You may not have bought an iPhone 7 on launch day, but if you’re an Apple user, chances are you upgraded to iOS10 and got a bunch of new features that make your old phone feel newer. The auto industry is slowly moving toward the same model, with Tesla leading the pack. Because Elon Musk’s Model S sedan and Model X SUV are always connected, they can actually get better with age.

Starting today, a push notification on the car’s 17-inch touchscreen will inform more than 140,000 Tesla owners their new software is now available. One push of a button and their car gets a new user interface, improved Autopilot, and some clever new abilities.

Tesla calls it the most significant update to its UI since the Model S launched in 2014. The first thing owners will notice is that the touchscreen looks flatter (a trend we’ve been seeing across all UIs). The row of icons across the top, to select between music, maps, or the web browser, is cleaner and more modern.

The outdated skeuomorphism is gone. So are the outlines that made the climate control options look like distinct buttons. They also get a sharper looking font, and phone functions are repped by a smartphone icon, instead of a green handset.


The biggest functional updates concern the media player and the maps. A universal search feature has replaced sprawling menu trees for finding songs, stations, or podcasts. Presets, whether they’re playlists or podcasts, get big, bright on-screen buttons, usually featuring album or radio station art, which are easy to hit when driving. Annoyingly, Tesla’s in-car controls for tunes you play through a Bluetooth-connected phone lag far behind what other automakers offer. You can skip back or forward, but anything more complicated means picking up your device.

Maps now get the best real estate—the top half of the touchscreen, in the driver’s line of vision—by default. Responses to pinching and scrolling are fairly speedy, and the icons at the top of the screen (energy use, phone, web browser, etc) auto-hide if you don’t touch them for a while. That means more space for the map, but also extra eyes-off-the-road time for the driver who must tap the screen to reveal the buttons, then tap the option she’s looking for.

The highlight of Version 8.0 is the upgraded Autopilot system. Much of this work deals with how the car flags obstacles, but Tesla refreshed this interface, too. It enlarged the small steering wheel icon that indicates when the Autosteer function, which keeps the car in its lane, is engaged. The warning system that bugs drivers who take their hands off the wheel for too long now includes a pulse of white around the instrument cluster, along with the text and audio warnings. And now, if you ignore warnings to keep your hands on the wheel more than three times an hour, you’ll have to pull over and put the car in park to re-engage the auto steering system.

Maybe the most remarkable thing about the update is that it simply shows up on the car, like an over-the-air update to your smartphone. No visit to the dealer, no wishing you’d waited to buy your car until the latest version hit the market. This means your car gets better over time, and recalls get way easier. When hackers revealed they could remotely take over a Jeep, Chrysler mailed USB drives carrying the security patch to owners. This week, a Chinese team revealed it could mess with a Tesla’s brakes from 12 miles away. Tesla says it pushed a minor software update to fix the issue about a week later.

Fortunately for those without at least $60K to drop on a new electric car, mainstream automakers like Toyota, Ford, and Jaguar Land Rover are pursuing over the air updates, too. The ability to remotely improve the software that increasingly governs cars is a tantalizing new new revenue stream for automakers, and affords customers the ease of use they’ve come to expect from their smartphones.

That’s still a few years in the future. But if you’ve got a Tesla in your driveway, the future’s here now. Just give it an hour to install.


Here’s Your First Look at Tesla’s New Autopilot and UI