Software updates for your car? Tesla is paving the way.

Tesla’s over-the-air software updates are improving safety and user experience while setting a new standard for the automotive industry.

Each year our smartphones get better. Apple and Google release over-the-air (OTA) software updates that bring new features and fix pesky bugs. We expect that our computers and our phones continuously improve, even long after purchase. So why do we have such low expectations for cars?

Tesla was the first automaker to introduce OTA software updates. Since 2012, Tesla has been wirelessly pushing updates to Model S and Model X automobiles that have improved safety and user experience. For example, Tesla added a “creep” mode to allow the Model S to move slowly when the driver’s foot was off the accelerator. It mitigated range anxiety by adding a feature to track distance from nearby superchargers. [1] More recently, Tesla overhauled the entire user interface in Version 8.0, drastically improving the look and feel of the software while also improving voice commands, the media player, and Autopilot. [2]


All these features are nice to have, but OTA updates also significantly improve safety. In 2013, for example, a Model S was damaged by road debris that pierced the underbody. Tesla responded by issuing an OTA update to raise the ride height. In early 2014 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sent Tesla a recall notice due to a potential fire risk with the Model S charger. Rather than recalling over 29,000 cars, Tesla issued an OTA software update to fix the problem. [3]

By contrast, in early 2014 General Motors also had to conduct a recall due to fire risk. Instead of installing OTA updates, it recalled 370,000 trucks to dealerships across the country in order to manually install software patches. [4]

Tesla has also preemptively addressed safety issues that affect the entire automotive industry. With Version 8.0, drivers can now enable “Cabin Overheat Protection” to prevent the car from ever exceeding 105 degrees Fahrenheit. This completely eliminates the risk of accidental death of an infant or pet left in a hot car. [5]


So why aren’t OTA updates available across all automakers? Security is an obvious challenge. Internet-connected cars can be hacked and remote-controlled. However, there is a less-obvious issue: an incentive misalignment. All automakers except Tesla sell through dealerships, which make a large portion of revenue from servicing and repairs. OTA updates help cars stay out of the shop and therefore reduce dealership revenue. [6]

Luckily the industry is moving forward, unsurprisingly driven by suppliers. Harman, for example, is building a new platform that allows OTA updates – but it’s unclear when automakers will actually implement the technology. [7]

What’s Next?

Every company is now a technology company. All automakers will have to embrace digitalization. As cars rely more on software, and as software gets more complex, automakers will have to provide OTA updates.

OTA updates will reduce costs and improve safety throughout the automotive industry. Rather than physically recalling huge numbers of vehicles, manufacturers will simply issue a software update. Rather than frequently taking their cars into the shop for small fixes, customers will simply let their cars download updates.

These OTA updates are one of many examples of the automotive dealership model becoming obsolete. Tesla sells vehicles directly to consumers online, without any dealership involvement. Service is very rarely required, both because of OTA updates and the nature of electric cars (few moving parts, no engine oil, etc).

I see a future where we buy our electric cars online, benefit from continuous improvements, and never set foot in a dealership or repair shop.

That’s a future I can get behind!


(687 words)


[1] Newcomb, Doug. “Tesla Update Strategy Leaves Other Automakers in the Dust.” PCMag. March 27, 2015.,2817,2478816,00.asp

[2] Tesla. “8.0: Safer, More Intuitive.” Tesla.

[3] Brisbourne, Alex. “Tesla’s Over-the-Air Fix: Best Example Yet of the Internet of Things?” Wired. February 2014.


[4] Bullis, Kevin. “Why Your Car Won’t Get Remote Software Updates Anytime Soon.” MIT Technology Review. February 20, 2014.

[5] Randall, Tom. “Tesla Drivers Wake Up to a Serious Upgrade.” Bloomberg. September 22, 2016.

[6] Bullis, Kevin. “Why Your Car Won’t Get Remote Software Updates Anytime Soon.” MIT Technology Review. February 20, 2014.

[7] Gitlin, Jonathan. “Finally, over-the-air software updates for your car are becoming a reality.” Ars Technica. January 11, 2016.

All media from


Wellntel: Smart water for the masses


Suning-brick and mortar retailer challenged by e-commerce

Student comments on Software updates for your car? Tesla is paving the way.

  1. Very insightful post! I think it is great what Tesla is doing and how they are revolutionizing the automobile industry. Their remote software updates are definitely saving them a lot of money and the customers a lot of time, but I am not sure it will be possible to never set foot into a car dealership/repair shop again. The software component can only fix the software part, but what if the wind shield is broken or you have a flat tire? There are some hardware parts that cannot be fixed by a software update, so although I believe that repair shops will become less important I think they will never become obsolete.

Leave a comment