Widald J.
Widald J.
Jul 17 · 13 min read
Cockpit of a Piper Comanche 250
Cockpit of a Piper Comanche 250

After thirteen months of owning a Tesla Model 3, the family and I drove the car cross-country: approximately 1,300 miles round-trip from the mid-Atlantic to Maine. Two weeks before this drive I did the same trip in a 1958 Piper Comanche — arguably one of several champions of general aviation. For those unfamiliar with the term, general aviation refers to civilian airplanes of all shapes and sizes. Although many associate private airplanes with luxury and convenience, many of the 220,000 GA aircraft registered in the United States are small bug smashers based on 1950’s technology. I fly these bug smashers for fun.

Since one trip was on the heels of the other, and I have driven this corridor a number of times in the past, I had ample opportunity to reflect on what it is like to fly this route and drive it. The last leg of the journey back in the Tesla I started to have strong feelings about the car, the use of it, and the similarities between it and the airplane.

Despite ordering the Tesla Model 3 Long Range on March 31, 2016 and a stock purchase that I thought would pay for the car; despite the increasingly impatient wait and struggle with delays; despite the — what hindsight may suggest was an — unhealthy obsession with online forums and speculation; despite the excitement of placing the order; despite the last few day of delivery delays and concerns over quality; despite the euphoric delivery experience; and despite the 15,000 miles of driving we did before this trip I did not love the car and I was far from a fanboy.

When asked about how I liked the car, my answer was simple: “It’s a good car, but I prefer my GTI, and to be honest, the Scion XA is my favorite in the garage.” My GTI is a remarkable piece of engineering that is precise, fun, aggressive, and less than half the cost of my Tesla Model 3. The 103 bhp Scion XA is spunky, agile, and a joy to drive. In my mind, electric cars have been around since the turn of the 1900’s when Manhattan had 1500 charging stations in the early parts of the 20th century. The motor is a variant of locomotive technology from the same period.

To me, the Tesla Model 3 was a compromise of fun and safety that I previously did not care for. Circumstances put me in charge of a small human and felt that the 30,000+ fatalities on the road were too much risk. The Tesla Model 3 was a safe and responsible choice for our family.

Statistics

Feelings are subjective, and I felt I was onto something, so I began trying to rationalize them with some basic data points. In my unscientific, biased, and hunch-driven methodology I zeroed in on the utility, performance, and comfort of both Piper Comanche and Tesla Model 3 on similar missions two weeks apart.

It seemed like comparing apples to oranges, but — on paper — both machines became comparable. Each option got us from point A to point B, each was relatively convenient, each suffered from outside effects (e.g. traffic and weather), and while one is less expensive the other was faster. Additionally, both offered a “wow!” factor. The Tesla Model 3 provoked as much fascination as my typical introduction: “Hello, nice to meet you, did I tell you I’m a pilot?!”

+----------------------+----------------+--------------------+
| Specification | Tesla Model 3 | Piper Comanche 250 |
+----------------------+----------------+--------------------+
| Seats: | 4.5 | 4 |
| Payload: | 1100 lbs | 1100 lbs |
| Cruise Speed: | 70 mph | 180 mph |
| Time to Destination: | 11hr 30min | 3hr 30min |
| Fuel* Cost: | $15 | $245 |
| Fuel Stops: | 3 | 0** |
| Safety***: | 1x | 9x riskier |
| Assist: | Cruise Control | Auto-Pilot |
| Ego: | Boosted | Boosted |
| Road Rage: | 9x more | 1x |
+----------------------+----------------+--------------------+
On paper, both the Tesla Model 3 and a Piper Comanche balance each other out, for that reason each one gets a point.

Speed & Safety

Obviously the airplane is faster. From takeoff to landing, the entire trip can take as little as 3.5 hours. However, reality is not always that convenient. A precautionary fuel stop adds an additional 30 minutes, and then there is all the planning and post-flight work. In other words, faster does not mean quicker when flying small planes and an old aviation saying reminds us that:

“If you have time to spare — go by air.”

Between pre-flight, deviations, weather, and fuel-stops a general aviation trip can morph to a crawl. A few years ago it took me ten days to get home from visiting family, while a summer day at the beach turned into three days en-route, both because of weather. Even this trip, the speed of the Comanche was no match for the head-winds; the return leg took nearly six hours to complete. Not to mention, not all small planes are this fast. My own aircraft is 1.5x slower which has profound consequences on going that far.

On the other side, Tesla cars are no match for delays either. This being 4th of July weekend, the return drive suffered due to congestion and bringing us home 5 hours later than predicted. Even with smart routing, express lanes, and Waze we had no choice but to succumb to the flow of traffic and the rage that came with it.

Road-rage and salty drivers proved to be a detriment and reduced the risk margins. Juxtaposed against general aviation safety, I am not sure how to reconcile it all. Small planes are about as safe as motorcycles, with a fatality rate about 9x higher than automobiles. Tesla Model 3 is one of the safest cars on the road, further stretching the divide. However, road-rage with a sprinkle of Tesla-hate became irreconcilable variables. I counted twelve instances of rage, three of which were most likely Tesla-hate as they involved copious amounts of truck exhaust. In all fairness, I am a slightly combative individual, armed with 450bhp and a soupçon of anti-authority, invulnerability, and impulsivity. It could have been my driving. My only counterargument is that I have done this drive more times than I can count, and at no time before have I seen so many incidents.

The Tesla Model 3 should be significantly safer than a general aviation plane, and it probably is. However, people are people and they present many unknown unknowns on the road.

Payload & Comfort

The first mission, in the Comanche, was a flight to Brunswick Executive Airport with two guys, two bikes, two sets of camping gear, and bags with essentials. We had to pull the back seat out of the airplane to get everything stacked, and with a single door it took a bit of effort.

The second mission was a family vacation with two adults, an infant in a car seat, a dog, baby gear, stroller, pack’n’play, three-days of camping gear for one, and essentials in the Tesla Model 3. Although, it took as much effort and planning to pack the car as it did the airplane, features like storage compartments and the frunk became exceptionally handy, as they held essentials for the trip.

With that said, had the missions been reversed, neither option would have worked. It is doubtful I could have made the plane work with the same payload as the car all-while I do not think I would have been able to cram the bike/camping gear into the Tesla. Although each option worked well for the intended mission, I call it a wash.

Personal comfort is a bit of a different story. We drove the car in legs that were between 3 and 4 hours long and the seats were wonderful. I could not say the same thing for the aging cushions in the Comanche, where both my bottom and my back suffered after a couple of hours. The ride was significantly more comfortable in the Tesla, and I doubt there is much I could do to the Comanche to change that. While the car maintained perfect temperature at all times, the Comanche — without air conditioning — relied on cooler air above to bring stable temperatures to the cabin. Even then, the radiating heat from the engine made its way into the cabin and slow-roasted manly-bits.

The catch, of course, is that flying a complex and high-performance airplane through Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark, and New York you have little time to take notice. By the time you are through, there is just a short hop left. Arguably, the Tesla eliminates work-load and that is hailed as benefit, but what can one do in a car for 12 hours? I prefer to stay busy one way or another, and the airplane offers plenty more action. To make up further for the slight discomforts of a crammed cockpit, strange smells, and variable temperatures are the views. We have the option of flying above Manhattan or down the Hudson River Corridor, enjoy gorgeous lumps in Connecticut and New Hampshire, and then the Harbor Visual Approach into Portland International Jetport is one of the most scenic on the East Coast. The views and scenery are majestic and claw away at the Tesla’s advantage.

To be fair, the Tesla’s Model 3 cabin is many times more comfortable than the Piper Comanche with plush seats, glass roof, and excellent air-conditioning. However, the piper is pretty cozy, especially once you get above 6,000 feet.

Technology

While the Tesla Model 3 is the future the Comanche is a Frankenstein’s monster of a 1950’s engine and frame clobbered with some early 2000’s avionics. Since both car and airplane derive benefits from the presence of a smartphone and/or tablet, those effectively are a wash. What remains is a navigation and telemetry system that, effectively, in both cases provides realtime information about progress, rest stops, and route conditions. That is where the similarities stop.

While the Tesla has accurate energy consumption systems, the Comanche — presently — has little to compare it with. There is a fuel gauge, actually two, that show there may be fuel in the tanks and a 80’s era fuel flow meter that estimates what is being sucked out of the tanks. Conversely, the Tesla measures every kWh and reports back consumption in extreme detail. With that said, electric cars introduced me to range anxiety. Unlike the plane, where I can calculate my numbers and feel confident in flying them, the Tesla leaves me with irrational doubt. When my calculations indicate I have 30 minutes of fuel left in the tanks, I trust that calculation. When the Tesla tells me it has 30 miles, you will not find me driving 29 miles to the next charger. Is it warranted? Of course not, but here we are. In fact, over the year I have seen software updates improve energy usage and predict consumption with exponentially better accuracy, and yet, my reserves in the car tend to be substantially higher than the airplane.

Then, there is the elephant in the room: automation. My personal Tesla Model 3 does not have full self driving, and it does not have Autopilot. I made that choice when I purchased the car, and I stuck to it after. This means all I have is regular cruise control. Meanwhile, the Comanche, has a an autopilot with navigation that cost more than the Tesla upgrades, but not that much more. With that said, when I was waiting for delivery and obsessing over Tesla forums I kept seeing complaints about the standard cruise control, how it was unfair for Tesla to offer it without TACC (traffic aware cruise control) and derivatives. I recall numerous people attempting to spread the idea that the car had 1990’s cruise control as a base. They are all so very wrong.

For starters, the cruise control engage/disengage design is superior to any other automobile. The ease of use means you use it — all the time. Owners often remark about one-pedal driving, it is half-pedal at most. The lever and thumb-controls are remarkably useful. Then there is the safety components of Autopilot that every Tesla Model 3 has. They include an array of features including lane assist (the car will steer back into the lane if you loose focus) and accident avoidance.

Pretending I did have Autopilot, and I did a two week trial when they offered, there is more to say about it now that I watched other cars struggle. While driving through congested New Hampshire I watched multiple Honda CRVs and Jeep Grand Cherokees use theirs — I know they did because no human would ever drive like that. The Honda CRVs kept such absurd spacing that the car I watched was effectively driving backwards. The Jeeps were far more entertaining with their sudden accelerations and whiplash braking in traffic. Both were comically absurd and on a plane severely detached from the elegance and smoothness of Tesla’s automation.

With that said, I did not have Autopilot for this trip, and cruise control — even with all the features — falls short of the Comanche’s autopilot with wing-leveler, altitude hold, GPS guided tracking, and heading holds. In short, when it comes to technology, I once again see my Tesla Model 3 and the Piper Comanche as well matched rivals, and give a point to each.

Electric propulsion should give this point to Tesla, but electric propulsion is coming to airplanes both old and new. What the Piper lacks in modernization it makes up for in longevity.

Sustainability

This is where I felt a witty, or sarcastic, remark about Comanche’s contribution to environmentalism would be well received, but I am not witty. After trying a few lines, I began to think about the joke I was trying to make, and realized that, perhaps, it is not that funny at all. Unlike an automobile, the Comanche was designed without planned obsolescence in mind. This aircraft was built 60 years before my Tesla Model 3 and likely continue operating long after the Tesla is recycled. It very well may even outlive all of Tesla, especially if some short-sellers were to have their way. Whether the Comanche outlives my car, the entire Model 3 fleet, or the company is anyones guess. However, even if petrol becomes obsolete the Comanche may be converted to an electric airplane like some are being converted today. Longevity is a key component in aviation, while the Tesla does evoke slight feeling of consumable gadgetry, does it not?

Final verdict: both are equally awesome. Which means that, for the first time, I see them as equal options for traveling cross-country. That is profound, because it means that I am as willing to drive as I am willing to fly. Until the Tesla Model 3, the only time I drove this route was when the plane had issues — it was literally my last resort. What a difference one year has made.

Final Verdict

Despite driving the I-95 corridor Miami to Houlton more than once, the idea of traversing the country by car was second only doing it in a R.V on my personal loathe list. This is why I learned to fly and do so routinely for both business and pleasure. Days lost to weather delays, 105 degree cockpits, and even an engine failure have done little to discourage me from flying in favor of a road trip. However, the logistics of this 4th of July vacation forced my hand into driving. More importantly, because I have this Tesla Model 3, I chose to drive my own car — previously every trip was a rental.

In the process I discovered that the ease of moving around, lack of fatigue, ease of charging, comfort of the cabin, and general happiness made me change perspectives. Except, that it was not those things as described. On paper (or on screen), the features fail to convey the essence of why this car was so different. I was searching for an explanation and serendipitously Elon Musk offered one for me as I was putting final edits on this piece:

“They make all these cars that have no soul or no heart, and they wonder why nobody feels anything for them. Why should they?”

That is it, there is a soul to this company and fleet of cars! One of my favorite books is Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain — and How it Changed the World by Carl Zimmer. In it he traces the history of the human soul through the human body, and how long it took to arrive that consciousness and mind were the products of our brains. Much like the human journey, I would not attempt to speculate what, or where, the soul of Telsa is — or even if it exists — but I think it does metaphorically represent a piece of the company that cannot be replicated by any other automaker.

Well, maybe some speculation is allowed. Although tempting to say it is the brain of the Elongated Muskrat or the neural-net that powers the cars, I think the soul of Tesla is much like our brain: a network of connected electrical pathways that collectively control Tesla’s existence. At the core of this network is the Supercharger — it is the means to achieve mobility and evolve the brand into a species to rule all species.

Today, without hesitation, I would do this trip again — even in the worst summer traffic — by Tesla. That is the final point, it is Tesla vehicles that have changes this perspective and not electric cars or cars themselves. Without the cabin design, the motor and batteries, the technology, and most importantly without the Supercharger network this entire experience would be a failure. The perfect trip vehicle, not just a road trip car, is a Tesla — any Tesla.

Epilogue

Today, after this road trip, I love the Tesla Model 3 and I am convinced — beyond all measures — that Tesla is miles ahead of the competition and they will continue to do remarkable things. After a year of ownership, lots of reflection, and operational context I believe the nay-sayers will lose. Tesla is a long-term investment and will outperform all legacy auto-manufacturers and compete effectively against newcomers. They have an advantage today that I hesitate to describe as something greater than the sum of all parts, or simply put: soul.

My plans are now to continue my investment in the company, acquire more as opportunities present themselves, and build a Tesla Model X fund for the inevitable addition. I foresee myself trading my wings, and not the Model 3, for a Tesla Model X (perhaps a used version of the next generation) because the additional cargo capacity, space, and full self driving are the answer to road trips and commuting alike.

Widald J.

Written by

Widald J.

Technologist, aviator, dog-owner, dad, environmentalist, and hell-bent on redefining oneself for the next chapter of life.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade