This past week saw a wave of excitement around Tesla and their Model 3. I watched all of this with rapt attention as I saw what appears to be the start of the next chapter in personal transportation. It was all doubly compelling to me as someone who recently took ownership of a Model S.
Over the last few months as I’ve gotten to know this marvelous machine it has reenforced my expectation when ordering the vehicle that it was going to be a driving experience unlike anything else I’ve ever had.
This is by no means a comprehensive review of the Model S. I’m sure you can find dozens of far more qualified automotive journalists who have written in greater detail about this car than I ever could. Instead, I’m going to draw on my own background as a lifelong nerd and technology enthusiast to discuss what makes it so compelling to me.
The car I owned and drove prior to my Model S was a 2005 Toyota Corolla. By no means a sporty or even lively vehicle, but a reliable and sturdy companion that served me well for over a decade. So you can imagine, stepping up into a vehicle with as much performance in one wheel as that Corolla had in all four of its was quite a shock.
I have had the privilege of driving high performance vehicles before so the raw power the Tesla enjoys wasn’t altogether new. What is so striking when driving an electric vehicle, is the way it puts down that power.
Whenever I’ve driven before there was always a sense of drama in acceleration. In my Corolla with it straining to fulfill my direction, in an M5 with it proudly shouting about its ability to perform. In the Model S there is essentially zero drama. It just always has exactly as much power as I want, and lays it down on the road instantly and without fuss.
At first this sometimes felt a bit overwhelming, almost as if I were hammering in a picture hanger with Thor’s hammer. Having to be exceedingly careful to not slip on the pedal and suddenly be going 90. But over time this immediate power is rather intoxicating and reassuring.
The only real analogy I can think of to describe how different this feels is to compare it to SSD hard-drives. SSD hard drives when they came out were ‘worse’ than traditional spinning disks in a wide variety of ways. They were smaller capacity, sometimes had lower maximum throughput and were considerably more expensive. But, from the moment you first used one it completely ruined computers for you. Going back to spinning disks once you have tasted instantaneous delivery feels broken.
It is the same with driving a Tesla. There is essentially no latency in your driving interaction with the car. I’ve often heard car fanatics (especially those who love manual transmissions) describe the feeling of being ‘connected’ to their car as they drive it. That their desire and the car’s ability to deliver it become closely and completely linked. Tesla delivers that experience but without all the training and skill needed to dance with a transmission.
Perhaps most remarkable is how having regenerative braking changes things. Whenever I slide my foot slightly backward on the accelerator the car immediately begins to slow. The subtle difference between having to pull my foot all the way off the accelerator and then depress the brake makes a huge difference in how responsive the car feels to my desires.
Admittedly it took a few weeks to get smooth with it, but now that I have it is delightful. It feels like the car and I are perfectly in tune with each other about how I want it to move.
For better and worse charging things up has become a near constant part of my life. I charge my phone, my watch, my headphones and now my car. When we first started thinking about moving away from an exploding dinosaur vehicle to an electric one, charging took up most of the space on our concerns list.
Visiting a gas station had become so routine, familiar and expected as to almost feel inevitable. It is what I’ve been doing for the entirety of my driving career and so feels second nature. The thought of instead needing to remember to plug in my car each and every night was admittedly a bit daunting. In the end it has really been a rather boring non-event.
It is now just a simple habit that I am used to. I park the car, get out, walk around to open the door for my kids and on the way almost absentmindedly pull the charger from the wall and plug it in. It’s so unconscious now that I occasionally have moments of puzzlement trying to remember if I did it or not.
What surprised me most around charging was not what it was like to keep a car charged but instead how much it drew my attention to how awful gas stations are. We still have another car that requires increasingly less frequent trips to the gas station. The smell was oppressive and the experience decidedly gross.
Also surprising, was how nice it is to essentially always leave your house with a full ‘tank’. No more rushing out of the house, late for an appointment, only to discover that I have to stop for gas along the way. I had worried that I’d have a constant sense of anxiety about having enough charge, instead I find I think about keeping my vehicle fueled less than I did before.
We have taken our Tesla on 5 long distance road trips so far, the longest being 540 miles roundtrip. The experience of these is undeniably different. In some ways better and in some worse.
First off they now require more thoughtful planning. I can’t just head off onto the open road without a plan, expecting that there will be a gas station at each and every exit off the interstate. Now I need to sit down and think it all through more carefully. Personally I kind of enjoy this, I have a bit of a penchant for spreadsheets and formulas so it isn’t unpleasant work, but it is decidedly more work than I’ve had to do before on trips.
Secondly, the pacing of the trips is necessarily different. There have been road trips in the past when I have, admittedly foolishly, driven for hundreds of miles straight without stopping (usually when the kids were asleep and I feared waking them). This is simply just not an option any more. I am forced to take proper breaks every couple of hours whether I want to or not.
The reasonable part of me thinks this is for the best, that my tendency to push my ability to safely focus on driving beyond what I could do was reckless. This enforced pacing does also have its upsides. I will say that while the trips take longer to complete I arrive feeling noticeably better than before. Previously I’d always arrive home from a long drive feeling mentally and physically drained. Now I feel just slightly stiff from sitting for a few hours straight.
The last difference in driving long distances has to do with how autopilot (discussed in more detail next) changes your interaction with the trip. For long stretches of highway, where autopilot is very confident, your mindset changes away from intense focus and instead towards simple supervision.
The car is doing nearly all the work for you. I don’t (and shouldn’t) trust it enough yet to not continue to pay careful attention to what is going on but it is surprisingly restful to not have to be constantly making dozens of small adjustments and decisions. I suspect this also feeds into the experience of arriving at my destination feeling much less drained.
The Tesla’s autopilot features are mind-bendingly strange at first. There is something profoundly disconcerting about pulling a lever twice and then giving up primary control over a several ton vehicle traveling at 65 miles per hour. While I know intellectually that similar things happen all the time while I travel by air, rail or ship it feels very different to pull that lever myself.
I firmly believe that fully autonomous driving will become typical during my lifetime. It is a strange thought that I may never need to teach my 4 year old daughter how to operate a steering wheel. The experience of control and interaction that driving affords is a big part of what makes it pleasurable rather than just functional. Giving it up will be quite a significant change.
Tesla’s autopilot system is a far reach from truly autonomous driving but also tantalizingly close. It is very competent at typical and routine highway driving. It can hold its speed, adapting to changing traffic conditions. It can keep itself perfectly centered in a lane and on command perform neat, clean lane changes. Closer to home it can park itself with a precision I doubt I’ll ever match.
In its current state I consider myself a better driver than it is. I can anticipate things it can’t yet and make subtle adjustments that it hasn’t quite learned yet.
For example, it disclosed a little maneuver I do while driving that I was unconsciously performing each time someone passed me quickly. Whenever I’d notice a car speeding up in my side view mirror I’d shift slightly to the opposite side of my lane. A small adjustment, but one that leaves a bit more space between us.
It is a small thing for sure, but when I first tried to use autopilot I found I was intuitively pulling on the wheel whenever this happened and nervous because the car didn’t do the same. Instead it keeps itself perfectly centered at all times. I suspect its algorithm will improve over time but was slightly reassured that my 17 years of driving experience has led to some advanced skills it hasn’t quite matched yet.
As with everything Tesla does, autopilot seems to be getting better each and every software update (which as a side note is amazing…my car is better now than when I bought it, which is quite a thing).
While now I find I rely on autopilot mostly just situationally when having the extra help is useful, I imagine the days where my skill exceeds my car’s will be short-lived. Sadly I don’t get software updates, my driving is probably about as good as it will ever be. Autopilot is bound to catch up.
The last area I wanted to mention was how delightfully fun it is to have a car nearly as geeky as me. All the small things it can do by having a smart computer connected to a persistent internet connection.
Getting a push notification on my phone when my wife plugs in the car upstairs feels like magic. Or being able to check on the charging status when I’m thousands of miles away, such fun. Lots of these little abilities aren’t necessarily transformative on their own, but they are delightful nevertheless.
That said, I must admit that I find the Tesla app…well. kinda awful. It isn’t even updated for the iPhone 6 screen! (sigh)
But you know what, the joy of having a geeky car is that I can just write my own. Which is exactly what I did. It has been really fun to be able to think through how I would have designed an app for my car and then be able to write it for myself.
I’ve never really been a tinkerer with cars. I’m not the kind of person who can change their own oil. I’ve always really respected and admired those people but it just wasn’t me. It is really fun to finally have a car that I can tinker with. Using an API rather than a socket wrench.
I know and am keenly aware that writing a blog post extolling the virtues of an undeniably expensive car is ripe with peril. I thought long and hard about whether I even should. In the end what made me write this post was the overwhelming excitement I feel about driving it. It genuinely feels like the future. Each time I walk up to it, even months later, it puts a smile on my face.
Watching the Model 3 unveiling last week put an even broader smile. That Elon Musk and company have been able to pull such a marvelous machine into this world by sheer will is genuinely inspiring. I love that their goal in creating this amazing technology wasn’t to keep it reserved for a few, but instead drive earnestly and steadfastly towards making this as broadly accessible as they possibly can.
I’m glad that in some small way my getting this car has helped them change the world. That might sound a bit silly, and it probably is, but such is the effect owning this car has had.
Tesla has made me feel the same way I did about Apple back when the iPhone was introduced. A kind of boyish excitement about watching the future come into existence. Much like I did back then with the iPhone, when I started making apps for the App Store, I love feeling compelled to find what my own contribution to this story might be.