On a Tesla: don’t

Published in
10 min readJan 28, 2024


“How do you like it? Should we get one?”

This was a question I used to get all the time. In 2016, we got rid of both of our cars and left the country on a sabbatical. When we returned, we bought a Tesla Model 3. People were eager to ask about the car, then. Being asked yesterday made me realize: No one asks anymore. Obviously, in large part, that’s because (in some places at least) they have become as common as mud. (I was in Palo Alto last year. It seemed every other car was a Tesla). But in small part, among some, at least, the question is just embarrassing. To ask about the car is to trigger a question about a person. And that question about that person is just exhausting.

But it struck me when I was asked about my Tesla yesterday that the issue of the person has obscured the measure of the car. This jammern is thus about the car — primarily. As you’ll see at the end, there’s no way to separate the whine from the person: not because of his politics, but because of what the person says about the chances that this car with such enormous potential will ever achieve its potential.

(Disclaimer: I’m going to describe my experience, so an n of 1. I obviously have no basis for judging the experience of Tesla users generally.)

From the car on down: What’s incredibly great

When I first test-drove a Tesla, I had zero expectations of buying one. We had been living without a car for almost two years (gone for one, with a Zipcar stand and muni stop 1/2 a block away, and with Uber (back then) offering almost free rides). We had expected to stay without a car until my oldest went to college.

But just the experience of sitting in the car was transformative. The Tesla is designed at human scale. When I twisted my wife’s arm to get her to try it, she had the same feeling: She’s not tall, yet the dashboard feels far below you, and you look out with a completely unobstructed view, complemented by an almost completely glass roof.

The driving was just as compelling. The car is silent and powerful. It accelerates faster than anything I have ever driven—and without the 17–year-old-dropout-sound of a revving car engine. It drives with enormous confidence. All that plus the integration with an incredible charging network makes the idea of ever owning anything but an electric car seem kind of nuts.

Because this is the part Tesla got right: from the car on down (if you can get what I mean), it is almost perfect. As an electric car with an extraordinary network of charging support, it is wildly better than any car I have ever owned or driven. And in the six years we’ve owned it, we’ve had almost zero maintenance (except we had to pay $750 to remove the insanely loud squeaks from struts that had been improperly lubricated) — no oil, no broken parts. Just regular tire maintenance, and that’s it.

Everything else: gimmicks or flawed or frauds

Yet I realized as I began thinking about this essay that I had blocked from my own view everything else about this car — at least the stuff I just hate. That’s what the brain does: we learn not to see the ugly that we can’t change. And there is so much about this car that is ugly. Not in the Cybertruck sense of ugly. But in the opposite-of-Apple sense. If the Apple slogan was, “It just works,” the Tesla slogan should be, “It was a good idea, but, yea, no.”

Here’s a partial list of good ideas that were supposed to work but just don’t, in no particular order:

Software updates: Nothing made me happier than the idea of a car that got updated seamlessly and in the background. However, the updates are not seamless; often, they degrade functionality. Often, for me, at least, the updates have reset the whole car, so all settings have to be set again, including saved locations, remembered Bluetooth devices, etc.

There’s no key; there’s a keycard: That idea was great on its own. Even better is that most of the functionality of the keycard — not all of it — can be shifted to your phone. So, in principle, you should be able to walk up to your car, it should know you, unlock the doors for you, and reset the seats and other internal settings for you (especially important when there’s a big difference in size between the two drivers of the car), and then you drive away.

Except in the vast majority of cases, it just doesn’t work. If I’m carrying something, I have to do the bum-tap — bumping my back pocket where my phone is against the car. Or else I have to bring the phone against the door jam of the car to get it to open. Great idea, terribly executed.

The absurdly dangerous “full-self-driving” mode: This problem with the car is relatively well known. But I’ve almost never been able to use FSD without needing to disengage it to avoid a serious problem. (For example, it knows to exit from the highway; it doesn’t know not to exit around an embankment at 55 mph).

My first skepticism about FSD came when trying to use the self-park function. Sometimes (maybe 10% of the time), the car will recognize that you are trying to park. (It doesn’t seem to do this at all anymore, so maybe it’s been disabled, or a setting has been reset). It then gives you the option to allow the Tesla to park itself. But no one uses this function more than once (or twice, after giving the car the benefit of the doubt the first time). You press the function, and the car takes forever to calculate how to place itself between two other cars that are themselves not moving. It starts and then stumbles, pausing to recalculate. The process takes forever, during which time you should think: So this is how effectively it navigates two stationary cars while moving at less than ten mph. And now I’m supposed to trust it at 65 mph navigating through cars moving at the same speed? Are those physics easier?

Musk’s perpetual lies (or puffery) about this are well known. Here’s a compilation from a couple of years ago:

Why isn’t this just Theranos on wheels? Elizabeth Holmes, at least, didn’t kill anyone. How many have died because they trusted Musk’s promises?

Summon: The car has a “summon” function that, in its most basic mode, allows you to pull it forward or backward through the Tesla app when you’re not in the car. (People tell me they’ve used it to retrieve a car from a parking lot. I can’t imagine trying that, but who knows). I’ve tried to use this functionality a couple of times when squeezing between cars in a parking lot. It worked once, when outside, though it took forever to engage the car and get it moving. But most of the times I’ve tried this, the lot is underground, and the app can’t connect to the car. For some reason, likely security, Bluetooth isn’t enough for this functionality.

The iPad: The most dramatic feature of the car’s interior design is the large iPad-like interface that controls all of the internal functionality of the car. I was originally skeptical about locating critical information so far from a direct view of the driver— speed, directions, etc. I’ve gotten used to that. More frustrating is the finicky functionality of almost everything — except the games and fart-machine. Those work fine (I’ve never actually thought that I needed a fart machine in my car, but pre-teens think it essential.)

The sound system. The most reliable source is FM radio (AM is not an option). After a recent update, all the stations disappeared from the app, so I was stuck on the NPR station I had last selected. But as NPR spends most of its time advertising — primarily NPR, or its sponsors—it has become a useless source of information. I was therefore excited that I could use my Spotify subscription in the car, and could listen to podcasts. But at least 40% of the time, I face a spinning circle as I try to get a podcast to load. Though I’m paying for “premium connectivity,” it is usually not connectivity enough to load the content I want to be played.

My preference would be to listen to a recorded book. There’s no Audible app on the Tesla, but you can connect your phone through Bluetooth and play Audible from the phone. But here again, the connectivity is finicky. It always forgets what you were listening to and always forces you to reconnect and reinitiate almost every time manually. I didn’t realize how unnecessarily annoying that was until, on a recent trip, I was driving in the cheapest Toyota rental I could get. After connecting my phone to the Toyota, it would connect automatically when I got back into the car and pick up where I was, not only with music (the only thing the Tesla can remember) but it also remembered that I was last listening to Audible and would automatically pick up with that. Exactly the functionality I want: Apparently simple for Toyota; too complicated for Tesla.

The Tesla will play your texts, if you link your phone in the right way. In an earlier version of that software, the system was smart enough to pause anything else you might be listening to so you could hear the texts being read out loud. That feature has now been lost — literally for four years now. If you’re listening to music or Audible from your iPhone, it will just speak the message over the music or narration.

The car yells at you. A lot. You get in, and it starts screaming at you to put your seatbelts on. I never drive without seatbelts, but it takes at least 5 seconds to get the seatbelts on. Why not just wait till you see I’m shifting into gear before you start yelling at me?

“Automatic” windshield wipers: This functionality is so insanely stupid. It regularly turns on when there is no rain, and regularly runs in the slowest speed when there’s tons of rain. I’ve read that this is because Elon vetoed a simple sensor that would have made this function as well as any other modern car. He was convinced the car’s AI could figure it out. It can’t.

How Elon is relevant to all this

These are the whines of a very privileged soul. I get it. And given the regular software updates, one might think these problems will eventually go away.

But here’s where the CEO becomes relevant. Tesla is, in many ways, Elon Musk. Some parts are astonishing, inspiring, and good — what I’ve called above the car on down. Other parts are little more than lies and gimmicks. Tons of promises, little delivered. Bold declarations, and then just blah.

If Tesla had a Tim Cook as CEO, I’d have endless confidence that it would work these problems out. But these problems of the car are the product of distracted management. There seems to be no one at the top willing to look honestly at problems, and get them fixed. The Net is filled with stories of Musk overruling Tesla engineers, to the detriment of the car. It is a company that is governed by a board that still has faith in a CEO who pretends to CEO (yea, let’s make it a verb) two, maybe three of his gaggle of companies, while being the father of (is it?) eleven kids. I get that some people find overcommitment admirable. I think it means that in none of the roles — especially the father role—does the overcommitted deliver.

Musk is a poisonous type that this moment in history has made increasingly possible. (I discuss the type in The Age of the Fantasist.) He’s a man of enormous wealth, surrounded by people who don’t tell him the truth, psychologically unconstrained by the truth, convinced he is a savior, and that the world can’t live without him. He’s Putin but without an army. He’s Trump but constitutionally barred from being President. His single obsession is to be the center of attention. Yet he actually apparently doesn’t realize just how embarrassingly inane his ideas actually are. Years ago, I admired Musk, because I saw only what he had done, and very little of what he thought. Then, I saw a recording of him presenting an argument favoring a carbon tax. The argument was right and true, but the presentation was totally banal. If a first-year grad student had given the same talk, he would have been asked to leave grad school. Musk then followed this up by endorsing the election of a party that is constitutionally committed to denying climate change. Apparently, lower taxes on rich people is more important than honestly addressing climate change.

Here’s the obvious bottom line (that maybe the (“genius”) stock market is finally groking):

So long as Tesla is Musk, Tesla will fail to compete. Yes, Tesla is largely responsible for the EV market. But so what? Tesla will be beaten by competitors in the market that it created—just as Ford was eventually beaten in the market that it had created. And for many of the same reasons: a driven, visionary CEO who, once successful, surrounded himself with sycophants, who themselves then allowed him to morph into the Nazi he became. Musk is no Nazi; his half-thoughts don’t amount to much of anything. But the key to see is that they (and he) will continue to poison the car company that he first bought, and then made legendary.

So no, don’t buy a Tesla. Or at least wait until Tesla is run by a serious CEO, one with a bit of humility and discipline, and one for whom making the company succeed is enough. Because so long as the company is run by a CEO stupid enough to believe he is brilliant enough to solve every problem anywhere in the world — from government to war to racism to whatever—the company is certain to fail to beat its emerging competition. Yes, maybe he can blackmail the government into imposing tariffs on his competitors (a super-principled libertarian position, that is). But whether it’s China or someone else, without fundamental change, this company is going to be defeated.