In October 2016, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced that all new Teslas would be equipped with the hardware capable for full-autonomy–to be used once the software became available. These cars, which Musk called “second-generation,” or “HW2” vehicles, come equipped with cameras, ultrasonic sensors, radar, and an advanced onboard computer. But at that point, many of the more basic autonomous driving features–like automatic emergency braking and lane guidance–had not yet been activated.

That changed last week, when an Autopilot update took effect for all HW2 Teslas made on or after October 19, 2016. The current updates will enable adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning and Autosteer–which currently can only be used for vehicles going up to 45 mph, although that will likely increase as more data is collected.

But while the update was welcome for HW2 Tesla owners, not everyone was able to take advantage. In response to the news, a Tesla owner queried Musk on Twitter, asking for a “retrofitting” option to integrate the tech in Teslas made prior to October 2016.

Musk’s answer revealed Tesla’s vision and outlined its pace of innovation:

While it is not news that Tesla’s advanced over-the-air updates can deliver major changes, even for the complex software that runs Autopilot, this is the first time Musk has explicitly stated Tesla’s plan to keep up the pace. Which, it should be noted, is at lightning speed compared to traditional automakers, who make these kind of changes, on average, every five years.

But Tesla, it is clear, is no traditional automaker. The tech behind Autopilot is sophisticated, and appeals to much of the same crowd that was first wowed by Apple’s iPhone. Like an iPhone, Tesla will continually improve and update.

And, like iPhones, Teslas may have a shelf life–in order to keep up, many owners will have to trade in their current model for an updated one.

The move “completely makes sense,” said Jeffrey Miller, IEEE member and associate professor of engineering at the University of Southern California. “Tesla is operating more as a technology company than an automotive company,” he said. “If we think about operating systems, there are new versions released at least once every two years. Tesla releasing major upgrades every 12-18 months is right in line with software development.”

Michael Ramsey, autonomous vehicle expert at Gartner, echoed this view of Tesla as defined by advanced tech.

“The over-the-air update capabilities built into the Tesla platform is the single biggest difference between Tesla and all other competitors,” Ramsey said.”Tesla is selling an expensive vehicle, but it is also giving customers a car that is at its least capable the day it arrives at the customer’s home. It is ever improving, and that growing capability is a big driver of enthusiasm for the brand.”

SEE: Tesla’s Autopilot: The smart person’s guide (TechRepublic)

Tesla’s over-the-air platform, Ramsey said, is far ahead of other auto companies. While some are doing over-the-air updates, “they’re just starting,” he said, “and they’re talking about their multimedia head unit. They’re not talking about adding in incredibly sophisticated autopilot software.”

Other automakers are “years away” from changing these capabilities in their vehicles. “It’s not that they can’t–it’s just that they won’t,” said Ramsey. “They don’t have the systems in place, and the platforms of their vehicles are not designed to do it.”

“Tesla is a rolling computer,” he said. “It is an absolutely software-based vehicle. All other car companies have tons of software in their cars, but they’re ultimately hardware-based vehicles that run software.”

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. On Saurday, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced that the company would release major upgrades every 12-18 months–much faster than most automakers, which release big updates every 5 years.
  2. The newest Autopilot update will apply to “second generation” or “HW2” vehicles that were made after October 19, 2016. These vehicles have the hardware for full autonomy.
  3. The pace of updates highlights Tesla’s unique position in the auto world, with its emphasis on software. Gartner analyst Michael Ramsey calls Teslas “rolling computers.”

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