Tesla is rolling out a 360-degree surveillance system to some of its cars from today, as the company doubles down on its efforts to protect its premium electric vehicles (EVs) from bumps and break-ins.
Dubbed “sentry mode,” the new feature will use all eight on-board cameras to provide a holistic view of everything going on outside. This upgrade comes a few months after Tesla introduced a new dashcam feature with version 9.0 of its software, however that only captured footage from the front-facing camera — and only when the car was active. With sentry mode, not only are all cameras used, but they are functional when the car is inactive (i.e. parked) and they can initiate a number of security-focused deterrents.
Sentry mode is designed for two core scenarios. First, not everyone that interacts with a parked car is trying to break in or cause damage — they may be leaning on it to tie their shoelace, or they may accidentally brush against it. Such actions will send Tesla into a state of “alert,” which displays a message on the car’s screen informing onlookers that there are cameras recording. But if a window is broken, for example, then the Tesla is sent into a state of “alarm” — this will not only activate the alarm, but also increase the brightness of the touchscreen display, and blare out classical music at full volume.
The rollout, which was promised by Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk last month, is arriving via an over-the-air (OTA) software update today, but only for Model 3 owners in the U.S. This will be followed later by Model S and Model X vehicles that were built after August 2017.
Tesla Sentry Mode coming soon for all cars with Enhanced Autopilot https://t.co/x2buQWiABX
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 22, 2019
It’s also worth highlighting another notable new feature Tesla is rolling out — apparently at the request of a Tesla driver on Twitter. “Dog mode,” as its name suggests, regulates the in-car climate control when leaving a canine friend inside a parked Tesla, and an on-screen message alerts passers by that the dog is just fine.
In the domestic realm, home camera systems have been all the rage in the past couple of years, Amazon snapped up camera-focused doorbell maker Ring for more than $1 billion, while Swedish lock giant Assa Abloy acquired August, a company that makes doorbell cameras. But people want to secure their cars as well as their homes — according to official FBI figures, almost $6 billion was lost to motor vehicle thefts in the U.S. in 2017, involving more than 770,000 vehicles.
Tesla’s sentry mode clearly caters to a growing demand, but it is far from perfect. First up, if you want to record video, you’ll need to have a FAT32-formatted USB drive plugged into the car prior to activating sentry mode — this is similar to how the main dashcam feature works. Plus, you need to activate sentry mode each time you want to use it — e.g. every time you park the car — by tapping through the on-screen controls.
Second, while owners are issued a useful alert via the Tesla mobile app informing them that there has been an incident, it appears that they can’t access the video remotely. They need to return to the car, remove the USB drive, and download the videos to a physical computer. Tesla cars are capable of some wonderful things — they can pretty much drive themselves, and they are also fully connected, so requiring drivers to jump through all those hoops just to get 10 minutes of video feels like a whole lot of hassle in an age of 24/7 connectivity.
Over and above all this, there appears to be nothing to stop a burglar from simply stealing the USB drive.
So in a perfect world, what would sentry mode look like? It’s worth looking at Palo Alto-based Owl Cameras for ideas. The startup, which has raised $28 million across two funding rounds in the past 12 months, sells a little dashboard-mounted camera that streams video directly to your smartphone — live or on-demand, 24/7. Additionally, it films inside and outside the vehicle, and offers a bunch of additional smarts including audio detection — it can identify the sound of broken glass, and send special alerts if someone breaks in. The key takeaway here, though, is that you don’t have to mess around with USB drives.
With sentry mode, Tesla could be onto something, but for now it feels more like a hack than a real feature.