I don’t recall when I first heard about Tesla, but I knew I wanted a Model S as soon as I first saw it. It was the first all-electric vehicle I saw that didn’t look like a clown car. It also had insane performance specs, lane-keeping, traffic-aware cruise control, self-parking, ultrasonic distance sensors to prevent scrapes, and over-the-air updates that promised a continuously improving driving experience.
I’ve never really been much of a car guy, or understood the appeal of nice cars. My typical car ownership experience prior to a Tesla was “I’m going to find something cheap that I can drive into the ground.” Cars are depreciating assets that are prone to damage. Therefore, luxury vehicles felt like a waste of money.
I put off test driving a Tesla for a long time, because I was afraid it’d flip a switch and I would suddenly understand why people like nice cars. In fact, I put off a test drive until I knew I could afford it and was mentally prepared to spend more on a car than I’d spent on all prior cars combined. And it’s a good thing I waited. As soon as I felt the instant torque and heard the Hollywood-spaceship-esque whine of the electric motor, I just had to have it.
By the time I was on a highway, the salesman asked me when I was thinking of buying a Tesla. “Umm right now,” I said. I’m guessing he got that sort of response all of the time from people, because I never felt like I was taken seriously. I’m not sure if it was that I didn’t give off the appearance of someone ready to buy, or if it was due to Tesla’s approach to sales—focusing on a positive experience with salespeople who are not paid commission—but I ended up not buying the car that day. The sales team basically said farewell and told me to contact them when I was ready for an overnight test drive to make sure it’s what I wanted.
I set up the overnight test drive a few days later. Pam and I took turns driving it that night, probably putting 100 miles on the Model S P90D, one of the quickest performance models. It definitely sealed the deal, not that there was any question in my mind prior to that.
I ordered the options I wanted through the Tesla website and waited roughly two months for delivery. Tesla gets a lot of flak for defective deliveries, and you can find a few horror stories online of people describing delivery problems and rework. Thankfully, I didn’t have any major problems. I noticed a minor paint defect on the trunk and a few other cosmetic issues, all of which Tesla fixed. I took delivery with the commitment that those items would be fixed gratis in a service appointment.
I had disliked driving for many years. Inattentive drivers, reckless drivers, heavy traffic, and a history of minor crashes have made me wary. I’m still like that to some degree, but Tesla’s Autopilot features have taken a lot of the stress out of long drives. If my car is on a highway, I undoubtedly have Autopilot engaged. Autopilot doesn’t replace the need for a driver, but it certainly helps. Traffic-aware cruise control, lane-keeping, and lane changing make highway driving effortless.
Unfortunately, a lot of people believe that Autopilot makes your car self-driving. It does not. I’ve had other Tesla owners tell me they read and respond to email during their commute because Autopilot can drive for them. That is incredibly dangerous, considering conditions have to be right for Autopilot to identify what it should and shouldn’t do. It’s a long way off from fully autonomous driving. But, it is incredible at what it can do. I once took a trip to Louisville and was able to keep Autopilot engaged for roughly 95% of the journey. I had to handle onramps and offramps, brief city street driving, and other cars coming a little too close for comfort.
The good news is that Autopilot in its current state is a great driver assistance tool. Instead of zoning out and pretending the car can drive itself, I’m now freed up to pay more attention to my surroundings. Fast braking, speed changes, and curvy Interstate lanes are handled just fine by Autopilot. It even responds to erratic behavior of the car in front of the car I’m following, oftentimes applying the brake a split second before the car between us. That means I now have more mental space for watching other drivers who don’t yet have the same luxuries. I am definitely a better driver with Autopilot. However, I—and most anyone that has a license—am a better driver than Autopilot is alone.
Summon and Auto Park
One of the most impressive things you can do is summon your car in or out of the garage. This is incredibly handy if you have a tight garage and don’t want to crawl out of your car after parking. Step outside of the car in your driveway, press a button on your keyfob or mobile app, and the car will slowly pull in to the garage. It can also automatically open and close garage doors if you want it to. It’s a cool feature that has worked well for me, but I don’t frankly trust it to not slam into a closed door yet, so most of the time I open and close the garage myself.
Auto Park is a related feature. In the right conditions, the Tesla will park itself in either a perpendicular or parallel parking space. This has been more of a mixed bag for me. Oftentimes it works great. Other times, I’ve stopped Auto Park and shamefully backed in and out of a space several times to prevent hitting a parked car.
I never realized how much I hated gas stations until I bought my Tesla. Never having to stop at a crowded, busy gas station is a benefit that electric vehicle marketers should speak about more often. I simply plug in at home to get enough charge for all of my local driving needs. I rarely travel more than a few dozen miles in a day, and my car has a range of approximately 250 miles per charge. With that amount of driving, I got by for months on a standard 120V 15A outlet charging my car. That’s what a lot of people call “trickle charging,” giving me approximately 4 miles of range for every hour I charge. When you plug in overnight, that’s plenty for most people. Eventually my father-in-law offered to help me install a 240V 50A outlet to speed things up. That gives me approximately 30 miles of range for every hour I charge.
Tesla recommends leaving your car plugged in as often as possible. This reduces wear on the battery and gives your car the ability to warm up or cool off using AC power from your house. Staying plugged in is especially great in colder weather. Electric vehicles work best with a warm battery, and plugging in allows your car to “precondition” before you drive off. If you don’t pre-warm the battery, your car will software-limit the power available to you until the car warms up. It’s annoying, but is another thing Tesla does to try to reduce wear on the battery.
Charging While Travelling
While you’ll never have to stop for gas, you will need to take time to charge up your battery on long trips. This is the only thing I have ever worried about with my car. If you forget to charge or can’t charge, you’re out of luck. Tesla’s navigation software does a great job of reminding you when and where to stop—and for how long—if it believes you will need more power to reach your destination.
Coupled with the navigation software, Tesla’s Supercharger network is excellent. I’ve heard that there can be more frustration in big cities where Teslas are more popular, but I’ve never had to wait for a charging station at a Supercharger in the Southeast.
If you’re expecting to charge for 5 minutes and travel 500 miles, though, I’ve got some bad news. Charging takes more time than fueling up a normal car. A Supercharger can give you up to ~300 miles of range per hour. While it takes a little more planning than a typical road trip, you can have this work to your advantage in most situations. Most Superchargers are located near shops and restauraunts. Lower-power Destination Chargers—which can offer 20-30 miles of range per hour—are often in hotel parking lots, office parks, or local attractions. If you plan it right, you can simply have a meal at a restauraunt while waiting for your car to charge.
The Chattanooga Supercharger, for example, is located in the airport parking lot. This seemed like a terrible location until I went inside. There’s a great coffee shop / bar, art from local artists, and a live webcam view of a nearby aquarium. For my typical trip through Chattanooga, I need to charge for 15 minutes. That’s just long enough to down a cup of coffee and stretch my legs.
Again, though, longer trips take more planning. I recently spent an entire evening looking for hotels with charging options to reduce the time I would spend charging during the day on a long road trip. It doesn’t make the actual trip much less convenient, it just means thinking more ahead of time. Having to stop every few hours isn’t all bad. You’re likely going to need to stop for a restroom or food anyway. Additionally, it’s made me reconsider how I approach travel. I’m no longer rushing to get to a destination as quickly as possible. I’m learning to enjoy the entire journey.
I receive a software update over-the-air about once a month for my car. This is made possible through Tesla’s included 4G cellular service, which also gives you access to streaming services like Slacker Radio and TuneIn. The car also supports WiFi, which Tesla recommends connecting to your home Internet service for faster download speeds as some software updates can be a bit large. These software updates range from the mundane to the thrilling. I’ve received updates for everything from automatic windshield wipers to ever-improving Autopilot updates that unlock more driving assistance features in more driving environments.
The most recent update goes so far as detecting construction zones. The car will navigate shifting or merging lanes to avoid construction barriers and road cones. Another example is a feature I hope I never need: side collision avoidance. If my car detects an imminent and unavoidable side impact, it will attempt to steer away to lessen the impact.
The generally rapid pace of new feature development and the promise of future software updates make the car feel evergreen. Just when I think I’m getting used to everything my car has to offer, I’ll receive an update that makes it feel like a new car again.
The newness has yet to wear off. I have never enjoyed driving a car as much as I enjoy driving the Model S. Despite its size and weight, it’s a very responsive—and quick!—car. It’s the largest car I’ve ever owned, but it doesn’t feel like it. The electric motor’s instant torque makes any other car I drive feel slow.
Speeking of other cars, starting and stopping is also a bit different. When you get in, there’s no key to insert or even button to press. Put your foot on the brake, shift into gear, and you’re moving. When it comes time to exit the car, you just get out. Hard pressing the brake activates a brake hold so the Tesla won’t move again, even if it’s still in gear. Also, opening the driver door while stopped will automatically place the car in park. Once I got used to it, I began forgetting how to drive a normal car. Borrowing my wife’s car always makes me laugh because I inevitably forget to turn her car on, forget to put it in park, or walk out while it’s still on. Tesla made starting and stopping the car unbelievably simple.
Entering the car is also a bit of geeky fun. The door handles retract into the door panels when not in use. It’s an eye-pleasing design decision, and watching your door handles come out to greet you as you approach the car never gets old.
There’s also regenerative braking. As soon as you let go of the accelerator, the car is going to slow down pretty quickly. You can turn this feature from “Standard” to “Low” if you don’t like it, but it’s especially useful on long drives where you want to maximize your battery range. There’s a stretch of road near Chattanooga, for example, where I regain 4 miles of charge due to regen doing its thing all the way down an incredibly long and steep grade.
I Can’t Go Back
I won’t definitively say that I’ll only own Tesla vehicles the rest of my life, but I never want a traditional car again. The niceties of electric vehicles offset any “range anxiety” or concerns about driving range on a single charge. Over-the-air software updates are also fantastic, meaning I’ll get the most out of the car’s hardware that the manufacturer can provide. The traffic-aware cruise control and evolving Autopilot driving assistance features are also life-changing on the road. It’s a rolling computer more than a car. It makes driving fun again.