Driving the Tesla

It is now almost three months and 7’000 kilometers. So I thought, I write a small review for my Tesla S85.

Silence

The immediate most notable difference when driving an electric car is the absence of the engine noise. People who drive big engine gasoline cars often assure how essential this is to their driving experience. I was curious how I would feel about that myself. The V12 has a distinctive sound, but in the Jaguar it is not amplified at all. Instead it is running very silently. I also had my “hey look, my ride can produce louder noises than yours” days when tuning mopeds. But that ended when puberty was over.
People coming from diesel engines don’t seem to miss the sound as much as the petrol heads. After all, most diesel cars still sound like tractors.
Turns out, it is incredibly peaceful to drive along in complete silence. I missed the engine noise not a single time. There are occasions where pedestrians or cyclists didn’t expect a car to be so close, but that is just something to be a bit more alert. And there is the occasional awkward situation when somebody clearly never saw an electric car before and stares at it in disbelieve.

Controls

The most notable difference when you enter the car is the absence of any controls other than what is around the steering wheel. Instead there is the gigantic touch screen in the center. It controls everything from the navigation system to the music to the suspension to the sun roof to the interior and exterior lights and almost everything else. After reading books about haptic user interface design, I expected this to have occasional disadvantages. There is obviously something to it, to have the switch for the sun roof located next to the sun roof and being able to operate it blindly. But I got used to managing everything with the touch screen quicker than I anticipated. And it has many advantages of its own. It gives much more control, and can be changed with over the air software updates. And it is generally easier to learn. Let’s not forget that the car does most of these things automatically anyway.
Another notable control that is absent is the gear selector lever. There is a handle to switch between “D”, “N”, “R” and “P” attached to the steering wheel column. But it doesn’t allow to restrict the (not present) transmission to lower gears. If you like to drive curvy mountain roads in a sporty manner, you may think you’d miss that. But think about it for a moment longer. The only two reasons you shift to a lower gear before a curve is to decelerate and have more torque available for acceleration. The Tesla not only decelerates when you lift your foot before the turn, it converts the kinetic energy back into electricity and stores it in the battery. And when you hit it again, the torque is immediately available without any special manipulation. In effect, the only reason for wanting a gear stick back is nostalgia.

Software

As cars get more and more computerized, and as I read stories of cars getting equipped with mainstream mobile operating systems, I started to worry. I never wanted a car running iOS, Android or god beware Windows. So I was relieved big time when I learned that the Tesla cars run on Linux and have a Qt interface. This is absolutely the best choice and I salute the engineers to it. Tesla is often described as a technology company, rather than a car company. That certainly shows in their technology decisions. As a software developer, I can attest them that they are all very sound. This trend continues with the later models, and how they react to problems with the older autopilot hardware. One further instance where I can applaud them is how they handled reports of a security vulnerability in their mobile app. They acknowledged it and were very quick to push an improved version. This is in stark contrast to other car manufacturers who try to neglect for as long as they possibly can.

Security

Tesla stated many times that security is their single most important concern. This was mainly about safety on the road. But also their security practices with regard to the computer systems seems to be sound. Except for one thing. To gain control through means of the remote app, only an eMail address and a password is required. This in turn allows you to open the doors, start the car and and drive it. Adding two factor authentication would be much preferred. And if you are at it, make is solid hardware based like FIDO U2FA.

Mechanics

Other car companies (especially from Germany) moan about lower quality, but so far I found nothing that would back that claim. They also badmouthed Jaguar for that, while I had many more problems with German cars than with English ones. They go to great lengths explaining how their gap dimensions are tighter, giving them better aerodynamics. But hey, go on priding yourselves with efficiency improvements from 35 to 36% while the electric drive train starts above 90%.
With petrol engine and gearbox transmissions out, there are far fewer parts that can break and that need maintenance. One common meme is that a Tesla has exactly six consumable parts: 4 tires and 2 windshield wipers. No oil, and a much smaller and easier coolant circulation also put an end to smeary puddles on the parking lot.

Maintenance

Nothing is perfect. The one thing that worries me and many other Tesla owners is the maintenance cost after they run out of warranty. Yes there is less stuff that can break. And reports from what I read so far attest that the prices for spare parts were reasonable. Further, Elon promised that they don’t want to make too much money with repairs. But the repair manuals are very hard to get. And there are reports where they denied to deliver spare parts. So in essence we are very dependent on their goodwill. More so than I like. One thing I already found out is that the hourly rates are much higher than what the company charges, where I had my cars fixed so far. I’m looking forward for a haynes manual at least.

Environment

One thing that I didn’t expect to make such a big difference, is the good feeling from caring about the environment. Of course there are people who try to discredit all the benefits. The biggest part is CO2, but also apart from that, ICE cars emit lots of other toxic gases and dust. Even if coal was used to produce the electricity, the plants would have far better filters an no cheating software. If you look at the whole chain, there are no oil tankers, no exploding oil drilling platforms and no enormous pipelines required to power an electric car. The metric to look at the whole value chain is called “well to wheel“. The difference in overall efficiency is gigantic. Gasoline cars are at 12% while electric cars are somewhere between 32% and 70% depending on the source of the electricity.
There is still a lot of education to do.

Choose your bleeding edge

Are early adopters usually interested in only one new technology, or generally forward looking and open to innovation?
I encountered multiple startups that seem to assume the former. As a company you want to make your product available for a large number of potential users. But who are your potential users? Sometimes you have to choose one or more platforms where you make your product available. This decision is especially important for startups with limited resources. It might be a difficult choice. Either exclusively opt for an established platform with a large user base. Or add support for an emerging contender with fewer users. Now I would argue those fewer users are more likely to try your new product. This is because if you already use bleeding edge technology in one field, you are more likely to experiment with innovative new ideas in other areas as well. But this is only my humble opinion. Of course there are more potential users on the legacy platforms. But how many of them are there because they were told so, and would never venture into something new on their own?
Let me list a couple of examples I ran into:

  • Ubuntu phone is still a relatively new operating system for smart phones. Canonical canceled their efforts on it last week. I’ll keep using it because it is still the best option if you value your freedom. But there are a few things about it that I really don’t understand. For somebody to choose ubuntu phone, one has to be dissatisfied with the existing, well established alternatives. Probably you don’t like the paternalism on the iOS platform, and the privacy intrusions on Android. So why does UP ship with no real email app installed, but only a gmail web app? This is not giving them what they are used to, but trying to force them into the very thing they are trying to escape. Why would they ship with google as the only option to synchronize PIM data from the settings screen? And why would they still after 2 years only add OwnCloud to the GUI? Is it really so hard for Canonical to imagine that people store their contacts and appointments on a standard CalDAV store using their own Ubuntu server product? Don’t get me wrong on that. It is great to be open to competing platforms. But to penalize your own users is clearly not the solution.
  • Tesla make awesome cars. They are at the forefront of innovation for electric vehicles. And they are pushing the boundaries of autonomic driving for consumers. Yet they still only accept ancient forms of payments for their products and services. Out of all the stories of cars bought with Bitcoin, Tesla is mentioned most often by a big margin. Yet all those stories are with resellers and/or used cars. They also have no public plans to include a modern BTC wallet into the car software for paying electricity, parking or roads. Since the car runs on Linux and Qt, it should be relatively easy to integrate a light wallet like electrum. In addition, their remote control app is available only for Android and iOS.
  • There are many options to pay for the electricity when charging an electric car. None of them is convenient. One should assume that companies that are innovative enough to provide services to modern cars involving some form of value transfer should be open to the latest (eight year old) advances in payments technology. Yet I am not aware of a single charging station that is in production where I could pay with Bitcoin for the charge. Instead there is a company that develops a blockchain based solution that introduces even more friction rather than to remove it. They offer their proprietary app for (you guessed it) Android and iOS. You have to buy their tokens beforehand and you can only pay them with credit card or paypal.
  • Steemit is a social platform that rewards users for writing and curating. They want to differentiate themselves from the giant centralized networks. With their ties to blockchain, they seek to please a decentralized crowd. But you cannot sign up if you don’t have neither a facebook nor a twitter account. That’s like a horse is required to acquire a car.

Turns out if you want to make use of innovative new technology on multiple orthogonal fronts, you can have a really hard time.
I really don’t get it why technology seems to advance in any given directory in isolation. It is like saying you can either have a color TV or stereo sound, but not both. Things converge eventually, because you can have AC in your car and not just at home. But why aren’t they bundled at an early stage?
The largest group of people does not necessarily contain the largest number of people to potentially experiment with new products. They might have left the old world already. Sure you want to have them all as customers at last, but the early adopters might help you to get there. And the early adopters have slightly different requirements than the eventual end users.