By Bernie Woodall
DETROIT (Reuters) - Electric carmaker Tesla Motors Inc on Friday announced it is rolling out a software upgrade over-the-air to its current Model S owners, a unique ability that other automakers are expected to offer within a few years.
Tesla, based in Silicon Valley, has completed more than a dozen over-the-air software upgrades since the Model S was first sold in mid-2012, said Egil Juliussen, director of research for automotive electronic technology for IHS Automotive.
Juliussen said other automakers have completed some over-the-air software upgrades but only on an experimental basis.
Normally, when an automaker wants to upgrade software in on-board computers in cars that are already on the road, owners must bring vehicles to dealerships.
Tesla is able to upgrade software remotely, similar to software updates on smartphones.
About 30,000 vehicles have been updated over the air this year, almost all by Tesla. By 2020, a full one-fifth, or about 22 million new vehicles globally, will have the ability to accept software upgrades over-the-air, said Juliussen.
Juliussen said by 2015, over-the-air software upgrades to cars already in consumer hands will expand to 230,000 and reach 1 million in 2016.
"The cost savings alone will make it very attractive for the auto manufacturers to use over-the-air software upgrades," said Juliussen.
Automakers are expected, he said, to team up with software developers for over-the-air communication with the vehicles they have sold.
Three privately held software firms are in the lead in this venture, he said. They are Red Bend Software, based in Waltham, Massachusetts; Symphony Teleca Corp based in Silicon Valley; and Arynga, based in San Diego.
He said that it can cost $400 to $500 every time an owner brings a car into a dealership for a software upgrade. Doing so remotely will cut those costs dramatically, and dealers will not have to purchase as much equipment, Juliussen said.
For the current upgrade, Tesla Model S owners will be notified of the availability of it and will be asked to select a time for it to be downloaded, which takes several hours, Tesla spokeswoman Alexis Georgeson said.
Tesla, which connects to its cars through a 3G network of AT&T Inc, is calling the latest upgrade announced on Friday "Software v6.0." Tesla is rolling out the upgrades in North America and Europe now, and within a few weeks will be performing them for owners in its other markets, China, Hong Kong and Japan.
Among the new features being added in the current upgrade to the Model S are traffic-based navigation and commuting advice and remote starting by using a mobile phone.
(Reporting by Bernie Woodall; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)