Musk Says Tesla Has Stupid-Proofed Staying Charged

on March 19, 2015 at 2:35 PM

Detroit Hosts Annual North American International Auto Show

Elon Musk, displaying again his knack for being slightly disappointing yet quite interesting at the same time, today unveiled software upgrades to the Tesla Model S that will make it “impossible to run out of charge unintentionally.” And, oh yeah, in a matter of months, he said, you’ll pretty much be able to drive a Tesla from San Francisco to Seattle without actually doing the driving.

Musk, the Tesla Motors CEO, had teased the world earlier this week with a tweet promising that the company was “about to end range anxiety” – that is, the fear of running out of juice in an electric car, seen as one of the biggest challenges that electrics face in a world of fairly narrow EV ranges and vastly more gas stations than charging locations.

The solution Musk offered doesn’t change how far a Tesla can go – we’re still talking about between 200 and 300 miles for a fully charged Model S with an 85 kilowatt-hour battery pack. Musk figures that’s about as far as you’d want to go without stopping, anyway, unless you’re the type who likes to drive for “10 hours and wear diapers, but that’s unusual.”

Instead, Tesla, taking advantage of its ability to push over-the-air software updates, says it’s giving drivers upgraded trip planning and a new “range assurance” application.

The purportedly ultra-brainy system – already out in beta to testers and perhaps 10 days from full release – puts the car in real-time communication with the Tesla Supercharger network (and mindful of the company’s rapidly expanding “Destination Charger” network). The system takes into account driving conditions such as weather and terrain that can affect power usage, and finds a route to a driver’s destination through available Superchargers, as needed, minimizing driving and charging time. From the Tesla website:

Model S does the thinking for you. By continually monitoring and advising owners when they are at risk of driving beyond the range of reliable charging locations, “range anxiety” is gone. When the warning is triggered, Model S provides a list of Superchargers, Tesla Destination Chargers, and locations where the vehicle has previously charged that are within current range. Drivers then select a charging destination from the list and Navigation will provide turn-by-turn guidance along with the predicted battery energy when you get there.

These features are part of software update 6.2, which makes the Model S sound more like a computer than a car and, indeed, Musk said today, “We really designed the Model S to be a very sophisticated computer on wheels.”

The same sensibility was seen in “the D,” Musk’s previous great twitter-tease reveal, which was received as something of a letdown and yet also contained enough real, cool stuff to be written up as an unveiling of the “world’s first digital car.”

Musk also talked today about an upcoming software update that will move Tesla closer to the self-driving car that Google has been so wrapped up in. Musk said that the “main test route” for Tesla’s auto-steering capability has been San Francisco to Seattle, and that soon, drivers will “almost be able” to make that trip “without touching any controls at all.”

Clarifying the capability in answer to questions, Musk said that the feature, which he said was perhaps three months away, would “only be enabled once you’re on a highway or major road.” The idea wasn’t to turn the Tesla into a self-driving car at this point, Musk suggested, but to give drivers an additional safety and comfort feature, able to “take care of you when there’s a distraction.” Asked if it might induce drivers to pay less attention to the road, Musk said it might, but that with cars that don’t have an auto-pilot feature, he was “quite certain there are times when people aren’t being attentive.”

For those Tesla owners who truly live large and have expansive estates, Musk said that the upcoming system would have some nifty features permissible only on private property: a phone-controlled app with the ability to summon your car to you, or send it to the garage (and close the door behind itself).