Notes from the Road, A Personal Automotive History – Issue 28: “Farewell, ICE”

Well the title here is pretty much a spoiler, but yep, it is the end of an era at Complaints HQ. After decades of incredible engine and exhaust sounds, the HQ has gone silent. Only the whine of high current electric power delivery can be heard now! And of course when it comes to electric, there is really only one choice (for now):

So what caused this move to the green side? In all honesty, it was mainly the technology. As frequent readers know, Complaints HQ is a pretty tech heavy site and car tech has strong appeal. There is really no one doing what Tesla is doing in this area. Sure from a design standpoint the industry is (slowly) starting to catch up, but the disruption Telsa has caused is non-trivial. The closest analog would be Apple breaking the carrier hegemony with the release of the iPhone. Over the Air updates, for a car, are a game changer. And Tesla isn’t just releasing small tweaks here and there, the upgrades that have come via software are significant.

Of these significant updates, the most significant are in what is arguably Tesla’s biggest differentiator – Autopilot. One thing that became a huge deciding factor for the next daily driver was driver assistance systems. After giving a test run to everything Germany had to offer, and Cadillac SuperCruise, one thing that became clear was Germany had work to do. Audi, Mercedes and BMW were all terrifying, even during the course of a 10 mile test drive. These systems are at dramatically different levels of ambition from each other, but even basic lane centering (the basic minimum requirement for this test) didn’t inspire confidence on any of these systems and required driver intervention. SuperCruise, on the other hand, was wonderful; generationally better. But SuperCruise was also binary. Where it worked it was brilliant, where it couldn’t work, well, it won’t try. This is a safe and sound approach, but it brings a buyer back to wondering if GM will be able to actually keep this system updated. Past track record doesn’t inspire confidence!

So what about Tesla? On the same stretch of road all of the other systems were tested, Tesla Autopilot performed flawlessly, not only perfectly holding the lane, and maintaining distance, but also successfully executing lane changes when prompted. I don’t know that Tesla will ever deliver on its promise for true “full self driving” (meaning L5 autonomy), but as an ADAS system, Autopilot is really first class. Beyond Autopilot, things are a bit of a mixed bag. The instant torque of any EV is intoxicating, but the Model S Performance delivers a true, no compromises, hyper car launch control, level jolt. Every. Single. Time. No setup. No tricks. No throttle lag, transmission lag, turbo lag. Just mash the accelerator and hold on for dear life! On the less amazing side is overall fit and finish, as well as materials quality. I don’t really know any other way to say it than Tesla is an American car, and in many ways feels it. The comparison that comes to mind here is Corvette vs 911, but I understand that this is a highly personal, and sensitive, topic. In any event, if you’re used to the premium German marques, you’re likely to find these aspects wanting. The driving experience, however, is surprisingly good. For a big, very heavy, sedan, the Model S performs quite well. Steering feedback is a bit numb, but I find it a bit more communicative than most modern Audis, surprisingly. The low center of gravity courtesy of the battery back, means there is no body roll, and the car does an impressive job of fighting physics in the twisty bits. It will never feel small, obviously, but it does a fairly convincing “super sedan” impersonation.

Creature comforts abound, with massive amounts of storage space both below the rear, power operated, hatch as well as up front in the “frunk”, courtesy of there being no engine to take up space. Interior room is significant as well, particularly for the front seat passengers. The rear is a bit more crowded than the overall dimensions suggest, but the flat floor, courtesy in this case of there being no transmission to take up space, has much more of an impact on comfort and practicality than one would guess. The panoramic roof makes the interior feel spacious, and is sufficiently tinted from the factory that the car never gets too hot, even in the California summer. Even better is that to keep interior temperature under control, you can always turn on the climate control via the truly best in class Tesla app. And that brings us back full circle to the heart of the value proposition. The technology that Tesla gives you is so significant that it really needs its own dedicated entry. For some this might be where they stop reading, and that’s understandable. But for those who find this prospect even somewhat compelling, absolutely visit your local Tesla showroom (which may even be in your local mall!) before your next car purchase. I can promise that, at the very least, it will be a very interesting experience!