivalent to 5,000 miles of driving per year — I was eagerly awaiting an improved sleep mode.
In a forum in Oslo, Elon Musk had promised a software update that would virtually wipe out vampire losses by mid-summer of 2013.
Sadly, it was not to be.
I finally received version 5.8 with the alleged vampire-killer update in November 2013.
Although a big improvement, I found I was still losing about 1 kWh per day, and that continues to this day. (No other electric car that I’m aware of has vampire losses — of any sort.)
Various people at Tesla have told me a final Sleep Mode software solution is on the way. But after more than a year of waiting, I’ll believe it when I see it.
Version 5.8 had a number of other updates. Among them:
*The addition of WiFi as an alternative data-connection method. Once a WiFi network had been selected, the car would auto-connect whenever it came within range.
*Heading-Up display mode on the GPS. For those who like the map to match the view out the window. Other minor map improvements were included.
*Tow Mode. To be towed, the Model S must be in neutral with the parking brake off. Some owners were unaware of this, and trouble sometimes resulted. Now, one simple button touch assures both owner and tow-truck driver that the car is safe to tow.
*Improved Creep Mode. Since the time my car was new, I’d noticed an occasional annoying jerkiness to the creep mode. Now that’s gone.
Other changes included a screen-cleaning mode, improvements to radio presets, driver profiles, rated range, and display brightness.
The most recent software version, 5.9, had more noticeable improvements:
*Hill-start assist. When starting on a hill, the Model S now automatically brakes to hold its position until the driver’s foot touches the accelerator pedal. It works great.
*Improved Air Suspension. The “Low” position, after being disabled in the wake of two battery fires caused by underbody strikes of highway debris, was restored. And now, instead of lowering automatically above a speed of 60 mph, the suspension can be set to lower at any speed. (Even 0 mph, for the lowriders in the crowd.)
In addition, the “High” and “Very High” positions can be maintained at higher speeds than before.
There are also a number of minor refinements that don’t merit a complete explanation here — although one man’s “minor” can be another’s “huge deal.”
One example: For most people, a slightly larger font on the time, date, and temperature readouts on the instrument panel is hardly a stop-the-presses development.
But for me, cursed with aging eyes and crappy glasses, it’s a game-changer. Several times each day, I give thanks to CEO Elon Musk for the larger font.
What’s up with Version 6.0?
Musk has made several references to big, amazing changes to come in the next major software update, dubbed version 6.0.
At the recent Tesla shareholders’ meeting, he talked about traffic-optimized GPS directions, with other Teslas serving as a crowd-sourced traffic info network.
Also, he said, the Model S would learn the driver’s behavior and anticipate his needs. (No specifics, however.)
Oh, and stop the presses — when 6.0 arrives, you’ll be able to officially name your Model S! And the name will appear on your smartphone app!
Siri and Hal, move over.
This story originally appeared on Green Car Reports. Copyright 2014