For me, one of the best things about owning a Tesla is the over-the-air software updates. My car keeps getting better over time, which isn’t something you usually hear people say about their cars. But as cool as it is to get new features rolled out on a regular basis, it’s a bit of a double-edged sword. Sometimes features may be rolled back or nerfed, and in the worst case scenario, sometimes you may see a setback in performance from the way the car worked before the update. So some Tesla owners have opted to not accept recent software updates and keep their cars running on older software versions. However, Tesla has started sending a message to those owners that if they don’t update to the latest software by May 1st, they may lose the ability to receive all over the air updates going forward. What exactly is going on here? And is this just a Tesla thing, or is this part of a bigger technology trend?
I’ve been working professionally in technology and software development for over 20 years, so I understand the challenges that technology companies face as they roll out new features and update backend servers to improve reliability and security to keep things humming along as they’re supposed to. The problem is that sometimes those updates require more systemic changes under the hood that can break older functionality and features.
In the case of this Tesla notice, that seems to be what’s happening with the requirement to be on at least version 2019.40.2.3 of the system software. All of the reports I’ve found are full of speculation as to the “why” because Tesla hasn’t said anything officially beyond the in-car notice. One report speculated that it’s targeting people who jailbreak their Teslas, but based on my experience and the notice I don’t see that as the case.
Here’s my take. The first sentence of the notice is the key, “The Tesla network is undergoing enhancements for increased security.” Like any responsible technology company, it looks like Tesla has made some backend security changes in their software that happened around the time of the 2019.40.2.3 update. This is a good thing. They may be running deprecated backend services temporarily to keep older software versions functioning as Tesla waits for the entire fleet to catch up to the latest software. Once everyone is up to date, they shut down the old services and only the latest backend technologies will be servicing the fleet going forward. This type of upgrade path is very common at technology companies and not unique to Tesla. I’ve seen this first-hand again and again at companies I’ve worked at, so it’s not surprising at all.
Tesla’s notice only stated that users may lose the ability to receive over-the-air software updates, access to the mobile app and features, voice commands, and connectivity-dependent features. The cars will continue to function just fine as a car, but all of the over-the-air software services might stop working as expected. This isn’t punishment, but software incompatibility between the old and the new. To me that says there’s something with security authentication methods and servers that have changed. But it could also be that new features are coming that are dependent on some of these backend changes as well. There’s also a possibility that Tesla needs cars to remain updated due to requirements around autopilot and full self driving changes, which would be a straight up safety issue. There are several really good cases to force people up to the new minimum software version.
So how many people are behind right now? Looking at TeslaFi’s fleet software data, which has over 10,000 vehicles contributing data, we’re looking at about 97.7% of cars being above the new minimum software version. Anyone in that safe zone won’t notice anything different after the May deadline. It’s the 2.3% of owners that haven’t updated that are in danger of getting shut out after May 1st … unless they update.
So, given the consequences, why would anyone still hold out? That’s kind of the million dollar question. I put out an unscientific poll on Twitter and my YouTube community page to see what some of you have done. Combining the results from both, which was 417 responses, 11% said they wait for bugs to get worked out. And I totally get that rationale. In general new software can be buggy, so unless you really need the latest and greatest, it’s usually best to hang back a version or two and let the kinks get worked out. That’s usually my advice to people when there’s a big operating system update for your phone or computer. Don’t upgrade to iOS 13.0, wait for a point release like 13.1 or 13.2.
The next two options from the poll were both in a similar vein. 7% responded that they “fear of losing a feature.” And “didn’t like the changes” only got 1%. Both of those choices are around not liking change.
The final poll choice was, “I don’t wait/hold back,” which came in at a whopping 81% of you. Now, again … this isn’t scientific. There may be selection bias because most people who watch my channel are tech savvy and many are Tesla owners. People who are probably more inclined to be on the cutting edge and early adopters. That could be skewing that final number higher than most people out there.
Running older versions of software operating systems (I’m talking in general … not specifically Tesla) opens you up to security vulnerabilities that have been plugged and fixed in the newer versions. I’ve never personally experienced any software bugs on my car that would impact core functionality. And the vast majority of UI changes have been positive improvements, but that’s subjective. So I completely understand why some like to hang back and play it safe, which is honestly a wise choice at times. But holding back updates indefinitely is never a good idea.
Some might get a little scared off when they see anecdotal reports that battery capacity has been dialed back in an update. However, this type of issue isn’t unique to Tesla either. This is something all of us are seeing more and more frequently with devices and services being reliant on software and cloud services. There was the big controversy when it was discovered that Apple was throttling processor speeds in iPhones as batteries aged. In both these Apple and Tesla examples there wasn’t anything nefarious happening. Tesla made adjustments with the battery management system on older Tesla’s to improve and protect battery longevity, which dialed back a little bit of voltage on older cars. Apple throttled down processor speeds on iPhones due to aging batteries that could introduce software crashes since the battery couldn’t maintain high voltages required for stability. In both cases these companies were making the right moves to protect owners and improve the overall experience, but where they failed was in proactively communicating this to users.
That leads me to the bigger issue for all of this technology. At the risk of sounding like an old man, because I am, we used to buy a piece of technology like a TV, sound system, or even a watch and it would work as long as you kept it in good working order. The company could stop making that product, or even go out of business, and you’d still be able to use the full functionality of that device going forward. Today, that’s no longer the case. Television sets have built-in software and streaming services like Netflix, which require software updates to function. Our phones are just mini computers that are completely dependent on wireless services and companies to keep the software on them updated and running smoothly. And smart speakers like my Sonos speakers are controlled and maintained by apps and cloud services run by Sonos.
Just last October Sonos announced that they were offering a “recycling” feature for trading up to newer devices. Get a discount on a new device and as part of the trade, the old device is made inoperable through software. And that announcement was followed this January with another announcement that Sonos would stop updating all devices on your Sonos network if you had one of their older, now unsupported devices in the mix, like the Zone Player or first-generation Play:5. That means if you had a brand new Sonos One on the same setup as the first-generation Play:5, the Sonos One wouldn’t get updates anymore along with the Play:5. To quote Sonos from their announcement:
“We’re extremely proud of the fact that we build products that last a long time, and that listeners continue to enjoy them. In fact, 92% of the products we’ve ever shipped are still in use today. That is unheard of in the world of consumer electronics. However, we’ve now come to a point where some of the oldest products have been stretched to their technical limits in terms of memory and processing power.” – Sonos ^1
On one hand I get it. They’re keeping up with the times and services their users are expecting and demanding, but that also means having to leave behind devices that can no longer handle those updates.
“Ideally all our products would last forever, but for now we’re limited by the existing technology. Our responsibility here is threefold: build products that last a long time; continually look for ways to make our products more environmentally friendly through materials, packaging, and our supply chain and take responsibility for helping you through the transition once products near the end of their useful life.” – Sonos ^2
With products that can no longer handle software updates, they’ll continue to degrade in time as services like Spotify and Apple Music make updates to their applications. Sonos has since recanted and said they’re working on a way to keep old devices running on their own secondary network. Meaning your new Sonos One will get updates as expected, but it will need to operate separately from the old gear. Sonos is definitely listening to the feedback, but that brings me back to the conundrum we’re all living through right now with all of this technology.
We can no longer expect the products we buy, like phones, speakers, and now cars, to keep full functionality just like they did the day we bought them … forever. These products are frozen in time anymore. It’s completely dependent on the companies that make and maintain the software services to keep the systems running. There’s a trade off that all of us made at some point a while back, but it wasn’t clear we were making that choice. It happened slowly. The conveniences and improvements that all of this interconnected technology brings us outweighs the negatives of not having complete control. At least, that’s the argument and, in certain respects, I agree with that point of view. Especially when it comes to Tesla. And bringing it back to Tesla, I really think they’re doing the right thing here. Worst case scenario is that holdouts lose some cloud-based software functionality, but the car will continue working as well as it always has as a car. Tesla is also one of the most forward-looking technology companies operating today. The Model 3 was designed in a modular way so they could swap out the onboard computer for a newer, more powerful model. I’m one of the people on the waitlist for the upgraded 3.0 full self-driving computer. And the features they’re continuing to roll out are making my car undeniably better and more enjoyable to drive.
But it’s important that all of us keep in mind the trade-offs we’re making when we buy certain pieces of technology. And to hold companies accountable when they don’t design their products with the future in mind.