Kevin Bullis

A View from Kevin Bullis

Tesla Motors’ Over-the-Air Repairs Are the Way Forward

Tesla and GM have both issued fire-related recalls, but Tesla’s fix doesn’t require owners to bring their cars in.

  • January 14, 2014

Tesla Motors is using over-the-air software updates to quickly fix the sort of problems that often arise when bringing a new car to market. This forward-looking approach is an important part of the company’s success (see “How Tesla is Driving Electric Car Innovation”).

Today the National Highway Safety Administration officially published two recall announcements, one from Tesla Motors and one from GM. Both are related to problems that could cause fires. In the case of GM, trucks left idling can overheat and catch fire—eight fires have been reported. In Tesla’s case, an overheating charger plug seems have to have been the cause of a fire in a garage (it’s not clear if the problem had to do with miswiring of the wall charger, damage to the plug, or something else).

Both problems can be addressed with software updates–in Tesla’s case, the software detects charging problems and decreases charging rates to avoid overheating (GM hasn’t provided details). Owners of 370,000 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups will need to find time to take their pickups to the dealer to get the software fixed. But because of its ability to send software updates to its vehicles wirelessly, the 29,222 Tesla Model S electric cars that were affected have already been fixed. (While Tesla says the software update addresses the issue, it is also mailing Tesla owners new charger plugs that have a thermal fuse designed to provide another layer of safety.)

Indeed, Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk argues the fix shouldn’t be called a recall at all, although it technically is from the point of view of NHTSA. On Twitter he noted that no vehicles were being “physically recalled” and said, in light of the over-the-air software updates, “The word ‘recall’ needs to be recalled.”

This isn’t the first time Tesla has taken advantage of its software update system—it has become common for Tesla to send out updates that address problems and enhance performance. One of the most notable examples happened last year after three Tesla Model S’s caught fire in collisions, two with objects in the road. Tesla sent out an update that changed the suspension settings, giving the car more clearance at high speeds. No further fires have been reported, although it’s difficult to know if that’s because of the update (see “Are Electric Vehicles a Fire Hazard?” and “Why Electric Cars Could be Safer Than Gasoline Powered Ones”).

Of course, some problems can’t be fixed with software updates. A manufacturing defect on 1,098 Model S’s last year required a trip to the service station to repair a problem with the way seats were attached.

Expect over-the-air updates to become more common, although companies will need to work to make sure they can be done securely. Not only are they more convenient, they can also improve safety, since the updates can be made right away. And the updates may be critical for Tesla’s success, not just by giving the ability to respond to big issues like fires, but also to small ones—annoying but not dangerous software bugs—that could give the car a bad name if they persisted or were difficult for owners to have fixed. For example, Tesla was able to update the car’s estimates for how far it could go in cold weather (the use of a heater decreases battery range), avoiding a problem where the car underestimated how far it could go. In the future, software updates could make such predictions even more accurate by figuring in weather forecasts.

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