12 April 2013

Gone Electric

Haven't written much in a while, but thought I'd throw in an off-topic post, just for the heck of it. A couple of months ago, I made a major change in my life: I traded in my old car, a 2004 BMW 530i and I went and got a Tesla Model S


Yep, I'm a proud member of what's been described as the "world's more expensive beta test."

I've had it now for almost exactly two months, and I thought I'd share my observations.

First of all: cost. Yes, it's an expensive car. No denying that. However, it's not quite as crazy expensive as the sticker price makes it seem. My default plan was to replace my old BMW with a new one, probably the 550. The Tesla actually specs out about the same in the cost department. There's 10% sales tax on the BMW, but my state has no tax on electric cars, and there's a $7500 federal tax credit, which helps narrow the gap quite a bit. Then, depending on the assumptions you make, the cost of fuel should actually make the Tesla cheaper over time than the BMW. I figure that over 100,000 miles (I put 130K on my old one), I'll spend about $22,000 on gas for the BMW. Electricity costs for the Tesla over the same time period should be about 10% of that figure, which could in theory make the Tesla substantially cheaper. A lot depends on the big unknown of the battery life. The one I got is warrantied to 100k miles, but the replacement cost and whether I should lay away costs towards a replacement at 100k miles is unclear. On the other hand, Tesla maintenance should be near zero. It has so few moving parts - pretty much brakes, tires and running gear; contrast that with replacing the clutch on my BMW which was over $3000. Just looking at cost of propulsion, so far I'm averaging about $0.028 per mile, compared to about $0.25 with the BMW. 

It's a pretty car. It's got a rear-focused profile which reminds me of the Jaguar XK8. I happened to get mine in something approximating a Jaguar green, which looks lovely in the sunlight but alas looks black in gray light (so in the cloudy Pac NW, it mostly looks black). The front styling looks a little like an Aston Martin, but the LED "eyebrow" lights around the headlights are distinctive and unique. 


I also like the layout. There's no engine, so the front hood hides a medium-sized trunk. I can carry my emergency supplies plus a suitcase or gym bag or groceries or lawn chairs, but it wouldn't handle a golf bag. The back is a hatch design and since I have 4 kids I got the jump seats:


The girls are sitting directly on top of the drive train, which is shockingly small. There are no gears to speak of, and no transmission. The engine revs from 0-30,000 RPM or something ludicrous like that, and is directly mated to the rear wheels. 

The interior is outfitted to match the price, easily comparable to the BMWs and Mercedes of my experience. Certainly consistent with a luxury car's expectation. I think I detect a little roughness in the fit & finish -- a little buzz from the inexact fit of the air vents, maybe. Nothing major. More puzzling is the spartan approach to storage and utility. The cupholders (there are only 2) are small and oddly placed behind the driver, and there is only one very small shelf useful for holding, say, a cell phone or some sunglasses or other doo-dads. Other than the glove compartment, there are no other storage compartments anywhere in the car. There is a lovely flat space in between the front seats (no drive train to create a floor hump) and I can toss my ipad or my wife's purse there. But it's not the same. 

The center console is a bright, sharp LCD:


The center number is your speed, and the left blue bar is an analog display of your speed. The right yellow bar is your instant power usage. Yellow means you are discharging the battery, and green means you are regenerating it. You can configure the side panels to show what you want; I have media on the left and energy stats on the right. In the right corner is a Lego figure my son made a few years back, which is the totem of my car. When you're in navigation mode, on the left is a perspective-style view of where you're to go, which is pretty intuitive and easy to follow without taking your eyes too far from the road. The center green bar is battery status and ideal range in miles. The display, as a whole, is exquisite. I'm super impressed with the design and the care that went into it and how easy it is to use. 


The big display in the center console has gotten a lot of press. It's a multifunction display which is very familiar to those of us with aviation backgrounds! It's also bright and sharp, but placed such that when you use it, your eyes are well off of the road. One very cool thing is that the rear view camera can be used while driving and supplants the rear view mirror to a large degree. The view out the rear hatch is not that great, so the fish-eye lens actually give better rear and blind spot awareness. The camera is super sharp and bright (it was raining when the above pic was taken, so it's a bit blurry). I leave it on most of the time. Below is the nav, which is powered by Google maps. You can swap out various functions or make them full screen. The media lets you choose between radio, internet radio, satellite (if you pay for it) or your local media, such as an iPhone or flash drive. The energy function lets you monitor your power usage and efficiency and is super addictive. I usually wind up trying to beat my "high score" for a given route. But that requires you to drive slow, so I turned it off. There is a browser window, which you CAN use while driving, if you're reckless enough. Fortunately (?) it's super slow, both the 3G internet and the browser itself, such that it is essentially useless, so there's little temptation there. Supposedly there's a 4G and wifi option in the works, which would make it more useful, but so far there's little risk of driving and surfing. Data is free for now, but we will probably have to pay up in the future. The phone app syncs your contacts, if you have a smartphone, and makes it super easy to call or navigate to anyone in your phone book. And unlike ANY other car I have ever used, the voice control functionality is actually pretty useful. As for the stereo:

It goes to eleven. 

The driving experience is pretty damn awesome. It's been said over and over again, but the acceleration of this thing is just sick. It's hard to describe what "instant" throttle response really feels like till you've experienced it. I've driven some really fast cars in my time and this car is quicker to respond to drive input than any I've experienced. The Porsche 911 does have more acceleration, but only by a bit, and even then it has the ups and downs of its power curve, while the Tesla has maximum torque from the moment you stab at the right pedal till you let off. While it's impressive off the line, it's almost more impressive when you're doing 40 and can still fling your head back against the rest as you punch it to 60.  I've had it as high as 110, and it still felt like it had plenty to give, though it's electronically limited to 125 mph.

Also unusual is the braking: you rarely touch the brake pedal. The moment you let up off the throttle, very strong regenerative braking begins, recharging the battery. You are actually thrown forward slightly if you let off the throttle at speed, and the brake lights come on. (They are controlled not by the brake pedal but by an accelerometer.) For someone used to a manual, it's you need to relearn how to drive, slightly. This car does not coast. 

The handling is good. This is in fact a very heavy car (4700 lbs curb weight) and it does feel that way when cornering and stopping. It takes corners very well and is more than competent at high speed. I am a bit spoiled from the stiff handling of my BMW, which I miss. The suspension and ride of the Tesla are distinctly softer, if perhaps more comfortable. 

One other odd experience is that you never turn the car on -- or off. You walk up with the key (which is shaped like a little matchbook Tesla) in your pocket. The door handles extend as you approach, you sit down, put it in drive, and go. No ignition, no parking brake, no "on" button, you just go. And when you get to your destination, you just put it in park, get up and walk away. It knows you have left, and applies the brake, locks the doors, and powers down. I'm always feeling like I have forgotten a step. 

Charging has been a non-issue so far. I had a standard 220-volt outlet (like a dryer outlet) put in my garage and I just plug the car in every night before I go to bed, as I do my cell phone. There are charging stations all over Puget Sound, but since I've 200-300 miles to play with I've never needed to charge outside of my garage. I get about 30 miles of charge per hour, so I can pretty much completely recharge overnight, even if fully drained. You can also set the car to charge during off-peak periods, when electricity is cheaper.

The rated range is 240 miles, and the ideal range is 300 miles. My experience is that I can count on the 240 miles pretty reliably. In order to get the ideal range, I'd need to drive a lot slower and also live somewhere flat, since hills really eat up the charge. But as I live at the top of a 7% grade, I accept that I will never get the ideal range. I can do road trips, but it takes a bit of planning to make sure that you can get there and that there are charging stations en route in case you need it. There are a number of good apps that tell you where to find charging stations, what sort they are, and whether they are free or charge (about 50/50, it seems). 

On the subject of apps, there is a Tesla app for the iPhone. Its main use, as far as I can tell, is to allow me to preheat the car at 2AM when I'm getting ready to leave the ER. It's nice to come out to a cozy preheated vehicle. It can also be useful for finding your car in a parking lot, or checking the state of charge. But it doesn't do much else. 

Overall, I love it. I love the fact that I never have to fill it with gas. That was a chore that I always hated and tended to make me late for work -- even later than is my norm. Now I've gone 2500 miles without setting foot at a gas station, which is pure heaven. Yeah, it's green, especially in the NW where almost all our energy is hydro. But that's not why I wanted this car. Frankly, I would still love it if it ran on ground-up puppy dogs. I'm not in this for moral superiority. I've done too many terrible, terrible things to claim that mantle. I love it because it's a hoot to drive, and because it's the coolest damn gadget I've ever seen: the ├╝ber-gadget, if you will. And I am all about the gadgets.