Over-the-Air Update Left Tesla Model 3 Without Key Safety Features

Over-the-Air Update Left Tesla Model 3 Without Key Safety Features

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A Tesla over-the-air update this week left the Consumer Reports Model 3 electric car without key features for more than a day, including automatic emergency braking (AEB) and Autopilot.

The automaker was able to send a new update to the car on Thursday that restored the capabilities, says Jake Fisher, director of auto testing for Consumer Reports.

Other Model 3 owners also complained online about the update failure. Several of them on the Tesla Motors Club Forum noted that they were experiencing similar problems.

Tesla has been praised in the industry for its ability to remotely update critical vehicle systems. So far, it's the only automaker to use OTA updates in this way, but more companies are likely to follow suit in the near future. Fisher says.

“Tesla may be the first to do this, but other automakers will want to remotely change how their cars perform," he said. "Without enough care, that could lead to disaster for drivers."

Tesla did not respond to written questions from CR about the issue.

The software update snafu might represent a rare OTA hiccup for the tech-savvy company, but it also shows that Tesla and other auto companies could be as vulnerable to the difficulties of over-the-air software updates as other high-tech products including smart phones and computers.

A major difference, of course, is that consumers rely on key automotive safety systems, such as AEB, to protect them and their passengers.

"OTA fixes can be really convenient for consumers, but you can’t treat cars like smart phones because a new bug in your car’s safety systems can be deadly,” says David Friedman, Vice President for Advocacy at Consumer Reports. “An OTA repair fixing a defect or inadvertently creating one, as appears to be the case here, should be treated like any other recall or defect, including clear communication to consumers and government safety regulators.”

The Future of Updates

OTA updates are gaining favor with automakers, and the reason is clear: If car companies can make updates and fixes to cars remotely, they can save big money on warranty repairs. Tesla earlier this summer improved the braking performance of the Model 3 using an OTA update.

“We will absolutely be seeing OTA update capability coming to every automaker over the next several years,” said Sam Abuelsamid, a senior analyst with Navigant who focuses on automotive technology.

“While Tesla was the first OEM to use OTA updates for safety critical systems, many companies have been using the capability for telematics systems and infotainment for many years. The first-generation Chevrolet Volt actually had the capability when it launched back in 2010, but GM opted not to utilize it because of concerns if something went wrong like this latest Tesla update,” Abuelsamid said.

This isn’t the first glitch caused by an OTA update. Earlier this year, many FCA vehicles found that their audio system, navigation, backup camera, and some climate-control features were no longer working after an OTA update from satellite radio provider Sirius XM. Lexus vehicles had a similar problem in 2016.

Installing the Update

We updated the Model 3 software on Wednesday, Sept 12. Once the installation was done, the center screen showed the message: “Update did not complete successfully. Please wait for a new update to be sent to your car.” It showed a yellow triangle warning: “Software update required. Contact Tesla Service.”

As our testers drove the Model 3, they discovered that the adaptive cruise control and Autopilot systems were not available. Warning messages displayed for only a few seconds when we tried to engage either system. The “Software update required” message and yellow triangle sign remained on the screen throughout.

On Thursday, the Model 3 screen showed that a new software update was available. Our engineer applied the update, and our Model 3 was able to complete it successfully. Engineers validated that adaptive cruise control, Autopilot and AEB were working once again shortly after that.

“On top of losing the functionality,” Fisher said, “we were very concerned by the lack of information provided to owners about the nature of what was wrong with our car.” On the Model 3’s sole screen, there were messages noting that the update had failed, but it was never clear which systems were still working and which ones were not. It wasn't even clear if the car was safe to drive.

See the complete Tesla Model 3 road test and ratings.

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