Skip to main content

Automakers still have a lot to learn from Tesla

Automakers still have a lot to learn from Tesla

Share this story

First, let's get this out of the way: arguing that big automakers need to learn anything from Tesla is bold, I admit, considering Tesla's often dire financials — and the fact that when you compare it to an automotive giant like Toyota or Volkswagen, its production output is still a rounding error away from zero. Tesla has yet to prove it can survive at scale, and that won't happen until the company is taking orders for a large number of Model 3s, producing them, and meeting demand. That's two years away at a bare minimum; likely more.

But did Tesla prod the legacy auto industry to move faster on practical, mass-market electric vehicles than it may have otherwise? Perhaps. It's not unreasonable to think so, especially considering that GM has graduated from recognizing Tesla's existence to outright trolling it lately. (Realistically, though, EVs were an inevitability even without Tesla. I'd actually argue it was that inevitability that begat Tesla, not the other way around.)

Never mind EVs, though — the Bolt will be in dealerships this year, there's a new Nissan Leaf on the way, and many other practical electrics from a variety of manufacturers are in the pipeline. That domino tile has already been tipped, whether Tesla was the one to tip it or not.

But there's another area where Tesla's influence needs desperately to be felt: upgradeability.

BMW and GM both dropped the ball last week

Last week, BMW was singled out by the secretary of transportation over its Remote Control Parking feature officially being in compliance with federal safety standards, a big deal after the company had withheld from the US market over regulatory fears. Afterward, the company told The Verge that 7 Series vehicles already sold in the US could be retrofitted with the feature, bringing it to parity with cars sold in other markets. The next day, it reversed course, citing missing hardware on the 7s that have already been sold.

Then there's GM's Super Cruise, a semi-autonomous technology akin to Tesla's Autopilot. It's debuting on the CT6 sedan and was originally slated for 2016 availability, but it has now slipped to 2017 — and GM is already saying that CT6 examples sold beforehand won't be upgradeable, CNET reports.

Meanwhile, let's take a look at Tesla's track record. Every Model S and X on the road today runs the same software version, delivered over the air. It started installing the necessary hardware to enable Autopilot a solid year before the feature was actually enabled. Model S vehicles built before that are out of luck, yes, but you have to start somewhere. GM is taking the opposite approach: it is building obsolescence into cars that aren't even on the production line yet. (The CT6 doesn't officially hit dealerships until March.) Heck, Tesla is still supporting its long-discontinued Roadster with upgrade packages.

For the sake of argument, let's give GM some leeway here and say that the design and placement of Super Cruise's sensors and related hardware aren't yet finalized, and therefore there's nothing that can be built into the car ahead of time to prepare it for a software upgrade. (I'd say that's a little lame, considering Tesla had the hardware in production in 2014, but sure, okay.) And in fairness, many automakers are offering post-sale upgrades to CarPlay and Android Auto. But we're still nowhere near the flexibility and futureproofness that Tesla has demonstrated. Just look at Tesla Motors Club's comprehensive software changelog to get a sense of how these cars are evolving over time.

Upgradeability is key

But a car from virtually any other automaker is a time capsule. Ford has been pretty good about upgrading Sync on production cars, but that's strictly infotainment — you won't likely get a new instrument cluster UI in your 2016 Ford Fusion, unless there's some sort of weird recall. You won't get a new regenerative braking algorithm pushed to your Chevy Volt as it sits in your garage overnight. Generally speaking, your car will not be made better over time.

This kind of atomic, immutable treatment of the automobile worked 25 years ago; it even worked okay five years ago. But today, car companies are dead set on competing with CarPlay and Android Auto, insistent on owning (or at least co-owning) the control elements of the dashboard. I say that if you want to play that game, you need to play by the same rules that Apple and Google brought to the table — rules invented with the smartphone, and ported to the car — which say that these devices inherently improve over time. They have to, by their nature. At a bare minimum, connected cars, like smartphones, need to be able to respond to cybersecurity threats. And software moves quickly enough that there's no reason a car shouldn't simply get better, prettier, and more useful over the months or years that you use it.

It's not that artificially limiting this type of upgradeability incentivizes car buyers to buy new cars more frequently, either, especially as most major car companies batten down the hatches for a new era of car sharing and other alternative usage models. Quite the contrary: failing to improve a car over time will alienate its user.

They're not there yet

There does seem to be some semblance of recognition across the industry that this will become table stakes in the coming years. GM's Phil Abram, for instance, told me several months ago that his company is working toward the goal of full upgradeability. "We're going to keep building on that list of items or parts of the vehicle that are capable of doing that, and working through all of the infrastructure that needs to be in place in order to do that effectively," he told me at the time. And more automakers are adding cellular connections to their cars — Ford and Toyota are recent adoptees — which make it easier to push new software.

But they're not there yet. That's really distressing in the middle of one of the most transformative periods in the history of transportation. And in the meantime, unless you're buying a $60,000-plus Tesla, I have no reason to think that the car you own today will feel current, relevant, and state-of-the art in five years.