2013 Tesla Model S: Huge Improvements in Release v5.8
January 2, 2014
For the most part, what your car has in terms of features and controls on the day you buy it is fixed until the day it goes to the scrapyard. Not so with our 2013 Tesla Model S.
Like the apps or operating system of the typical smartphone, new features and enhancements can be pushed out at any time. The car is built to be upgradeable with new software and firmware versions that are pushed out over the 3G network with which the car communicates. Like your smartphone, all you must do is acknowledge and accept the new download...then wait.
Version 5.8 was released last week, and it brought with it numerous upgrades.
Example: This wiper service mode did not previously exist. This "button" I'm pointing to on the screen is all new. The timing was perfect because our Model S needed new wiper blades, and I was able to park the wipers in the up position with this new feature so I could easily remove the blades before taking them inside the local auto parts store.
But this is not the most significant of the v5.8 improvements...
Wi-Fi & Tethering: The Model S needs a strong 3G signal to communicate with the ether for updates like v5.8 and to transmit data to and receive commands from the Tesla smartphone app. But what if you don't have a strong signal or, like dad's place in rural coastal Oregon, have any signal at all? Now you can tether your Model S to your home Wi-Fi network or the one at your hotel or the Starbucks you just parked next to.
Tow Mode: Before this update a warm body had to sit inside the Model S in order to load it onto a rollback. Neutral could only be maintained with someone sitting in the driver's seat. This new feature allows neutral to persist without someone in the car, which is much safer when winching the car onto a tow truck's flat bed. We're not yet sure if this will also work at an automated car wash, but it would seem so. Also, we're not yet sure if this feature is meant for flat-towing a Tesla behind a motorhome at any kind of speed. We're asking Tesla about that.
Screen Cleaning Mode: Exactly what it sounds like. This mode deactivates all the virtual buttons on the screen so you don't randomly change settings while you're cleaning fingerprint smudges off that massive and all-powerful touch screen.
Display Energy-Saving Mode: Before this update, the Model S woke up instantly and started as soon as you opened the door and sat down, but in doing so there was a constant vampire loss that would eat up power overnight and lead to less range in the morning. Now the car hibernates when you get out. The upside is less overnight vampire loss of range (but still not zero.) The downside is ten seconds or so of boot-up before the screen wakes up and the car turns on. A newly-added virtual switch allows you to turn this off if you don't like the boot-up wait this mode creates.
Owner's Manual: The entire Owner's manual is now present in electronic form and can be read on the big screen.
Changing Wheels & Resetting Tire Pressure Sensors: Suppose you want to swap wheels (such as a set of snow tires) or have a TPMS sensor replaced at your favorite tire store. Now you can tell the car that new TPMS sensor(s) with different ID numbers have entered the picture. For the next 20 minutes of driving this sensor "Learn Mode" associates the new sensors with the car. TPMS sensors broadcast every 1 to 3 minutes (depending on the system) and the TPMS computer needs to receive a certain number of consecutive data pings from the same ID number before it gains confidence that the signals are in fact coming from the Tesla and not another vehicle in an adjacent lane.
Map Enhancements: These are numerous. Chief among them is a choice of "heading up" or "north up". Previously it was "north up" all the time. They've also added a compass, and there's now a one-touch navigation feature that, like Google on a desktop, allows you to select and initiate a route from pins on a map when you search for something like Starbucks, where you'd typically get a long list of results. Also, you can now rotate the map to any position by placing two fingers on the screen and turning them like a screwdriver. Traffic and route overlays are more distinct from one another this time out, too.
Display Brightness: There are still Day and Night modes, but now they go through a gradual fade sequence during periods of dawn and dusk, lessening the harshness during this transition.
Radio Station Presets: If you've saved more than two presets, the steering wheel button now marches through your presets. If you have less than two, it behaves as a seek mode and stops at the next strong signal.
Range Display: The algorithm that figures out the average consumption and projected range has been changed to be more accurate in more conditions.
Addition to Driver Profiles: Front seat heater preferences have been added to each driver's profile.
Creep Setting: Creep mode is a slight forward motion that comes when you lift off the throttle. It's there to emulate the familiar response of a standard car with an automatic transmission in Drive. This update smooths out the Tesla's artificial creep, which was a bit too abrupt before. The option to turn it off if you want zero creep remains unchanged.
The point of all this isn't whether or not Tesla should or should not have made these selections before they shipped the first car. The key thing here is new ideas and feature improvements can be pushed out to existing cars as bright ideas are conceived and customer feedback makes its way back to Tesla.
No other car can do this sort of thing to this extent and with this sort of ease. These updates came to our Tesla Model S and were available in an hour while the car was parked in my driveway.
What would I like to see in v5.9? That's the subject of another post, but many things are possible.
Here's one: I'd like to see the cruise control smoothed up. It's excellent at holding speed uphill and down, but the response is too immediate and too jerky when I trim the set-speed up or down in one mph increments by tapping the stalk. Same goes for the cancel feature. These could stand to be less of a step function.
In the Model S I don't have to resign myself to getting used to mildly annoying traits like this for the next 5+ years of ownership. They can easily fix this in a software update, and if enough owners complain loudly enough, they probably will.
Dan Edmunds, Director of Vehicle Testing @ 16,192 miles