Tesla Motors, Inc. Shows Off Over-the-Air Updates and Fleet Learning

By Daniel Sparks Markets Fool.com

On Sunday morning, Tesla Motors (NASDAQ: TSLA) CEO Elon Musk provided an update on the company's ongoing rollout of its latest Autopilot upgrade. A planned software update for Monday, and one more week's worth of fleet data following the update, will probably be enough for Tesla to finish rolling out its latest Autopilot improvement to all vehicles with its new sensor suite, Musk said. The update shows off Tesla's control of its driver-assist systems and its software strengths.

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Image source: The Motley Fool.

Here comes Autopilot 2.0

"New [revision] for [hardware 2] Autopilot rolling out Mon to first 1000 [vehicles] & to rest of fleet in shadow mode," Musk tweeted on Sunday morning. "Also improves hardware 1 and enables Ludicrous+." In another tweet, Musk said, "If all looks good, [hardware 2] Autopilot functionality will switch from shadow to active mode by end of week for cars beyond initial 1000."

In October, Tesla started including a new sensor suite of cameras, ultrasonic sensors, and radar in every new vehicle. Aided by a new onboard computer with over 40 times the computing power of the previous generation in Tesla vehicles, the company said the new sensor suite would enable an "enhanced" version of Autopilot and -- after regulatory approval and extensive validation -- even self-driving capabilities.

But, as Tesla explained in a blog post when it released its new hardware, there was a major catch for the first vehicles coming off the line with Autopilot hardware 2 -- at least for a few months:

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Teslas with new hardware will temporarily lack certain features currently available on Teslas with first-generation Autopilot hardware, including some standard safety features such as automatic emergency braking, collision warning, lane holding and active cruise control. As these features are robustly validated we will enable them over the air, together with a rapidly expanding set of entirely new features.

In December, Musk said Tesla's software team has been "working seven days a week to complete testing and validation" of its hardware 2 vehicles so it can roll out updates for them, getting them to feature parity with Autopilot hardware 1 vehicles.

Tesla rolled out its first update for hardware 2 Autopilot to its first 1,000 cars on Dec. 31. Limited to such a small portion of its fleet, the update aimed to help Tesla verify whether there were new field issues before it uploaded an update to all hardware 2 vehicles.

Tesla's Monday update will get the company one step closer to catching hardware 2 vehicles up to hardware 1, while also delivering some new features for hardware 1 vehicles and a promised acceleration improvement for its Ludicrous-enabled P100D vehicles, making the world's fastest-accelerating vehicle even quicker.

Highlighting Tesla's strengths

Tesla's continued Autopilot updates highlight Tesla's prowess in over-the-air updates and fleet learning -- two areas where the automaker stands apart from the competition.

Tesla demonstrates the capabilities of its latest Autopilot sensors. Image source: Tesla Motors.

Tesla's in-house developed software for Autopilot, combined with its high level of vertical integration of all relevant systems, gives the company significant flexibility and control in delivering significant over-the-air updates. Further, by including Autopilot sensors in every vehicle delivered, whether customers pay for Autopilot of not, Tesla can garner unprecedented data by operating sensors in "shadow mode" even as customers drive without the help of driver-assist systems. Of course, Tesla can collect data from vehicles with activated Autopilot as well.

In addition, Tesla's deep vertical control of Autopilot systems enables the company to rapidly deploy improvements through its "fleet learning," or fleetwide improvements that can be made in real-time with real-time driving data. By having all their cars connected and fleet learning, the level of useful data Tesla is able to access for improving its system gives the company an advantage in constantly improving the convenience and safety of driver-assist systems.

As long as Tesla's Autopilot updates go as planned -- and considering the way the company has rapidly deployed significant over-the-air updates to its vehicles in the past, they probably will -- Tesla is about to take another step forward in advancing its vehicles' driver-assist systems even further ahead of the competition.

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Daniel Sparks owns shares of Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.