Tesla and OTA

A colleague of mine, Toby Trevarthen who happens to be a true business model visionary and all around ridiculously marvelous fellow, invited me to attend a meeting of Silicon Vikings. Since Toby is so much fun to hang out with and I always learn a ton, of course I said yes. Plus, I was really fascinated by the whole concept of Silicon Vikings. I mean, really, are there that many different meet ups possible? It seemed rather, well, specific. Turns out, the group is totally dedicated to business and technology for the Nordic region. This I had to experience. What if the room was full of blond men looking vaguely like Chris Hemsworth? No way I was passing that up. And for a third reason, as if I needed one, a gentlemen from Tesla was speaking.

Tesla is an odd company to consider as an automotive professional, bringing a bunch of mixed emotions. From a pure vehicular perspective, I love the Model S

I have been kicking around Silicon Valley for over a year and automotive for over 14 years, and I’ve not crossed paths with many current Tesla employees. And this fellow, Roy Goldman, is responsible for the user-facing software on that gorgeous 17” center-stack screen I’ve been equal parts jealous of for not launching something that cool when I worked at Toyota, horrified and repulsed at the “objects under glass” (I do like hard buttons and haptic feedback”, and insanely curious to experience it while driving.

Tesla is an odd company to consider as an automotive professional, bringing a bunch of mixed emotions. From a pure vehicular perspective, I love the Model S and even the goofy Roadsters, especially their exteriors. The whole electric car thing just doesn’t do it for me. I’m not convinced it’s the panacea to all our energy woes, especially since electricity is mostly made from dirty coal (and no, clean coal does not exist.) There is the whole range anxiety and down right impracticality for a lot of vehicular uses.

From a realistic perspective, starting a car company and manufacturing your own vehicles is ridiculously difficult. History is littered with ghosts of great vehicles and visionary founders. For quite some time, I honestly warned friends to “go gentle into that dear night” of buying a Tesla for fear the company would simply not be around for long.

And then there is the weirdness of Tesla being fronted by a charming, visionary, brilliant, egomaniac who may or may not be a genius. I simultaneously love, love, love reading about Elon Musk and cheer him on, but I also do not think I want to hang out with him. I’m not a star fucker and celebrity business people make me leery. It’s like I want to cheer for the underdog, but I’m so turned off by what appears to be fame mongering. Maybe totally off base, but geeze, the guy gets A LOT of press.

Finally, there is the love the public in general and this place in particular, have for Tesla. Fires aside, they can do no wrong. Consumer Reports loves them. Their stock price is gangbusters. And people are always saying things like “if Tesla can do it, why not [insert 100 year old car company here]”. Tesla is the future. Apple/Google/Samsung/Amazon are going to buy Tesla and the rest of the automotive OEMs are dust….

So, I approached the Silicon Vikings event with a bit of trepidation, but an open mind. I was so pleasantly surprised.

Mr. Goldman was thoughtful, providing insight into Tesla, and causing me to really stop and think about some critical aspects of connected vehicles. Plus, he did not claim that Tesla had all the right answers. He readily acknowledged that Tesla has not figured out hardware upgrades – Tesla owners will be limited to software upgrades at some point due to hardware limitations. It was really insightful to think about Tesla having to build for over the air (OTA) updates because if they waited until all the software enabled features were ready for the market, it would have been years before the Model S shipped. Their genius OTA strategy was from necessity, pure and simple.

Now OTA is something I have been a huge fan of for many, many years. It holds the promise of really updating vehicles in large and small ways. But no OEM has systematically deployed OTAs except Tesla. It’s a great test case, albeit a small one.

I’ve written previously about being thoughtful regarding communications to vehicle owners. OTA is one of those areas that require particularly thoughtful considerations. You are fundamentally changing their car. It needs to be permission based, fully explained, easily implemented, and supported.

As Roy was talking about how important OTA updates are to Tesla – not just to fix bugs, but to make sure that the first adopters of their vehicles didn’t miss out on cool features that they had to launch later, I was struck by how lucky Tesla is to have a small owner base of rabidly fanatical fans. This small, devoted group of owners allows Telsa latitude that volume OEMs simply do not have.

Tesla can send out emails to their owners and they will get read. Wow. And it seems like the 13,000 Tesla owners are very engaged in two way conversations with the company, follow company news, and have created a genuine community.

But it is that very smallness that is working to Tesla’s advantage when it comes to OTA. They have been able to not only update Google maps, make door handles “present themselves”, but have also sent safety updates – raising the ground clearance of their vehicles for goddess’s sake – all over the air. That is simply amazing.

So, after a year plus in Silly Valley, my husband says to me that he wants to buy a Tesla. I was shocked. The man is just not into cars. He could care less. In the 15 years we’ve been together he has never said he likes or wants a car. They are just, you know, cars to him. But now the man wants a Tesla.

And I’m pretty psyched to help him buy one.