to detail some of the big new features coming over-the-air to current and future owners, and they're pretty significant. According to what Elon Musk had to say, an update coming in a few weeks will "end range anxiety" both in town and on long-distance trips, while later this year a major software overhaul will turn the Model S into a semiautonomous car that can handle the highway by itself and pick you up at your door.
GPS Software That Won't Let You Run Out of Juice
The first feature Musk announced is called Range Assurance. Basically, it's an always-running application within the car's navigation system that communicates with the and parking-spot chargers around you. Even if you're not using the car's navigation system to get to a destination, Range Assurance keeps tabs on your battery-charge level and your proximity to charging facilities. If your battery is running low, the car will give you a list of nearby Superchargers and parking-spot charging facilities, and if you're headed beyond the radius of nearby chargers without enough juice to get to the next facility, it'll warn you and offer to direct you to the nearest charge point.
Range Assurance will make it "basically impossible for a Model S driver to run out of range unintentionally," Musk said. The Tesla CEO explained that drivers will have to "say okay" to the car's warnings multiple times. You'll be fully aware if you decide to drive your battery dead. And like all smart things, Range Assurance factors in things such as ambient temperature, elevation changes, traffic flow, and even headwinds to provide the most accurate estimate of your battery range.
Next up is Trip Planner, a GPS navigation tweak that lets you plan long-distance drives based on your best charging options both at your destination and en route. The software figures out the fastest, most convenient route to your destination, indicating where you'll have to stop and how long you'll need to plug in along the way to ensure enough energy to make the total trip. The system pulls new data in real-time "every 30 seconds or so," says Musk, updating to show which charging facilities are vacant so you don't end up waiting in line for a plug.
According to Musk, Trip Planner is designed to fit naturally into the strategy that most drivers take when embarking on a long road trip. "Unless you want to wear a diaper," Musk contends, you'll probably want to take a 20- or 30-minute break every few hours of driving. shows how you might use Trip Planner to, say, take a 3250-mile road trip from coast to coast in 62 hours and 30 minutes, with the longest charging break listed in this hypothetical scenario coming in at 58 minutes:
Later This Year
A Self-Driving Tesla That Picks You Up At Your Door
Then Musk started talking about some really far-out software updates. While the above-mentioned software tweaks, focused on "ending range anxiety," will be available with Tesla's next over-the-air software update—Version 6.2, coming in the next few weeks—it's Version 7 that will really go space-age.
Musk says Version 7 will release to the wild Tesla's Autopilot program, a combination of existing adaptive cruise control and a forthcoming Auto Steer feature. The CEO claims that, right now, the system is able to drive a test route from San Francisco to Seattle with basically zero input from the driver. "It's technically capable of going from parking lot to parking lot," Musk said, "but we won't be enabling that for users." Musk says that when Auto Steer is switched on in Version 7 of the Tesla software, "it will only be enabled if you're on a highway or major road," not on small side streets or in neighborhoods.
Responding to a reporter's question, Musk also took the chance to lightly jab at the automatic driving capabilities of some competitors. "Some of the manufacturers have it backwards," he said, "where if you take your hand off the wheel the auto steering stops working. What if you were distracted or fell asleep?" Musk describes the Tesla's semiautonomous mode as being similar to an airplane's autopilot: "There's an expectation that the driver is paying attention—you're not supposed to just turn it on and go to sleep. But it should take care of you if you have moments of distraction."
And when Version 7 software makes Autopilot available, Musk promises it will make possible something we've seen only in Batman and James Bond movies: A self-driving car that comes straight to you when summoned by your smartphone. Musk insists that the feature will "only work on private property, because it's not legal" otherwise, but it still sounds amazingly cool. As the CEO describes it, the Model S's ultrasonic sensors allow it to drive itself from its parking spot to pick you up at your front door and to return to its garage after it has dropped you off at the entrance. Thanks to those ultrasonic sensors and Autopilot, "the car can navigate in the dark," Musk says. "We could theoretically have the car navigate an underground parking garage."
Musk says that the Autopilot-enabled, self-summoning Tesla will become reality when Version 7 of the company's software gets sent out to customers sometime in 2015, perhaps within the next few months. In the meantime, Version 6.2 will begin popping up on Model S owners' dashboards within the next few weeks. A lot could change between now and then, but if we're to believe Musk's promises, every Model S sedan on the road right now could get much more futuristic in the coming months.