August 18, 2019

My Worst-kept Secret

My Worst-kept Secret

It's true; I've converted. Despite my upgringing, I've decided to leave it all behind. No longer will I be held back by my upbringing. I have thrown off the shackles and embraced a new way of living.

That's right; I've gone electric. Forget combusting the remains of long-dead dinosaurs, my vehicle now plugs into the wall. I haven't darkened the door of a gas station in many months. There is no going back from here. I'm a Tesla Model 3 owner (specifically, long range, dual-motor, non-performance) and proud of it.

How did this happen???

Well, it wasn't easy. I knew I would end up here eventually, but never thought it would be 2019. Maybe 2022, but not now. I didn't really care so much about electric; it was self-driving that meant something to me. An hour+ commute, each way, takes the life right out of a man. After nearly 13 years on the road, I really wanted to just sit back and relax while my vehicle got me there. Give me back those 10+ hours every week, so I can spend that time on important things. You know, like email. ;)

I didn't assume my electric future would end up being an electric today. Self-driving just isn't ready. Its getting closer, but given the legal hurdles, not to mention the technical ones, I didn't expect it to be ready for a few more years. Turns out, when all you need to do is go in a straight line on the highway for 40 miles, self-driving isn't as important as it is to, you know, just keep going without anyone focusing on making sure the vehicle stays between the lines.

I took the test-drive as a complete joke. I wanted to tell my team what it was like, since most of them had never seen one in person, much less been in one. It would be a fun story to tell after I came back from 3 months of time on the road for work.

Turns out, about halfway into the drive, I converted. I resisted for a couple months, but I don't think I'll ever forget the moment when I realized this was my next car. It would take a little math and a lot of thinking about the lifestyle change this would cause, but in the end, it was that moment during the first drive that my life would change.

I say its a poorly-kept secret...

...because I can't keep it a secret. It is amazingly fun. Those videos you've seen of people being shocked at the acceleration? Totally real. Those videos you've seen of people being freaked out when the driver takes their hands off the wheel, letting the car take over? Also, totally real. Those videos you've seen of the smug owners... well, yeah, totally real as well.

Watching a lawyer, in full three-piece suit, see me, dressed nearly as a homeless man, pop open the car door and get it, is an especially precious memory.

The 12 year old kid, eating dinner with his family at the table behind us, spending the whole meal talking about the Tesla he could see in the lot, was a fabulous memory. When he got up to hit the restroom, I offered his parents the option of giving him a tour of the car. They, and he, were surprised at the offer. Watching the kid sit behind the wheel, while his older sister took pictures of him doing it, was absolutely priceless.

I live in a state where the cars are not yet seen with that much regularity. People are still surprised to see one in front of them, especially with an owner who not only isn't precious about it, but is more than happy to stop and talk about how great of a vehicle it is. They ask almost the same questions every time, how far can you go?, is it really that fast?, where do you charge it?, do you really let it drive itself?, but they haven't yet gotten old to answer.

Nearing perfection

I love this car; it has made driving fun again. That may seem counter-intuitive, since much of the time I let the car do the driving. I've spent months with it, getting to know its foibles, its limitations and its hilariously bad decisions. When it fails, it does so incredibly predictably. The same spots on the highway confuse it. The same behaviors from other drivers cause it to give up and turn control back over to the driver (me).

Yet for all those failures, I wouldn't go back to a non-electric if you paid me. (Ok, not unless you paid me enough to also buy several electric cars.) My commuting situation, which makes the car a great option, is not common in my area. I have charging stations in my garage and at my office. There is a Tesla rapid charging station near my office, in case of emergencies. My round-trip commute is just less than half the distance the car can go on a full charge. I don't have to worry about charging.

The charging station at my office is free for employees. It's an employee perk, and one that is underused because of the small number of electric car owners at the company. We're a growing subculture, so I know this won't last forever, but the company keeps adding spots as employees keep buying EVs, and the company has no intent to stop adding new spots. I'm the only person who needs to charge more than once a week, which makes it convenient for me.

There are lots of things to love about this car:

  • Minimal controls. Two buttons on the steering wheel. Two stalks behind the wheel. A button on each door to open it. Buttons to open and close the window. Beyond that, use the touchscreen.
  • Its quiet. Get on a newer stretch of highway at speed. Turn off the radio & AC. Listen closely. It is incredible how much you don't hear. On my very first drive in my car, I had a large 4x4 truck pass me on the highway, and the loudest noise I could hear was the hum of the other vehicle's tires as it went by. Yes, the seals on the roof and doors could be better, but there are aftermarket kits to minimize that on the cheap. Without them, it is still a magical change to not hear an engine exploding (ok, controlled burning) fuel the entire ride.
  • Automation. The side-view mirrors fold in automatically when I start to park in my garage. The garage door opens automatically when I get close enough. The car unlocks when I get close enough to it. Besides putting a foot on the brake, I don't have to do anything when I get in the car, to make it go. No keys, no start button, nothing. These may seem like small things, but when you do them multiple times every day, they add up quickly, and become your favorite parts of the experience.
  • Software updates. We hate it when our computers need to install an update, but while it isn't lovely in a car, it is magical. What will this one hold? Will it be improvements to the self-driving? Better range and acceleration? Or just new fart sounds (yes, that's a real thing)? You don't know until it comes in, but its always interesting, even if not useful.

But the best part of owning a Tesla is the rethinking of the driving experience. When I take someone for a ride or drive, the first thing I tell them is to not think of it like any other car you've driven. It's a Tesla; not a car. If you try to drive it like you do every other vehicle you've owned, you're doing it wrong.

Deceleration is the area where this is the most apparent. Take your foot off the accelerator (not the GAS pedal) and it feels like you've just aggressively tapped the brake. Your goal should be to never touch the brake pedal until you're at 5mph or lower. Let off the accelerator gradually and coast to a stop. Do everything you can to recapture as much momentum into battery power as you can. This may seem easy to do, but habits die hard, and it will take you months to master this. I still routinely misjudge this, not to mention other drivers doing dumb things, requiring me to touch the brake at high speeds. Once you become experienced with the car, this will frustrate you like nothing else.

Missing the perfection mark

But it isn't perfect. There are things which I wish it did; things which seem like it should, even thought it doesn't.

  • Minimal controls. Opening the glove box requires me to go into a sub-menu on the touchscreen. Want to change the position of the air vents? You guessed it, the touchscreen. Wiper frequency? Music?
  • Voice command dictionary. Or, maybe I should say, the lack of one. Even after a lot of time searching the web, I still have zero idea of all the capabilities of this function. Its so poorly documented, I've used it maybe a handful of times in the 5 months I've owned the car. This could be amazing, but it simply isn't.

Making it more functional

But those things listed above are more annoyances than anything else. They take away from the overall experience, but not enough that they make a major difference in owning a Tesla. Even with them, and if you added a dozen more, the positives would still outweigh the negatives.

But those are the annoyances. They are frustrating, but minor. There are much bigger concers, and I don't want to make it seem like it is a friction-free experience.

  • Longer battery life. A range of 310 miles is a massive improvement in total capacity and efficiency, even over just a few years ago. Throw in the cost decreases for a range like this, and I shouldn't be complaining. That said, my prior vehicle could go 500+ miles on the highway (which is really only around 270 for the Tesla, if I'm honest). Half the range of a car that came out in 2012, even for a car that was pretty efficient for the time, frankly sucks. I would love to have an electric car that I charged only once a week.
  • Faster charging. This isn't the car's problem necessarily; it is capable of rapid charging, but only at a Tesla Supercharger. I installed a Tesla fast(er) charging station in my garage, which can add around 43 miles of range every hour of charging, making for a zero to full charge in about 7 hours. My office has a charger that adds aroudn 21 miles of range every hour, making for an all-day charge if I don't charge every day. True, the supercharger can charge it most of the way to full in about an hour, but those are fairly rare in my area, so if you need it, you have to plan accordingly. Tesla's mapping features make this more predictable, but it would be better to not need to think about it. Charging in the same amount of time as a gas fill-up is probably unreasonable for the near future, but its a goal for which we should be aiming.
  • Better phone integration. This is probably the largest head-scratcher of the entire experience. There is no Qi charging; you have to buy it after the fact. Streaming audio in the car is nice, but I want to do so from my phone. Music and phone calls work great, but podcast support is awful, since you don't get podcast or episode art. The lag for skipping forward via bluetooth is terrible. Not all of this is Tesla's fault, but they haven't done much to make it better, either.
  • More touchscreen functionality. What I wouldn't give to be able to see weather data on that 15" screen. Being able to know when I'm going to run into a storm front would be an amazing feature. This is one that frankly stuns me by its absence. The moment you think about it, it makes so much sense to use that massive screen for this purpose.
  • Better traffic & routing. Routing is accurate, but Waze-like features would be a beautiful addition. The fleet is growing rapidly and this should be possible. Right now, on days and times when there is never going to be traffic, I still see yellow and red lines on the display. I get that there is the possibility of traffic in these locations, but the lack of actual traffic information is painful. Dynamic routing is a related frustration.
  • Points of interest. Yes, the map displays some randomly, but give me a way to find the ones I want. Integrate Yelp! data to show me the best restaurants in my area. Show me where I should go when visiting a new place. There is a wide open space on that screen; give me the ability to select what I want to see, then fill it up.

Mind the Lane

Getting there is the most important, but getting there without noticing is even better. I didn't purchase the full self-driving capability, as I don't buy speculative software, knowing how hard features like this are to implement. I want to see Tesla, and the entire industry, succeed in making these capabilities a reality, but I'm not willing to directly pay for the research necessary to make it a reality. Paying for it after the fact is fine, in fact its great, but not when it is currently vapor-ware.

I did, however, pay for advanced Autopilot. If you're not familiar with the difference, I explain it this way. Autopilot allows you to be distracted with a high level of confidence that the car can keep going in whatever lane you left it. Self-driving is telling the car your destination and letting it figure out how to get there without you telling it what to do. Since I drive the same route every day, and that route is mostly rural and incredibly predictable, autopilot was sufficient for what I needed.

What is great is that this isn't a forever decision. Any other vehicle, if I didn't buy that feature before the car left the lot, then I would be without it forever. With a Tesla, I can add that on later, albeit for a higher cost than it would have been had I purchased it with the vehicle. Given those features really don't exist right now, I'm good with waiting.

As amazing as autopilot is, it has some pretty big holes. These are holes that I know Tesla is working on improving, but in the 5 months I've owned the vehicle, they haven't improved in a noticeable way. That's ok, since I don't really need them to improve that much beyond what they already do, but it would be nice for them to get better. Here's the ways that I would like to see this feature improve:

  • Disappearing road line. The car will only engage autopilot when it can see the road lines on both sides of the vehicle. If you're in the middle of an exit or onramp, forget it; you just need to wait till the car can see both lines near it again. Not a deal-breaker, but is a sign that autopilot has some significant limitations.
  • Overzealous deceleration. Are you near an on-ramp, where that line has disappeared, and another car is near? Be prepared for a little whiplash as your car decelerates rapidly to ensure it isn't in an accident. Has there been asphault pavement replaced on either side of a bridge overpass? Wait for your car to slow to a crawl in the middle of a highway because it (I guess) assumes that the road ends and is about to fall off the Cliffs of Mohar. These are just two situations where you need to be prepared to take over, because your car is going to do something dumb, or just give the f*ck up while at high speeds. I'm not suggesting its wrong in doing this, only that it is incredibly frustrating it doesn't yet recognize these scenarios.
  • Potholes. We all hate them, especially in areas which see real winters, but the Tesla will make you hate them, and your local Department of Transportation, even more. Potholes often occur in two parts of the road: the line markers, where pavement seams occur, or more importantly, where the tires of your car traverse. See, Tesla's try to stay in the very center of the lane. That sounds good, in practice, but when it can't see far enough ahead to avoid a pothole, and you are slammed in your seat every day by the same hole in the pavement, it begins to be a less than fun drive.
  • Learning from the meat-bag behind the wheel. Related to the last three points, I now take over from the car whenever I know one of those situations is coming up. I drive this section of road often enough that I know every dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge in the road. It would be fantastic if the car could understand that I just took over because it was dumb about this section of road, so maybe it should learn from what I'm doing and, you know, do that on its own. At this point, we're still smarter than the machine (if less consistent). Assume that I've got my own best intentions in mind and try to learn from me.
Samuel Jackson on Youtube

Final Judgements

Would I buy the car again? Yes. Over and over and over again. There is nothing on the market even close right now.

If there were something similar on the market, would you buy that instead? Maybe. I've been watching what every other company in the market is doing, and frankly, none of them have the fleet to learn from the real-world that Tesla has. Is this a deal breaker? No, but it is a real concern. Only Waymo comes close, but they're focusing on a taxi fleet and not consumer-owned vehicles.

Do I think that Elon Musk's comments oversell the capabilities of the car and the company? Absolutely. Don't believe the hype, but the end state of this vehicle is still unknown. While I have lost a lot of respect for traditional car manufacturers over the last few decades during my time as a driver, there is one thing that they do which Tesla has not, and that is release reliable cars every single time. While the Tesla is fantastic for what it is, it isn't perfect every time off the production line. My car had chips in the paint on the trunk when it arrived at the pickup location. The hood is slightly misaligned. These are trade-offs that I am entirely willing to make to get this car, but they are annoyances that I would not have with any other manufacturer.

Should you purchase this car? That's difficult to answer. The lower-cost models make compromises that I could only recommend if you are using this only as a short-distance daily driver. If this is a commuter car, and you have a free charging station at one end, then absolutely. If not, well, that's more difficult to say. I suggest you do some investigation (don't take Tesla's analysis for granted; I did not) and see if the financials work out for you.

One thing I can recommend is having a nephew that can make an AMAZING video of your new car. Click the link above to get an idea of what its like to be the guy who knows a guy who owns a Model 3. If you've never had anyone make an introduction video of your car, I know a guy. Get in touch; he'll hook you up.