Life With 2013 Tesla Model S: How A Software Update Worked

2013 Tesla Model S electric sport sedan [photo by owner David Noland]

2013 Tesla Model S electric sport sedan [photo by owner David Noland]

Enlarge Photo

One of the many cutting-edge features of my new 2013 Tesla Model S is the ability to download software updates over its cellular connection.

With its touch-screen controls and electronic motor and battery  systems, the Model S all-electric sport sedan is almost certainly the most highly computerized car on the planet. 

But as our PCs have sadly taught us, "highly computerized" can be a double-edged sword.

The big advantage of software, of course, is that it can be easily updated. Theoretically, bugs and glitches can be quickly fixed, and standard functions can be improved or changed.

Tesla Motors [NSDQ:TSLA] has taken the Model S  into uncharted territory for cars: remote wireless software updates that can completely change the way the car operates.

Early production cars have received several software updates already. (My car arrived in late February with version 4.2).  I was looking forward to my first update--if for no other reason than to experience first-hand another step into the future of car ownership.

Sure enough, just five weeks after taking delivery,  I got in the car one morning last week to find a  message on the touchscreen: software update v4.3 was available.

The message suggested I schedule the update for 2 am the next morning. The car needs to be parked and turned off for about two hours to complete the wireless download, which uses the 3G cellphone network.

Having seen reports on Model S owner forums of past software updates triggering new problems, I briefly considered declining the update.

Version 4.3's main new feature was the ability to set charging times in advance, to take advantage of cheap night-time electric rates. In addition, the accuracy of the "rated range" readout numbers was improved in cold weather and the heating system was tweaked.

Unfortunately, my Luddite local utility offers no time-of-day rate structure, so the main new feature was useless to me. Should I risk possible new glitches just to get a slight improvement in the accuracy of my cold-weather "rated range" numbers?

I decided that to participate fully in this grand experiment that is Model S ownership, I needed to accept the new software.

So I took a deep breath and touched the on-screen button to authorize the 2 am download.

Next morning, there was the on-screen message: the new software had successfully loaded. It was, in fact, version 4.3 (1.25.45), apparently an update of the update, hopefully without the glitches reported on the forums.

Four days later, I've had no serious glitches. But there have been a few  odd hiccups. 

Later in the day of the upgrade, as I started the car, the touch screen went horrifyingly black for a second or so--which it had never done.

The first time I tried the music voice command after the update, it  didn't work. A second try was successful, and it's worked normally since then.

And once, the day after the update, the release button on the charge cord failed to work, locking the cord in place. Fortunately, a second push of the button released the cord--avoiding what would have been a show-stopper of a problem.

2013 Tesla Model S electric sport sedan [photo by owner David Noland]

2013 Tesla Model S electric sport sedan [photo by owner David Noland]

Enlarge Photo

While there's been no harm done in the end, I'm still a little nervous about this whole update thing. My philosophy has always been "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." And past nightmare experiences with personal computers have left me permanently jumpy about all things software.

With fingers crossed,  I'll keep you posted.

In the meantime, I'm ready to put aside my qualms and embrace with gusto the long-awaited version 4.4. That soon-to-arrive update, we're told, will include a sleep mode to de-fang the Model S's voracious vampire power draw when the car is parked and shut down.

The way I see it, a car that sucks up 4 to 5 kilowatt-hours of electricity a day sitting still is seriously broke. I hope the enigmatic magic of software can fix that.

David Noland is a Tesla Model S owner and freelance writer who lives north of New York City.


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Comments (10)
  1. Love to know if they can fix the vampire load. 4-5 KWH per day is about half my energy use in my home would really bother me, since it is doing nothing of value.

  2. Ah John, the vampire loads are costing the average Tesla owner about 50 cents per day while we wait breathlessly for the fix. If you spent $70,000 on a new car, would you REALLY be upset about an extra 50 cents per day? I can always lull myself to sleep thinking about how much I save when gasoline goes up 10 cents a gallon.

  3. It is NOT about the $$$ in this case. Electric car is all about efficiency especially when the car is parked. There is no reason why 4-5KWh per day is wasted (I know Tesla is working hard at fixing this). "Waste" in general is a bad thing.

  4. @Xiaolong - to be clear, I'm not in FAVOR of my vampire loads; I'm just trying to maintain some perspective. This is a quarter cup of Starbucks coffee and when it's fixed I'll be thrilled. I'm paying under two cents a mile and that INCLUDES the vampire loads. What's not to love?

  5. I doubt Model S really uses 4-5KWh per day while inactive. That number was reported by David Noland using a rather dodgy trick to establish the parasitic load. The number was calculated by unplugging the car and plugging it back in to restart the charging process. Turns out the battery will accept a few extra KWhs after doing that but that may not accurately reflect parasitic losses; some of that may be just be caused by tricking the battery into accepting some extra charge by resetting the charging process.

  6. @Chris: The full procedure Noland used is described on pp 1 and 2 here:

    Once again, Chris, let me repeat my offer to publish an article by you that describes your experiences with the Model S where they differ from Noland's.

    His is one voice among many Model S owners, but as a professional journalist, he writes clearly and intelligibly about these issues--and Green Car Reports readers largely seem to value his real-world experiences.

    If your real-world experiences with your own Model S differ significantly from Noland's, let's get them into an article too. Otherwise ...

  7. @ John Voelcker: All I'm saying is I doubt if Mr. Nolands test procedure is actually fit to test parasitic losses or that he tricks the battery in accepting more charge after restarting the charging procedure.

    Seems to me a clear and valid readers observation hardly warranting your reaction.

    It's interesting how much fear, uncertainty and doubt a simple software upgrade can cause some Tesla owners BTW. ICE age practice was just to take the vehicle to the shop if something needed tuning I guess. Must say, that's the sort of thing that causes fear, uncertainty and doubt for me though. I like the new way of fixing problems.

  8. I'm still running 4.1 and have ignored the update available because I didn't want to lose the sleep mode. I'm only losing 2 miles of rated range per day with it. All else is good with the car. I will not install another update until the sleep mode returns.

  9. This begs the question, is there a way to roll back an update? Generally there should be bit it seems not.

  10. That's a fantastic report, David. Really, just excellent. I feel the same way about making the leap to trust the updates. I wish my Leaf updated over the wireless network its already hooked up to. I like your stories, though. Good stuff.

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