Most people are aware that one of the more unique features on Tesla cars is their ability to offer so-called “Over the Air” (OTA) updates. The replacement of the internal combustion engine with a battery-centered electric system has given rise to vehicles that are dominated more by their digital and electronic infrastructure than they are by the mechanical infrastructure. OTA updates are another big part of that shift.
We’ve seen over the years how Tesla’s OTA updates have evolved from updates of the operating system to full-blown changes in how the car works. The question some people still have is exactly how long do these software updates take? Is it as fast as a system update on a smartphone, or does it take longer? These are the core questions behind today’s blog.
Background: About Tesla Software Updates
When Tesla first introduced the concept of OTA updates to its users, it obviously represented a big change for people in terms of how they saw their car. Having said that, the concept of software updates in itself was of course fairly familiar since most people get seemingly constant reminders of software updates on their computers, smartphones and tablets.
Early software updates from Tesla were just that, new features and capabilities added and installed to the car’s on-board computer and infotainment systems. It was an interesting development that seemingly brought the electric car and smartphone closer together as a concept, where we could now own a single car and update and improve it as we go along, thus helping it keep up with newer cars and remove the need to buy a brand-new one every couple of years.
In 2018, the OTA concept was taken to all new levels when Tesla amazed the world by using OTA updates to make a mechanical improvement to the Tesla Model 3. After consumers worried about the braking distance of the Model 3, a software update arrived and was rolled out to all Model 3s for free.
What did this update do? It made improvements to the algorithms that governed the braking functions, reducing the total braking distance by 19 feet.
Analysts at the time remarked on this “unheard of” achievement that demonstrated very effectively the true potential of OTA updates. Imagine a world where your car never needed an auto shop for improvements. Imagine calling up Tesla, remarking on a problem and them saying, “it’s all covered in the latest update, please update your Tesla and you’ll be back on track.”
Well, we’re not quite there yet, but Tesla is able to offer more and more in the form of OTA updates because the fact is that so much of how the Tesla cars work is governed by computer-based algorithms, even the mechanical procedures. If it was a vehicle still working on a pure mechanical basis, then it wouldn’t work.
There are various websites that track each Tesla software update, but the typical naming for Tesla Software updates looks like this: 2021:42:5:1. Let’s decode this for a second:
- 2021 – year of the update
- 42 – week of the software build
- 5 – version / revision
- 1 – bug patch number
The reason they are named this way is so that it’s immediately clear to Tesla staff whether a Tesla has been properly kept up to date: if the version was “2019:02”, it’s probably a fairly old Telsa version!
The version/revision and bug patch number isn’t quite as important for most people, but it’s important for Tesla’s software developers because sometimes a specific software release might have bugs – and so a “patch release” is rolled out to fix this (meaning that the final number moves from a 1 to a 2, and so on).
How Do Tesla Software Updates Work?
Firstly, the Tesla vehicle has to be connected to Wi-Fi in order to receive its software updates, or at least for the first phase they do. There are 2 phases in total:
Phase 1: Download Phase
This is where Tesla releases the update over the air and it is made ready for installation of the vehicle. The vehicle doesn’t have to be parked, plugged in or charging. As long as there is a stable Wi-Fi connection, the download can happen successfully. If the driver has spotty Wi-Fi for whatever reason, there’s a chance the download will be interrupted.
Once the software update is downloaded, it will be prepared and stored ready to install later on when the driver comes to a stop. Software updates can’t be installed while the car is moving.
Phase 2: Installation Phase
When the car is parked up and idle, the installation process can be started. Once it begins, the car can’t be driven for the time it takes to complete. That’s a safety measure added in by Tesla. Equally, the car won’t charge either, even if it’s plugged into a charge point. If you want the car to charge after the installation, however, you can plug in before or during the process and it will kick in once the installation is complete.
Users needn’t worry about being caught by surprise by a software update installation. You still retain control as to when you want to install the update, so if you are in a hurry to complete errands, get the kids to school, or get to work, then you still can!
The installation phase is started by the user going to “Controls” in the menu and then tapping on “Software” to see if there is an available software update that has already been downloaded.
You’ll know immediately if there is because there’ll be an option “Update Available” and you can start the installation there and then. You can also control it from your Tesla smartphone app.
Installation can also be scheduled, so if you receive the update during the workday for example, you could schedule it via your app or in your car to complete the installation at some point in the evening when the car will be at home, securely connected to Wi-Fi and sitting dormant in the garage perhaps.
From your car, you can schedule the installation by clicking on the yellow clock icon and then selecting the time you want it to start. You can then change that at any time before the originally scheduled time.
How Long Does Each Phase of the Software Update Take?
So, the process of downloading and installing the updates themselves is fairly straightforward, but how long does it take? As with anything when it comes to online files and downloads, the 2 key factors in play are the speed and stability of your Wi-Fi connection, and the size of the file that you’re trying to download.
To give some perspective, large updates to the Tesla system can be as big as 7GB, which is pretty big even for a decent Internet connection. When connected to a strong, stable and fast Wi-Fi source, the process of downloading and installing shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes in total, but that’s a best-case scenario for many.
Tesla warns that both the downloading and installation phases can take hours if the Internet connection is weak and the target file large. For many, connecting to home or office Wi-Fi is the best way to ensure a solid and fast connection, in which case any Tesla software update should be downloaded and installed within the hour.
The slower option normally comes from connecting to public Wi-Fi sources which may have many simultaneous connections while also inherently being somewhat slower or lower in tech-level than the kind of setup you paid for at home or at work.
The safest option remains to let updates be downloaded automatically whenever you are in range of a good Wi-Fi connection and then schedule the installation to happen when the car is parked up at home and will be for at least 3 hours without being needed, even in an emergency.
In this way, you can let the software update do its thing with minimum disruption or problems. Using your Tesla smartphone app is also a good option because it allows you to start the process and check on progress from your phone.
Do All Teslas Receive Their Software Updates at the Same Time?
No, and that’s a deliberate move by Tesla. Major updates to software are usually tested on an initial batch of around 1,000 vehicles, which invariably includes Elon Musk’s own Tesla car. TeslaScope keep track of all the software roll-outs around the world and spoiler alert: there’s a lot!
They refer to this as “in the wild” testing to ensure that the patches work. They then roll them out incrementally, again to ensure that the updates are working smoothly.
Every Tesla car is on either a 30- or 60-day patch cycle, so if you and your neighbor are both Tesla drivers, you shouldn’t be surprised if they receive a software update and you haven’t gotten it just yet, and vice versa. It’s all part of the incremental rollout strategy. Your neighbor may also be part of the 1,000 test batch!
As the updates become more sophisticated, it will be interesting to see how much more they can add and change about Teslas moving forward. It’s already close to envisioning an idea where a 2018 Tesla and 2021 Tesla are only really different in their physical age. In terms of features and software, they can be identical, and that’s a big game-changer in the automotive world.