At the end of last year, Tesla rolled out a software update that was intended, among other things, to simplify the interface drivers use to control the vehicle. I wrote at the time that it was a bad sign for Tesla drivers because the company seemed to have lost sight of what actually mattered in favor of what it thought was cool. I made the point that it was a lesson in what happens when you lose sight of the promise you make to your customers.
The update was probably well-intentioned. It made it easier to get to things like the SiriusXM radio app, video games, Spotify, or the super-useful "Caraoke," Tesla's in-vehicle karaoke app. Yet as much fun as it is, I'm not sure anyone was begging for the ability to quick-launch a karaoke app while waiting in the school pickup line.
On the other hand, you know what is a really useful thing to access if you live anywhere other than Southern California? The defroster. Or, if you live anywhere that isn't a desert, windshield wipers could come in handy.
Unfortunately, with that update, you couldn't put either of those on the dock. Sure, you still had access to the vehicle's climate controls, for example, but you had to tap on them to open another screen where you could select the front or rear defroster. As someone living in Michigan, I can personally attest that the defroster is one of those controls you don't want to have to try and tap your way through menus while driving 70 mph down a highway as your windshield fogs up.
There are any number of things you could say are wrong with Tesla's philosophy of what a "car" is. The current steering yoke in the most recent Model S is Exhibit A. That, combined with a complete lack of physical controls, makes the experience of driving a lot more, well, interesting.
The software update, however, was easily the worst mistake -- and not because it was buggy. It was bad by design.
Tesla's latest software update finally fixes that. As the release notes indicate, you can now "add vehicle controls such as defrost, windshield wipers, and seat heaters to the bottom bar." The windshield wiper thing is especially helpful, since Tesla's newest models don't even have a physical control to turn them on.
I think it's fair to argue Tesla made a big mistake by changing its software in a way that made its vehicles worse to actually drive. It doesn't matter how cool your thing is if it doesn't deliver on the promise you make to your customers. For a car, that promise is that it will let you go where you want reliably and safely. Not having access to basic controls isn't reliable or safe.
To be fair to Tesla, the company seems to have recognized this, and the current update is an acknowledgment that it was a mistake. More importantly, it fixed what was broken in a way that makes the car useful as a thing you drive around.
That's actually a big deal for Tesla. More and more, it seems clear that the company doesn't actually want to drive its cars. In an ideal world -- at least the one Elon Musk seems to imagine -- people wouldn't be bothered by things like navigating a car along city streets on the way to work. They'd just get in, tell the car where they want to go, and it would do all the work while they read a book, take a nap, or watch a movie.
The obvious problem is that we don't live in that world, and even if we do someday, we're a very long way from it. That means that the mundane things like turning the steering wheel, applying pressure to the brakes, and defrosting the windows are still up to us humans.
That's especially true when the thing you're trying to fix might not have been actually broken. This happens when you think you have a better idea about how someone should use their device than they do. Just because it seems like a fun idea to the person at the top doesn't make it a good idea.
That's the lesson, really. If you're the one at the top, your job is to serve your customers today. That's what keeping your promise looks like in the real world. You know: the one we actually live in.