Teslas Are Freakin’ Computers (1st Software Update Notes, Freakout, & Reflections)

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Some other members of our Tesla Shuttle team installed Tesla software updates on our Model S earlier in the year, but the first time I personally did so was the day after Christmas (or 2nd day of Christmas as some people call it). I was a little uncertain whether to do the update at that time — we needed to leave approximately 2 hrs later and the car said it would take 1 hour and 40 minutes. Additionally, I was a little concerned about how much energy it might take. We had an 85% charge but quite a ways to drive. “How much energy does a Tesla software update take?” I had never thought to ask and didn’t recall seeing this information somewhere, so I searched online. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find an answer.

I decided to try my luck.

To get it started was a simple process — hit “Install Now” or set the installation for a specific time. After you hit “Install Now,” you get a countdown clock of a couple of minutes or so to cancel the plan or let the update happen.

I started the installation, sat there for a minute, and then went inside. After 15 minutes or so, I came back out because of my concern about how much energy it would take.

That’s when I was hit with my first surprise. When I got into the car, the screen had a message that said, “Update complete, checking status.”

What? The update took just a few minutes?

I tried to close the update box, but it wouldn’t let me do so, so I sat there a bit. After a few moments, both navigation screens turned off and rebooted. When they came back on, the screen behind the steering wheel had a yellow warning sign with exclamation mark inside (like in the picture above) and a message that said “Software Update Required. Contact Tesla Service.” I thought that was just part of the “checking status” thing and would go away in a minute, but it didn’t.

That’s when I started to freak out. And that’s when it suddenly hit me that I was so far off the grid the software update might not work. This is a spot where Spotify and the navigation system routinely don’t work for me, since the Tesla loses its internet signal there. I thought, “Oh, sh**, why did I try to do a software update in this place?!! Is a tow truck going to have to come to get the car and bring it somewhere with an internet signal to finish the update?” I tried calling Tesla service, but my phone connection was so bad that we got cut off. That didn’t help my perspective on the matter.

But then, as I was sitting there, I heard some noises from other areas of the car. It was clear something was happening. After several minutes, the horn started honking, which the car had noted at the beginning of the update might happen. That calmed me down — it was still working, still checking the car’s status. After a while, the “Software Update Required. Contact Tesla Service.” message finally went away. And then, approximately one hour after it had started, the update was complete and the car was ready to drive — 40 minutes or so early.

It turned out that this software update took less than 1% of energy. At the end of the update, we were still at 85%.

Perhaps those notes and relaying my stressed experience will help a fellow or two during their first Tesla software update. But that’s all just the minutiae. The thing that really struck me while sitting and listening to the car check its status was that the car is a freakin’ computer — a huge one. It is not a breakthrough news flash to say a Tesla is a computer on wheels. People have been saying it for a decade and that point was a key underlying reason a couple of the co-founders started Tesla Motors — the potential was sitting there and large automakers weren’t making their move.

But listening to the car think just really struck me. It also then had me thinking about this exclusive capture of a George Hotz presentation a couple of months ago, and our brief Q&A:

As geohot noted, Tesla is still basically alone in its approach to “cars as computers” and over-the-air software updates. The computer part of other automakers’ cars are more like 1999 Nintendos compared to the modern gaming systems Tesla is using. This point struck home for me a bit further as I sat through my first over-the-air software update.

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Zachary Shahan

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself one word at a time. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director, chief editor, and CEO. Zach is recognized globally as an electric vehicle, solar energy, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, Canada, and Curaçao. Zach has long-term investments in Tesla [TSLA], NIO [NIO], Xpeng [XPEV], Ford [F], ChargePoint [CHPT], Amazon [AMZN], Piedmont Lithium [PLL], Lithium Americas [LAC], Albemarle Corporation [ALB], Nouveau Monde Graphite [NMGRF], Talon Metals [TLOFF], Arclight Clean Transition Corp [ACTC], and Starbucks [SBUX]. But he does not offer (explicitly or implicitly) investment advice of any sort.

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