Elon Musk was in top form. In an announcement this week, the founder of the U.S. electric-car company Tesla mentioned almost as a side remark his plans to equip the luxury Model S Sedan with a self-driving function by this summer. Self-driving? German automotive manufacturer Daimler talks continuously about the concept, and the other large companies have also entered the fray. But to actually begin production this year?
Mr. Musk’s plan is radical. It corresponds to the attitude of the technological elite on the West Coast of the United States — create facts and the rest will follow. While German manufacturers are focusing their attention on the legal framework for self-driving cars, Tesla is putting the new vehicles on the roads.
Even more amazing than the when is the how: The introduction of the function is at your fingertips. Mr. Musk effuses about the Tesla software-version 7.0, which should be completed in three to four months.
It will allow the S Model to drive on its own along highways and major thoroughfares. The software is installed through wireless Internet. The hardware, such as sensors and cameras, is already a feature on many vehicles.
The software will allow the S Model to drive on its own along highways.
Tesla represents a fundamental shift in the car industry. The firm, based in California, considers itself to be both a software company and a hardware firm. Right from the start, it was building cars just like computers, with the possibility of improving the vehicles’ acceleration, braking pattern or driving characteristics continuously and remotely.
The self-driving car is only a logical continuation of other upgrades such as collision warnings and blind spots provided by the 6.2 software package introduced a few days ago.
Despite various problems in Germany and China, the company’s global sales are strong.
Tesla’s success is based on many factors, most of which have nothing to do with the electrical engine but are more about a clean conscience and a “green” environment. Tesla’s Model S has been awarded the highest ratings by reviewers such as the widely respected U.S. Consumer Reports magazine.
The luxury model has quick acceleration and many mod cons. And it doesn’t hurt to have personalities such as Mr. Musk involved in the enterprise. But all these advantages pale before the digitalization of the automobile.
The firm’s constant software updates mean that, in effect, a Tesla customer gets a new car once a quarter. But developing a fully new classic car model takes five to seven years on the average, which at least is significantly quicker than it used to be. Rivals in the luxury sector such as Cadillac or Lincoln can scarcely keep up today.
In comparison with Tesla, the pace of classic German luxury manufacturers such as Audi, BMW or Mercedes is grotesquely slow.
This has not yet become apparent in sales figures. But the automobile is developing inexorably into a platform, similar to a laptop or mobile phone. For Mr. Musk, it is self-evident that customers should be offered something new every three or four months. Imagine this: Over time, your car constantly becomes faster, better, more comfortable, while your neighbor’s model simply gets older.
It’s true that a new piece of software can’t be compared with a new car. And not all upgrades take effect if technology doesn’t do its part — for example, when sensors for a collision warning have not been installed.
It remains to be seen whether the self-driving function gains legal status as quickly as Tesla hopes.
But software now plays an enormous role in cars, one that is often underestimated. Many functions have already been digitalized today. By means of software alone, it’s possible to transform one and the same car from the driving sensation of a rough-and-ready sports car to a comfortably cradling family sedan.
A new generation of digital natives already has an essentially pragmatic approach to cars. And even the biggest technology fan can’t fail to be impressed by Tesla’s achievement of lowering, solely through software optimization, the 0 to 100 kmh acceleration rate of its new four-wheel-drive model from 3.4 seconds to 3.2 seconds.
It remains to be seen whether the self-driving function gains legal status as quickly as Tesla hopes. Many countries, including Germany, currently specify that a human must always be at the controls of a vehicle, making the introduction of self-drive vehicles difficult.
But that is basically secondary. The German car industry is already successfully testing driverless cars outside the country. The technology is outstanding, and the safety features are convincing. But when the car becomes a platform, turns into a computer, what matters most is the software.
That’s where the money is to be made. Just look at hardware companies such as IBM, Dell or Nokia in their respective branches. The business model of car manufacturers is being fundamentally challenged by Silicon Valley. The example of Apple shows that hardware can remain a lucrative business when it is optimally combined with software.
This transformation is not some distant dream of the future, but is already becoming reality today — click by click.
Video: A close-up look at the Tesla Model S.
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