For any owner of a Tesla Model S, it must have felt like a magic trick. One day they got into their car and it could suddenly perform a whole range of amazing new tasks... like drive itself, almost. There was a clue to what had happened on the Tesla website: “Your autopilot has arrived”.
But it wasn’t a trick. It was the much-heralded 7.0 update that had been sent remotely to the car’s onboard computer. The new code brought the vehicle’s array of hardware – its cameras, radar, ultrasonic sensors – to life, enabling it to steer automatically along the road, change lanes and adjust speed in response to surrounding traffic. At its destination it could even scan for a space and parallel park. No problem; no prangs.
The new code brought the vehicle’s array of hardware – its cameras, radar, ultrasonic sensors – to life
“While Model S can’t make traffic disappear,” Tesla’s marketing men declare, “it can make it a lot easier, safer and more pleasant to endure.”
In fact, Tesla is doing a lot more – giving us an insight into the future of the automotive industry. The car is becoming connected and that means manufacturers can remotely upload new iterations of systems software and improve its performance. Tesla has forged a new relationship between carmaker and car owner, transforming the way we drive and the way we buy.
Ready for an update
The consumer is used to buying a car and hoping that its level of performance will be maintained for a few years before it starts to break down and lose technological ground to newer competitors. All that is set to change. Tesla has shown that the car of the future will not be a technologically static object that is bought and happily used until it fails or something better comes along. With each new software iteration the car will keep getting better and better. There’ll be no need to wait for next year’s gleaming model to arrive on the forecourt; in effect it will be delivered remotely – and regularly – as a software package. This is bad news for dealers, who traditionally carry out such lucrative software changes.
The car of the future will not be a technologically static object that is bought and happily used until it fails or something better comes along
Enhanced maps, infotainment and, vitally, core auto functions will all spur the need for ever more upgrades. Last year 4.6 million cars received over-the-air updates for telematics applications, according to a report by IHS Automotive, and this number is destined to grow to 43 million over the next six years.
But there’s a long way to go. A fully automated car, for example, would require an estimated 350 million lines of computer code – dwarfing the 6.5 million lines that manage a Dreamliner aeroplane . That’s a lot of updates.
On average, car owners keep their vehicles for between six and 10 years – and that means manufacturers will need to work hard at predicting the future. Ideally, cars will be sold with the hardware in place to take advantage of software developments perhaps 10 years further down the pipeline. Tesla’s 7.0 update gave the car instant autopilot capability because it already had in place a battery of radars and other sensing devices.
Ideally, cars will be sold with the hardware in place to take advantage of software developments perhaps 10 years further down the pipeline
The learning curve is steep, which is why carmakers are searching for expert suppliers – including, for example, those of powerful chips. “The car is being converted into a self-driving robot,” Lars Reger, chief technology officer of NXP, told Bloomberg . “Because of that, software is becoming far more important than it was 10 years ago.” NXP already supplies chips to Tesla, Audi, BMW and Mercedes.
Car design will soon become a heady blend of improvable hardware features with the capability to exploit the software of tomorrow. Tesla is already showing us how that can work. In a punchy tweet, Balaji S Srinivasan, chief executive and founder of technology player 21.co, exclaimed: “Tesla’s use of an over-the-air update to create self-driving cars is one of the most important things ever to happen in technology.”
In the same way that the arrival of the iPhone transformed the mobile market, so Tesla is shaping the future of the car industry and the so-called Internet of Things. The mould-breaking concept cars of the future often look amazing in their CGI glory, but it is their software – the millions of lines of code in increasingly powerful computers – that may prove even more revolutionary.