On the Tesla Model 3

Doh! A car! A fantastic car!

I glanced nervously at the charge indicator on the sandy Nissan Leaf as I coaxed it higher into the west Maui mountains. Rain threatened, I needed coffee, probably a shower, but it didn’t matter. If the heavens opened up and the Leaf ran out of juice, I would have happily jogged the rest of the way in the rain with a giant smile on my face, because I had a date with the future. Let’s rewind a bit, and see how I got here…

My Life in Cars

My first car was a brand new 1994 Honda Civic. Bought it new right after college, drove it for 140,000 mostly-uneventful miles, and finally sold it on the opposite coast. My next car, purchased on eBay during a quarter-life crisis, was a silver 2002 Audi TT Roadster. I put a subwoofer in the trunk, won (back) the girl of my dreams, then promptly sold it and moved to Hawaii. Pretty standard stuff. Here, practicality won again and I went for a heavily-used 2007 Toyota Camry. It was beige. Doug backed it into a fence, my mom smashed a taillight, and roaches considered it a Four Seasons. It did its job without complaint.

Then along came the Nissan Leaf. I’d been eyeing electric cars for a while, but the Leaf was clearly on new ground in terms of price and almost 100 miles of range (which on Maui brings you to surf, poke and groceries). Federal and state rebates put it at just over $200/month to lease, so I jumped. Friends teased me about the “golf cart”, and it definitely didn’t exude style, but it was hella practical and I loved it, enough to lease two in a row for 5 years and swear I’d never own a gas car again.

Of course, you can’t drive an electric car without being aware of Tesla.

I did my best to ignore the Model S because I couldn’t afford it and I figured the more I knew, the more I’d want one anyway. I even went out of my way to avoid riding in one. To this day I’ve only been in one, a random Uber hailed in Colorado driven by a kind, bored, semi-retired gentleman. I tried my best to just look out the window and not notice I was in a fucking spaceship from the future, because otherwise I’d start selling my kidneys.

But then came the Model 3: The Volks-Tesla, fit for every family. So I plunked down $1000. Being only a few months into a 3-year Leaf lease, I was in no great hurry, and thankfully so, because it was a long wait…

Configuration

About 22 months after making the reservation, I got notice that it was time to configure the vehicle. The online experience was quick and smooth; I think it was clever of Tesla to offer only the longer range car at first. Even though I clearly had no practical need for the extra 100 miles, I didn’t think twice. The premium package was required for these earlier builds as well, but I had wanted it for the improved audio and the glass roof. Silver metallic, stiletto wheels, Enhanced Autopilot, and done. All I had to show for it was an image to gaze upon lovingly that I saved to my desktop. Delivery would supposedly happen in 4–6 weeks, but who knew how much longer it would take in Hawaii.

Hello, world!

Delivery

One year and 364 days after reserving, I drove up to Maui’s King Kamehameha Golf Club in my dirty Leaf, A/C off to save on battery. I’d read online something about elaborate ceremonies, but (sensing a theme?) I tried my best to know as little as possible.

It was a dark grey day, and the club was eerily empty. In front of the majestic Frank Lloyd Wright building were parked 4 brand new Teslas in pure Fast and the Furious style. The juxtaposition of Wright’s organic architecture against the curves of the gleaming Teslas with storm clouds as backdrop, was stunning. A Tesla employee wandered busily from car to car with a chamois cloth removing droplets of water and stray molecules of dust.

I met the delivery specialist at the door, and we sat in the spacious lobby to sign a few (dozen) pieces of paper. I’d opted for financing through Tesla, and that made everything straightforward. There was no actual ceremony to speak of, but the pent-up excitement over two years more than made up for it. After signing, we went and sat in the car and he showed me the basic setup, gave me his phone number, and left me to sit in silence for a few minutes. I’d read online about people with panel misalignments and all sorts of other little things, and I actually had a checklist on my phone, but I decided to just look it over quickly and not obsess over things I wouldn’t ever notice in normal use. The car looked perfect.

Anna (my wife) mocked me endlessly for reading the Model 3 manual multiple times before picking up the car, but that did little to prepare me for the strong emotions I experienced in those first few minutes. The best comparison I can make is when a decade earlier I’d moved from flip phone to the iPhone: ground-breaking user-focused design, and the feeling that every other car would now feel outdated, of a past era.

I got up the courage to inch the car along the driveway a bit; adjusted the mirrors a little more; and then off I drove…

Acceleration

As you can probably tell, I’m not a car guy, so I don’t care about 0–60 numbers, but holy shit this car has incredible acceleration; it’s fast, nimble, and so fun to drive. My TT Roadster with its laggy turbo would get smoked by the instant torque the Tesla delivers. The Leaf feels like an adorable blob of jello by comparison. I still can’t fathom why you would want the higher-powered Ludicrous mode unless you were planning an actual bank heist and had a baby-faced getaway driver.

The (lack of) dashboard

I love the single screen and the clean wood panel running across the front, and don’t miss having the traditional display at all. The increased vertical field of view is a huge improvement. Why does one need RPMs, battery voltage, temperature, or fuel gauge constantly cluttering the visual field? Bygone relics, living on design inertia.

Visibility

All the glass makes for excellent visibility, especially with the glass roof. When you look over your right shoulder, it’s like looking out of a modern house with large windows as opposed to peeking out of little portholes as many cars feel like.

The display

I went back and counted over 50 controls in the front of the Leaf (dials, knobs, switches). The fact that they’ve all been replaced with on-screen controls is almost universally a great thing. More on that later. The screen itself is bright, and the user interface is modern, clean and responsive. Compared to my Leaf and its ancient-feeling, clunky resistive-touch display and user interface designed by underground troglodytes, it’s literally night and day. This is a substantial accomplishment for a “car company” that the interface looks and feels like a fluid and beautiful artifact from the future. And that’s really just it: Tesla is a design and technology company that happens to make cars. Not unlike Apple, a design and technology company that happened to make a phone.

Death to fobs

All you get with the Tesla are two slick-looking key cards which look like they get you behind the velvet ropes at a swanky night club, possibly with a bottle of Dom thrown in. It’s easier to throw one in a wallet than carry a key fob, but the vast majority of people will simply pair a smartphone to experience the true bliss of a keyless future. Walk up to any door and it unlocks at your touch; walk away, and the car locks, mirrors cutely folding in to nap more comfortably. I know this isn’t exactly a Tesla innovation (Prii have been doing it for a decade), but it makes a huge difference returning to the car with groceries.

Add Apple Pay and you finally have a one-pocket future. I parked at Whole Foods the other day and marvelled that I didn’t need my wallet or keys (N.B. the gray in my beard entitles me to purchase alcohol sans ID. YMMV.)

Settings

This gets me to configurability. In software the joke is that adding a setting is the worst possible outcome (because it’s the easiest and weakest way to resolve any disagreement about user experience: “Hey, let’s have it both ways”) but of course this isn’t universally true. Most cars (large, expensive things we own for years and use very differently) have few configurable bits, which made the Tesla a breath of fresh air. You can configure the unlocking and locking behavior, among many, many other things (e.g. don’t want mirrors folding in automatically? No problem. Prefer one-pedal driving with increased regenerative braking? There’s a knob for that too. Want the mirrors positioned differently when backing up? Yes you can!). You can also have multiple user profiles (with seat and steering wheel settings) and name them, so Anna can tap the screen and pick her wifely profile. Adjust your seat a bit after a large meal? You get a little popup asking if you’d like to save the change to your profile. All these things add up quickly to make all other cars seem antediluvian and—more importantly—to make the Tesla feel more uniquely yours.

The little things

Great user experience is often subtle. As an example, the car’s Bluetooth pairs much faster and earlier than any other car I’ve ever seen (my Leaf spends 30 seconds connecting and disconnecting before resuming audio; Anna’s car sporadically fails to connect at all). So by the time you’ve opened the door, music is usually playing softly already to welcome you (it turns up the volume once the doors close). Likewise, when you exit the car, the volume automatically fades so the garage doesn’t reverberate with De La Soul.

Another nice touch: when you plug the car in, the Tesla logo on the charging cable’s box lights up each letter in sequence as if to show the direction of the current. The main dashboard display turns on to show charge status and time to full charge in large letters, visible at a distance.

Last one: when you stop the car and are going to get out, there’s no need to even put it in Park. When you open the door, it just assumes that’s what you meant to do. Subtle, clever, lovely.

New twists on old features

As most modern cars, the Tesla has HomeLink support to allow opening garage doors and gates. Instead of just offering the standard three buttons I’ve seen on literally every other car, they allow automatic opening and closing via GPS; you can configure the location of the garage door and gate, the distance from the location, and auto-close behavior as well. After getting it set up, I drove home with Anna and she was surprised and delighted to see the gate open as we approached, and then the garage door. Indistinguishable from magic

That glass roof tho

I keep wanting to see the car from above, because it looks absolutely futuristic and beautiful with the dark glass roof.

The doors

These are the hardest things to explain to new passengers. You have to press in with your thumb to make the handle swing out so that you can grab and pull it. It makes sense, after the fact; it’s idiomatic design which is not intuitively obvious. Also in the dark it can be a bit hard to open the door because you have to find the handle by touch alone. Conversely, when opening from the inside, you have to tell people to push a button and then lean against the door. This isn’t difficult (again, idiomatic), but every single person has first ended up stuck outside, and then trapped inside, which is probably a great metaphor for Tesla ownership in general.

Apps

The car comes with Slacker and TuneIn apps you can use with the built-in LTE connection. This feels light years ahead of other cars, especially with the beautiful large screen to browse on and responsive user interface. I don’t miss CarPlay and Android Auto, personally (in fact, I think they’d look clunky mixed in with the Tesla interface, that’s how good it is), but I do wish Tesla would allow third party apps (we’d love to write a Plex app for it!) or even some sort of limited integration for other music services (again, for Plex).

Audio

I’m a bit of an audio snob, and the audio quality is quite impressive. Good tight bass, great imaging, clean sound. No complaints with the upgraded audio. I can only imagine they use oxygen-free cables to stop the zeros and ones from leaking out or getting jittery.

Inside storage

There’s quite a bit of storage around the cup holders, including a nice angled area which makes for good phone storage. I got on the list for a wireless charging pad. Almost everything else on the car feels and looks high quality, but the cover for the front storage area is one of the few exceptions. It’s plastic, flimsy, a little tricky to close, and generally feels out-of-place. There’s also a small gap between the phone shelf and the compartment that’s swallowed my phone on more than one occasion.

Windshield wipers

In theory, they sound amazing. You simply set them to Automatic, and a neural network uses a camera to watch for rain, engaging them when needed. We’ve had a rainy April here and I’ve been able to test them extensively, and I’m sorry to say, it doesn’t work well at all (it consistently under-wipes, especially in the dark). Exacerbating the issue is the fact that the only way to manually set the speed (besides a one-off wipe with a stalk button) is via the touch-screen. When it’s rainy and you can’t see, the last place you want to be looking is away from the road to try to get the wipers to work. Practically, I usually have it set on Automatic and then supplement wipes by pressing the button. I am hopeful that a software update can remedy the situation (something you wouldn’t say about other cars).

Software

There is definitely an outsized emphasis on software with Teslas. We’re seeing this trend in electronics in general, where the software layer is becoming more and more visible and interactive. My washing machine used to just concern itself with getting my clothes clean with a mode dial and a few buttons. Now it has an LCD display, and I’m sure my next one will send me text messages whenever it’s time to move a load into the dryer or it’s feeling lonely.

Cars have always had software, but to date it’s been fairly opaque and completely static. The Tesla ushers in an era of a connected, software-powered car which receives software updates a few times a year that adds new features, fixes bugs, and of course—famously—adds new easter eggs. Let it never be said Musk doesn’t have a sense of humor.

So software-centric is the Tesla that it sells premium features for the cars which are entirely software (yes, I know it depends on hardware in the cars, but everyone gets that hardware). Autopilot is one example of that. Amazingly, the Model 3 promises that full self-driving capabilities will be available in the future for $3,000, claiming that the car has all the hardware it needs to achieve such a feat. There is some debate over this; some claim that LIDAR is required, and that a vision-and-radar only approach won’t work. I don’t know enough to have a strong opinion, but I do feel very strongly: if Tesla manages to pull this off, and after swiping my credit card online one night, I wake up the next morning with a car which can magically drive itself, that will be the most incredible software upgrade ever in the history of software upgrades.

For now, though, it’s a great feeling to know that every month or two, the car will get an update with improvements and some quibbles fixed. The feature I’m most looking forward to? WiFi support for home networks. I don’t get cellular coverage in my garage, so I have to rely on it downloading updates while I’m out and about. It seems like a pretty strange omission given the hardware is there, but hey, it’ll get fixed.

Autopilot

I had read quite a bit about Autopilot and watched a few YouTube videos, but even with that preparation, I was blown away by how well it actually works. As a preface, I live on the North shore of Maui, and we don’t have highways to speak of here, just twisty divided roads. Being an engineer, I can’t resist using Autopilot whenever I can engage it (being safe, of course). The performance is really, really good—it’s smooth, neatly follows cars in stop and go traffic, glides to a smooth stop when it needs to, and picks up poorly marked lanes at night and in the rain.

The thing I didn’t realize was that even with hands on the wheel and paying attention to the road, having Autopilot engaged reduced the cognitive load of driving, and made me feel safer. Feeling it making slight adjustments to lane position and to speed for the car ahead is a huge help and I missed it when I was dropping off the poor Leaf for good. The closest I’ve personally come to accidents in the last few years was almost rear-ending the car in front of me, and veering into another lane—both scenarios that Autopilot can greatly help with.

If I had to make a list of improvements I’d love to see they would be:

  • The car hugs the center of the lane to a fault. On a divided highway, I noticed that I tend to stay right-of-center in my lane, so a lot of times it felt like the Tesla was driving too close to oncoming traffic (even if it was exactly in the center of the lane).
  • It doesn’t seem to know about slowing down for curves. As I said, my test road has some pretty big curves, and it seems to just blindly use the configured speed. One would assume it could be using some combination of cameras and map + GPS to know a sharp curve is coming up, and slow down for it.
  • Also on curves specifically, to echo the first point, I wish it hugged the inside of the curve more. I didn’t realize how much I do this as a human driver until I noticed how scary sticking to the middle of the lane was with oncoming traffic.

One last observation: there’s a curve fairly close to my place which drives Autopilot insane every time. It’s a left curve, but the white line on the right curves away to the right as there’s a side street which intersects the main road on the curve. If the car followed the double-yellow line on the left, it would be fine, and I’ve tried it in various conditions. It jerks around a bit trying to decide what to do and then quits Autopilot (“Could use a hand here, human!”). Except for the last time. Nothing else was different, as far as I could tell, but after a bit of hesitation, it stayed on the road correctly.

I would love to think that there’s some fairly tight feedback loop in the system where it’s noting where it’s having trouble, and noting what the human does, and “learning” from it. There’s some indication this is happening on a bigger scale with all the driver data Tesla is collecting. but it would be amazing if the loop were tighter.

Conclusions

This car is the future. There’s no other way to say it. Tesla has fundamentally altered what a car looks and feels like and how it interacts with the driver. They’ve shattered norms the same way Apple has with products like the iPod and the iPhone. Whether or not Tesla ends up succeeding or not (I suspect it will, based purely on the universal love for their products), we will remember what cars were like “before Tesla”. This is an amazing time to be alive as we start the long transition to fully autonomous vehicles, and owning a Model 3 feels like having a literal front row seat to the whole event.

(Secretly, I’m pretty sure the Model 3 steering wheel is removable…)

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