As any Tesla customer will tell you, one of the advantages to owning what is essentially a computer on wheels is that Tesla is always making improvements to the way the Model S and Model X electric cars work. Pushed via free over-the-air software updates, we’ve seen a slew of new features added to customers’ Model S electric cars over the years, including greater customization options, creep functionality, improved navigation algorithms and the capability to unlock and start your Model S with your cellphone.
It’s all part of Tesla’s clever system architecture which places its powerful on-board computer and massive 17-inch touchscreen display as the centerpiece the Model S design, allowing new features and bug fixes to be remotely sent to the car using either its on-board always-on cellular data connection or connection to a convenient WiFi access point.
That same always-on Internet connection also makes it possible for Model S owners to listen to online music streaming and Internet radio stations while they’re in their car, as well as give them up-to-date traffic, weather and Supercharger information on the road. But as CNET reports, that same always-on Internet connection is being used by Tesla to allow customers to activate a one-month trial of Tesla’s Autopilot semi-autonomous premium features, including Autosteer, Auto Lane Change, Auto Park and Summon.
It’s something that could revolutionise the way we think about premium car features forever. And you can forget the Sirius XM trial that’s offered with pretty much every new car today: this is a new way to upsell customers new products and services that could make your life easier and safer too.
Before I delve into the potential of such a system, here’s how Tesla is able to execute this sales pitch.
Ever since Tesla first announced autopilot functionality back in October 2014, every single Tesla Model S electric car that has rolled off the production line at Tesla’s Fremont facility has been fitted with Autopilot hardware as standard. While cars made before that date did not have Autopilot hardware fitted (and can’t get a retrofit option to have it added), the number of Model S made since that date versus the number made before that date means that the overwhelming majority of Model S in the world today have Autopilot. Since Model X entered production late last year, nearly a year after Autopilot was announced, every single Model X had Autopilot hardware as standard too.
While Autopilot is itself something you might think of as a software feature, it can’t work without the necessary sensors it needs to ‘see’ the world and operate correctly. Although the hardware to offer Autopilot is standard, the level of functionality of Autopilot depends on which option boxes a customer ticked when ordering their car.
Basic safety features of Autopilot functionality — such as Automatic Emergency Steering and Side Collision Warning — have been offered to all customers free of charge as standard functionality. With every software update for Model S and Model X, Tesla has included improved algorithms too, ensuring the performance and capabilities of these basic safety systems get better and better.
Premium Autopilot functionality, including Autosteer, Auto lane Change, Auto Park and Summon, is sold to customers as Tesla’s “Autopilot Convenience Features” package at a cost of $2,500 at point of order, regardless of the car chosen. After delivery, the same features can be activated on a customers’ car for a one-off fee of $3,000.
And that shows just how clever Tesla’s after-sales free trial period pitch really is.
As this Reddit post shows, Tesla appears to be reaching out to owners of any and all Model S electric cars which have Autopilot hardware but do not yet have Autopilot Convenience Features enabled on their cars.
Displayed as a simple popup on the central 17-inch touch screen display, Tesla’s invitation is displayed much like any other upgrade offer we’re used to seeing on computer software, music streaming services or other online marketplaces.
It says: “Try Autopilot Convenience Features and experience a stress-free commute. This one-month trial enables automatic steering, lane changing and parking with Summon. Once your trails begins, you’ll receive an email with instructions for permanently upgrading your Tesla.”
Kushari, the original Tesla Model S owner (and self-confessed Tesla fan) who submitted a screenshot of the offer happens owns a Tesla Model S 70D, but I’d assume the offer will be open to anyone who happens to have an Autopilot-ready Model S who has yet to activate it.
While this trial may be news to some, hardened Tesla fans will know that Tesla’s software version 7.1 introduced a new system which some guessed was designed to enable Autopilot post-purchase via an over-the-air command, one which TeslaMotorsClub forum member WK057 postulated back in February could make Autopilot trials a possibility.
That’s the how. Now it’s time for the why. Or rather, why this is so important to Tesla and the automotive world as a whole.
Less than a month ago, Tesla Motors unveiled its Model 3 electric car, a car which has already garnered the automaker somewhere in the region of 400,000 pre-order reservations around the world. Marketed as Tesla’s first ‘mass-market’ electric car, pre-incentive prices for Model 3 are expected to be around $35,000, for which customers should get the five-seat sedan complete with 215-mile range and sub 6-second 0-60 mph time. In addition, Tesla has said each Model 3 will come with Autopilot hardware and Supercharging hardware as standard, but has skillfully dodged questions over if those features will come activated from the factory or require customers to pay to activate them.
At least, that’s what this quote given to us by a Tesla spokesperson earlier this month seems to suggest: “All Model 3 will have the capability for Supercharging. We haven’t specified (and aren’t right now) whether supercharging will be free.”
While the above quote pertains to Supercharging, I’d guess the same is true for Autopilot Convenience Features. While I’d guess every Model 3 will come with basic Autopilot safety features as standard, I’m predicting the rest of the Autopilot suite will be offered as a value-add Premium feature. And such a feature would work incredibly well when paired with Tesla’s over-the-air trial system.
Think about it for a second. So far, the automotive world — specifically the auto dealer industry — has been geared to upsell products and services to customers at the point of ordering a new car. By switching to free over-the-air trials, Tesla makes it possible to remove that pressure at the point of ordering and gives customers time to pick and test features at their own time and in their own way, with no obligation to buy. And because the Autopilot trial is being offered in a way that most customers will already be familiar with, I’m guessing there will be a fair few to agree to the trial even if they don’t follow through and shell out $3,000 to keep it activated.
But this system is even more important to Model 3, because it allows Tesla to sell customers premium after-sales features while keeping the average purchase price low. Consider a customer who applies for financing on Model 3 and ticks a few option boxes to bring their total sticker price up to near $44,000 (the mean average price for Model 3 as estimated by Tesla CEO Elon Musk before incentives). They may not want to shell out the extra money at the point of ordering for Autopilot but may very well want to do so later on, especially if they’re given a free trial before making their purchase decision.
Then there’s the fact that buying an upgrade — a software add, if you will — doesn’t feel the same as spending that same money when you buy said upgrade with the original product. Justifying $2,500 extra at the point of purchase may be a tough thing. Buying it afterwards for $3,000 (perhaps when your tax rebates arrive) seems less painful somehow, because you can still feel good about how little you paid for your car in the first place…
There’s one more thing I want you to consider though — and that’s being able to upgrade a Tesla with features as and when you need them. Unlike internal combustion engine cars, which require lots of expensive servicing (a revenue stream for both automakers and auto dealerships) electric cars don’t need much in the way of servicing. And when a Tesla needs a service, Elon Musk has been clear that Tesla won’t ever make a profit on the service itself.
And a $2,500 one-off activation fee too much? Sure. Just pay for a monthly subscription, or pay ad-hoc when you need it.
Imagine the scenario if you will. You buy a Tesla (the model isn’t important here) and you use it primarily for getting to and from work. At the weekend when you need to make a long trip, you could simply pay a temporary activation fee to have your car drive itself using Autopilot, or gain Model 3 access to Supercharger networks for the weekend so you can charge up with ease.
Or perhaps there will be other future value-add features that you’ll only want once. Imagine if you will, a not-too-distant future where cars can drive themselves autonomously without anyone behind the wheel, allowing couples to share a single car to do multiple commutes or school trips in a day. Like Autopilot, Tesla could offer such a feature as a value-add premium option at point of order, enticing other customers with a free trial at some point after delivery to encourage them to sign up too.
At the moment, Model S, Model X and Model 3 are very much still premium cars aimed at premium buyers. Even Model 3, with its $35,000 headline price tag, is out of the reach of many.
But a future where free trials and ad-hoc upgrades are possible via over-the-air updates? That could change things in a very big way.
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