Tesla quietly updates software to test new Autopilot features

May 25, 2016

Software updates are a necessary evil. On the downside, if you're unfortunate enough to experience one during the workday, it can eat up an hour or more of productivity. And of course, sometimes updates change things that we actually like, ridding our devices of perfectly useful features. 

The upside is, software updates usually make our phones and laptops more stable and more secure. That keeps those devices humming along for longer than they might've otherwise.

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We've recently entered the era of software updates for cars--not the kind carried out in garages or even via jump drives, but over-the-air updates, just like you enjoy on your computer. Tesla's putting that feature to use, testing autonomous software upgrades without bothering to alert drivers. To do that, Tesla uses its cars' always-on internet connection, which allows the automaker to send tweaks to its Autopilot software. 

The fact that drivers aren't alerted to these updates might sound disturbing, but according to Tesla, there's no harm in the practice at all. The updates are coded in such a way that they don't have any effect on how a vehicle handles. Essentially, Tesla runs parallel systems in its cars: real-world systems that control vehicles, and simulation systems that use real-world data to test how the new software would behave. 

It's a bit like a baseball coach watching a game in a stadium, then running simulations on a laptop to see how things might've played out if the pitcher had used a different pitch or the shortstop had thrown to second instead of first. The simulation doesn't change the outcome of the game, it simply gives the coach more data for future plays.

READ: Study: Drivers growing more afraid of autonomous cars

In theory, the practice is entirely safe, so long as Tesla has done its homework and properly walled off the test environment from the active software. It's also smart, since it provides Tesla with gigabytes of data to improve its software. (For reference, Tesla now receives a million miles worth of driving data from its users every ten hours. Over the past 18 months, it's downloaded 780 million miles of travel data, according to Tesla's Sterling Anderson, who oversees the Autopilot program.) Like many updates, Tesla's may extend the lives of vehicles, too. 

The weaker link here involves Tesla's network itself, which is a brighter, shinier target for hackers than a few limited updates. In fact, as our vehicles become increasingly dependent on software, every automaker will likely launch its own always-on network--and probably push out new code, too. Hopefully, federal officials and automakers can work together to keep the bad guys and gals at bay.

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