Leave it to Musk to make bold statements ... He recently tweeted:
Tesla press conf at 9am on Thurs. About to end range anxiety ... via OTA software update. Affects entire Model S fleet.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 15, 2015
OTA means "over the air," or wirelessly via the EV's cellular internet connection.
How intriguing is that tweet?
Just for fun, let's make a few educated guesses about what he could be referring to: Range anxiety is a perception problem about electric cars. In the real world, few EV drivers ever get stranded without power (something that also happens to gasoline car drivers...), but still, people who are considering buying EVs are afraid of it so it needs to be addressed.
So far Tesla has done that mostly by offering larger battery packs than the competition (though this comes at a higher price too, which they justify by having a more luxurious and higher performance car than other EVs) and by building out a large network of free-to-use 'Supercharger' quick-charge stations around the countries where Teslas are sold.
Clearly, these Superchargers, as well as other non-Supercharger stations which are also sprouting everywhere like weeds, are important to reduce range anxiety, but it's not really something that you can do much about with a software update.
Another thing that Tesla has done to reduce range anxiety is to make the Model S have the capability to do rapid battery swapping at robotized stations (all it takes is 90 seconds, faster than filling up a big tank of gasoline). A demonstration of this was made a couple years ago, but so far Tesla hasn't deployed a network of battery swapping stations, possibly because the Superchargers are enough for most of its customers.
Again, this isn't something that the company can do much about via a software update.
So what are we left with?
Things that are already in the Model S, obviously. So far the company has improved performance marginally with software updates, but it's doubtless that there's a huge low-hanging fruit left that could "end range anxiety" just by tweaking the efficiency of how the electric motors and power electronics work.
So what is it?Here's my guess: Tesla, probably through extensive testing and by designing its battery packs a certain way, has become confident that using reserve power from its battery packs isn't too damaging, so they'll create a new mode that allows drivers to explicitly tap into those reserves when they need to.
What do I mean? Well, electric cars and hybrids extend battery life by not fully charging and discharging batteries. The exact numbers will vary between models, but say that the top and bottom 10% of a battery might rarely be touched, so you mostly charge and discharge the 80% in the middle. Over time as the battery ages, you might start to eat into that reserve to compensate for the loss of charge and keep the practical range the same.
If Tesla has found that going into that battery reserve once in a while is something that the battery pack can handle well, they could offer a new driving mode via software that basically allows drivers to say go into those areas. This can be great if you run out of charge somewhere and just need to go a few more miles to reach a charging station, or if you want to drive a long distance without stopping.
If the reserve is 20 percent (just a guess), on a 265-mile range Tesla, that's an additional 53 miles, for a total of 318 miles. That's significant enough that it could truly end range-anxiety for many.
But it's just a guess. Maybe on Thursday, Elon Musk will announce a completely different software update. Maybe something like better feedback to the driver so that they're always completely aware at a glance of how far they are from charging stations and how much juice is left in the battery, so that they never end up somewhere far from charging points with a low charge by accident... Who knows? Stay tuned!