Tesla Motors, Inc. Embraces New Tech: Ditching Keys for Apps and Paying Hackers?

Tesla (NASDAQ: TSLA  ) , headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., is just as much a technology company as it is a car manufacturer. From the 17-inch display in the all-electric Model S to the company's signature over-the-air software updates, Tesla is true to the Silicon Valley culture. It's no wonder the company is covered by journalists at major tech news sites like Re/code, The Verge, and Engadget.

The lines between the technology and auto industry will continue to blur at Tesla, and likely at most other auto manufacturers, too. But some recent news offers another reminder that Tesla wants to lead the charge in the emerging hybrid of tech on wheels.

Model S interior. Image source: Tesla Motors.

Hiring hackers?
Amidst the crowd of hackers this summer at Def Con, a security conference in Las Vegas, Tesla CEO Elon Musk and "hacker princess" Kristin Paget, who leads Tesla's digital security efforts, were searching for 20 to 30 security researches to hire, according to The Wall Street Journal.

What would hackers do at Tesla?

"It's a super-car that's connected to the Internet," Paget told the Journal. "Use your imagination."

Tesla already glorifies security researches on its website, where it lists 20 names in its "Tesla Security Research Hall of Fame" that have helped identify bugs for the company. But now, apparently, Tesla wants to build its own internal team of paid hackers.

It's not surprising that Tesla is ramping up its efforts in digital security. The Model S is probably the most connected car on the market. Using the Internet, Tesla allows owners to control basic functions like locking and unlocking the doors, flashing lights, and adjusting climate controls from a Tesla app. Further, over-the-air software updates, which zap changes to the vehicle's software using the Internet, not only improve the on-board software on the 17-inch screen, but sometimes offer new physical abilities for the Model S itself.

Image source: Apple App store.

As reliant on digital information and communications as the Model S is, it's important that Tesla is proactive in finding potential security bugs.

Ditching keys for apps?
Tesla dropped another surprise this month when it announced its next major update for the Tesla Model S operating system. While the most useful change in the update may be related to improved maps and navigation, the most interesting tidbit was the ability to use the app in place of the keyfob. Notably, owners will have to wait until the mobile app is updated with the new feature before they can test out this new tech.

As Electrek's Seth Weintraub pointed out, the ability to turn on the car with the App and without the keyfob was noted in the description of the v6.0 update.

Source: Electrek. Edited to point out applicable text.

9to5Mac speculates Tesla may tap into the fingerprint sensor on Apple's iPhone 5s and future iPhones since the company is making Touch ID available to third-party apps when the new software is launched next month.

To be clear, the innovation here is not that Model S owners will be able to start their car with an app. Many cars already have this feature. Instead, the major accomplishment is that Tesla suggests when it says "in case you forget your keyfob" that you will actually be able to drive the car without a keyfob in the car. Instead of using the keyfob to identify the owner, Tesla might choose to use owners' fingerprints with Apple's Touch ID.

Image source: Apple.

Tesla has been at the forefront of integrating tech into its vehicles since it launched the Model S in 2012. With its own operating system and a built-in 17-inch touch-screen display, however, Tesla has a key advantage over its competitors in controlling the experience. But, as big and experienced tech players like Apple make their way into the center console, competition for the increasingly flashy tech on wheels should heat up.

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