Tesla Software Update Addresses 'Range Anxiety'

Tesla Model S

The over-the-air update monitors the battery's charge and warns when driving out of range of Tesla charging stations.

Touting Tesla's ongoing over-the-air updates that improve the car "while you sleep," Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk unveiled a software upgrade on Thursday that makes it less likely for drivers to become stranded before reaching a charging station.

The Range Assurance and Trip Planner functions included in the upgrade automatically plan a route that keeps the car within range of Tesla's Supercharging stations. The car's navigation screen will display the most direct route between charging stations and the estimated time it will take to charge at each station. A message is sent via an iPhone app when the car is sufficiently charged to reach the next station.

The software continually monitors the car's location and charge level in the background and displays a warning when the car must be charged along with a list of the nearest charging stations, with turn-by-turn directions. The system takes into account terrain, elevation, wind speed and other factors when calculating the battery's remaining charge.

The update "makes it impossible to run out of range unless you do so intentionally," Musk said. According to Tesla, 90 percent of the U.S. population is now within 175 miles of a Supercharger station.

So-called "range anxiety" is the primary reason drivers remain leery of electric vehicles. Telsa's Model S has a range of more than 200 miles, more than double the range of other electric cars. 

The new software also includes emergency braking that automatically engages when the car senses an inevitable head-on collision and a blind-spot warning that activates a chime and vibrates the steering wheel.

Free, over-the-air software upgrades are another way Tesla is challenging the traditional automotive industry business model. Just as software updates to computers are used to add features between major hardware updates, over-the-air updates to cars allow current owners to reap improvements that would ordinarily be reserved for buyers of newer models.

Musk also announced that software enhancements to Tesla's autopilot system, to be introduced later this year, will allow its Model S to be driven on freeways from, for example, San Francisco to Seattle, almost fully autonomously "without the driver doing anything," Musk said.

In a keynote address on Tuesday at the 2015 GPU Technology Conference, Musk said that autonomous cars would become commonplace "in a very short period of time" and predicted that Tesla would be the leader in autonomous vehicles. He also said that autonomous cars would eventually surpass the safety of human-piloted vehicles to the point that manually driven cars would be outlawed.

Musk later posted on Twitter: "To be clear, Tesla is strongly in favor of people being able to drive their cars and always will be. Hopefully that is obvious."