Sunday, March 18, 2018

#10 - The Infinitely Upgradable Auto

#10 – The Infinitely Upgradable Auto

I remain an even more die-hard Tesla fan (is that possible?) after going to the first service appointment for my car in almost 3yrs.  The car itself actually told me it needed service - the 12V battery needed to be replaced, which is the reserve in addition to the main battery pack that keeps all the systems running.  The Tesla service team took care of that as well as a couple of plastic lens covers amongst the rear lights that were letting in condensation.  All at no charge. 

Now, that is not unique.  A close friend responded to my Instagram posting of my zero charge invoice with one of his own showing no charge for his Mercedes after a 6-month service appointment.  Fair enough.  And my BMW purchased new came with 3 years of oil change and service at no charge, so luxury vehicles generally come with that level of service.  But after 2.5 years and just over 40,000 kms on it this first service appointment did not require anything else, not even the brakes.  Let's take a minute on that point - a 5,000 lb car, and one in my case that is driven up and down plenty of steep hills as well as into the mountains for skiing, hiking and other wonderful things Tesla drivers get to do - and the brakes need no service.  I’m pretty sure my buddy’s Mercedes would have needed brakes done.  My small BMW definitely would have.

The emailed invoice I received with a zero charge is a testament to a different kind of car company.  One that makes a new kind of car.  Tesla makes the cars, sells them directly to their customers and endeavours to generate returns that way, not through service, leasing or howsoever the rest of the auto world makes their money.  Thankfully, Tesla’s shareholders have been remarkably patient for those elusive profits in pursuit of the grander goal of delivering to the world an all-electric vehicle that not only looks fabulous but one that has plenty of range, can glide up to one of thousands of Super Chargers and within all of that delivers an Apple/iPhone-like experience to their customers.

I was recently without my beloved car for 30 days - not by choice mind you.  I have a minor issue with the pace at which I proceed from point A to point B.  That aside, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and in this case the absence highlighted a number of things I have become somewhat used to.  The automation is the most obvious – those slick door handles present themselves whenever I approach, my garage door opens as I near my house, and closes as I drive away.  The calendar on my phone syncs with the car and upcoming appointments are displayed with the address (if I included that in the entry) that I can simply touch and it will navigate me there, accounting for traffic because the core nav system is Google Maps.  Oooooh, I missed you.

But the battery was almost dead.  I checked every day or so on the App that showed me the car’s location but more importantly the battery level displayed in range.  I was down to 43km of range when I picked up the car, the lowest it has ever been, but plenty of juice to get me to the dealership where I could get the thing Super Charged and they would take care of this 12V battery replacement.  While at the Tesla Store (did I just call it a dealership?) I saw a Model 3 on display.  I had not seen one in the wild before, just in Youtube reviews.  What a beautiful looking car.  Loaded with great design features, the Model 3 embodies a product packed with those little things that bind you to it.  A two-car garage for your phones, one for the driver and one for the passenger.  A stunningly clean interior crafted like a high-end condominium.

In some respects it seems it has become Tesla vs. the Rest of the World when it comes to these cars - you can get only so much from a detailed review of a new car. Video. Commentary. Insight. Even comparisons to other vehicles you may already know.  Individuals can get a great deal from a trusted source through their review but nothing compares to sitting, driving or owning a car when it comes to knowing all its little features. So the rave reviews of the Model 3 and the comparisons to the Chevy Bolt are useful and interesting but it is not until you are inside the car that you realize what Tesla has actually done with this “affordable” EV.  Such clean lines inside, a landscape oriented screen set in the middle of the dash and virtually no other dials or buttons of any kind. One tidy little feature is a two-phone garage positioned just under the main screen so both the driver and passenger can put their devices and both have charge ports (one iPhone and one other if you like).

Digging around on the screen I notice a few differences in the layout of the software (the UI and UX). Not bad. I click everything like 6 year old after his first Redbull.  And what's this? The equalizer for the sound system has a distinctive profile - five adjusters showing high bass, middle for the next one and the same level for the remaining three. I figured the millennial salesperson sitting next to me or one of their mates did that. Just setting it up the way they would in their own car - plenty of bass for sure.  But back in my Model S later I check the equalizer (something tickling the back of my brain...).  Mine is the same.  Wait a minute - I didn't do that. Let's just understand what's happening here. Tesla has figured out that the sound system is audibly better with this equalizer setup, so they simply broadcast that to every Tesla ever made and "update" the sound system to improve it.

My next update was actually scheduled for that evening but this had already been done so it had been sent with a prior update.  Wow - my Tesla, and every other one ever sold will continue to get updates and upgrades over the air as long as they are part of the software. Obviously hardware upgrades are different, but no other car company can or has ever been able to do that.  The best example of this flexibility, or advanced engineering up-gradability (whatever we choose to call it) came during Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Florida . Tesla broadcast an update to every one of its cars in the state that unlocked additional range in the car's battery so people could get where they were going without worrying about their car’s charge.  How could they do that?  As I understand it, cars produced by Tesla in a grouping all essentially have the same battery pack whose range is set with software.  So a 70D and an 85D have essentially the same battery off the assembly line to keep it simple and reduce costs.  One gets set up through the software with 70 kilowatts of range while the other has 85.  Just a tweak to the software.  Is this the future of automobiles? The Infinitely Up-gradable Auto?

Monday, February 12, 2018

#9 - Google Just Made a Huge Move Into the Insurance Business (And Nobody Noticed)

As driverless cars, or Autonomous Vehicles (“AVs”) get closer to becoming a reality on our highways and city streets, questions arise about the ethical programming of these cars. Specifically, how will an AV be programmed to respond in a situation in which it knows an accident is unavoidable?

Will a driverless car be programmed to protect the driver under any and all circumstances and minimize damage or harm to the vehicle and its passengers? Or will it be required to include the welfare of the other cars, pedestrians, property and even pets it senses are in harm’s way as a result of the impending, unavoidable accident? The question is a thorny one when at first, the roads are populated with both human driven cars as well as Autonomous Vehicles. But it will very quickly become academic. Once the entire road system is replete with AVs, they can all be programmed to fend for themselves and/or even communicate with one another to eliminate accidents. But to get there, the public must gain confidence in AVs and truly believe they are fail-safe. Besides, will my insurance cover me if the computer freezes or goes haywire?

In a well crafted bid to instill public confidence in Autonomous Vehicles, and cut through the patchwork of regulation that is different across various states in the USA, Google (arguably the leader in Autonomous Vehicles) and Volvo (another leader in the field) recently announced their intention to accept the liability for any accident that is the result of a flaw in the design of the AV or one of its components.

One could easily surmise that Google’s move to insure its own vehicles is a mere marketing gimmick designed to quickly instill public confidence in its AV creations. But it is more likely something much, much bigger than that…

This is a very significant development, and is effectively Google providing auto insurance for their own AVs. Moreover, it has the potential to expand beyond just Google offering to provide liability insurance to those who request it, to a situation where Google could require every AV sold to be insured by its designer – ie: Google. If so, this could become an extremely valuable new business. Google has already demonstrated that its AVs on the road have a far lower accident record than humans – zero, in fact when the fault of the 11 accidents is factored in as entirely on the other (human) driver.

By those statistics, the AVs will be the best vehicles on the road to insure – the lowest accident rates, zero driver error and a completely auditable log of every event, timeline and sensor on the car. And with that deceptively altruistic commitment, the P&C insurance companies will have lost one of the largest segments of their business. Google, in fact, has already indicated its desire to enter the car insurance business. And once we are getting our AV car insurance from Google, how long will it be before we are getting house, health, disability and life insurance from the same source?

One could easily surmise that Google’s move to insure its own vehicles is a mere marketing gimmick designed to quickly instill public confidence in its AV creations. But it is more likely something much, much bigger than that. Google’s willingness to accept full liability for accidents involving its driverless cars is, in fact, a Trojan Horse into the multi-trillion dollar insurance industry.  Berkshire Hathaway, Allianz, and AIG be warned.

#8 - The Ethics of Driverless Cars – Who Lives and Who Dies?

With the introduction and growth of Driverless Cars (or Autonomous Vehicles “AVs“) a pressing ethical question has arisen over how to program these cars in situations that will clearly result in an unavoidable collision. Faced with the choice of saving the “driver” (or the occupants of the vehicle) by plowing into a group of pedestrians, or sacrificing the occupants for the greater good, should the AV be programmed to save as many lives as possible?

A study by Azim Shariff of the Culture and Morality Lab at the University of Oregon with the help of additional researchers from France and MIT, tested the public’s attitudes toward these kinds of decisions. That study asked respondents to choose what they thought should be programmed to happen where they were the occupant of the AV in question as well as from the perspective of the pedestrians (or some other innocent party such as a school bus or another vehicle containing children). Reponses were mixed with a certain percentage at least saying they would choose the option that favoured the greater good. But the real answer becomes clear if we look at the issue from a broader perspective – set all AVs to protect the owner/driver. In an unavoidable collision between two AVs, both will respond to protect themselves.

With human drivers we can assume they would naturally default to protecting themselves, and their motor reactions in a split-second decision would reflect that – swerve to avoid accident; protect the driver. Once the majority of vehicles on the road are AVs, the basic programming default in all of them should be to protect the driver. That way even the vehicle about to be hit will respond, if it can, to protect its driver. Superseding that baseline programming with lines of code that instruct an AV to make proactive choices about who lives and dies introduces far too many thorny and complicated decisions. Moreover, what makes us so certain the computer will have enough data to make the right proactive decision to “kill or injure the fewest (or oldest) people” in any scenario. What if that school bus potentially carrying 20 children is empty?

The only reasonable solution is to program every AV to protect its occupants so that (eventually) all the cars on the road have that at their core.

And as we march toward more AVs on our roads one thing is becoming clear, “…driverless cars will be far better at avoiding collisions than humans.” So says a report from the Conference Board of Canada. That report predicts an 80% reduction in traffic fatalities once we achieve an era when driverless cars become the majority of vehicles on the road.

Source: CBC News – Edmonton (“lives-and-dies-in-a-driverless-car-crash-1.3297177)

To get to that point, however, we need ever more data to train the computers that will eventually control driverless cars completely. Where Google's Waymo division was the foremost source of data in this respect, Tesla has taken over the lead simply by collecting more data from more data-points. Those data-points are every Tesla Model S, X and now Model 3 on the road. That broad spread of data-points that are collecting information about real world driving increases by 10's of thousands (and soon 100's of thousands) each year as Tesla puts more cars on the road. And as the cars proliferate around the globe, Tesla's real world data from driverless cars also grows in a wider variety of places and circumstances. Google's approach has been to collect data from their own cars, typically in controlled circumstances, but solely from the limited number of cars they have on the road. Tesla on the other hand, is building a data set from an increasing number of cars because each car they sell becomes a stream of data for analysis.

The solution to the Ethics of Driverless Cars, ultimately, is data to support the right answer not humans debating how they should be programmed. And Tesla has the most valuable data set that continues to become more valuable with every car that rolls off the assembly line.

Monday, September 18, 2017

#7 - Why you can’t Win a Formula One Race without an Electric Engine

The answer, as always, is technology.

My first cars were 4-cylinder 1.6 Litre engines. These were naturally aspirated except for a 1971 Volkswagen Type III (Fastback) that actually had fuel injection instead of a carburetor. Didn’t help much but unlike modern cars controlled by a number of chips and systems, that car was easy to fix, tune up and repair.

Today, cars are far more efficient, and sophisticated as a result. Some of the advancements are technology for the sake of it or for the benefit of the creatures inside, but the more recent developments in drivetrain technology are truly incredible. Since the arrival of the Prius, I have been fascinated by the way that hybrid gas/electric motor increases fuel efficiency in part by recapturing energy while braking –regenerative braking as it is called. It works even better in my Tesla. So well, in fact, that I hardly touch the brakes during city driving and Tesla themselves have guided to 150,000 km before your first brake job.

But the pinnacle of all things motorsport is of course, Formula 1. For several years now Formula 1 cars have been Hybrids. However, the real shocker is what those development teams have done to squeeze more horsepower out of an ever smaller gas-powered engine. Today, it is just a 1.6 Litre V6 engine that rockets a Formula 1 car to over 300 kph.

How do they do that?

Well, first of all they combine the low-speed torque of an electric motor to boost the car out of corners and up to a speed where the gasoline engine delivers its max torque and high top speed. Then, as the car hurtles toward the next corner the electric motor re-captures as much kinetic energy as it can while assisting in braking. That energy gets stored in a battery but only for a few seconds before it dumps it out again pulling the car out of that same corner. Granted, in high school physics my teacher would have called that a capacitor not a battery because it is basically just holding a high-voltage charge for a short time and then blasting it out as quickly as possible.

The demand to transfer that much electricity (energy) from a battery to a drivetrain creates a whole host of problems to solve similar to what the engineers at Tesla faced when getting the Model S and X from 0-60 mph in less than three seconds. The first time they tried it at Tesla, all that energy going from the battery to the electric motors so quickly simply melted all the cables.

The hybrid system makes such a difference to the performance of a Formula 1 car that past generations of race cars without it, even with much larger gas-powered engines, couldn’t hope to compete. A good example of this was three years ago in Abu Dhabi when Lewis Hamilton won his second F1 Championship his team mate Nico Rosberg had a failure of his electric motor. This was in the early days of the hybrid system, but even still Rosberg went from second place to ninth place in a matter of a couple of laps simply because his car did not have the advantage of regenerative braking.

Of course Formula 1 has taken this concept of energy recovery way beyond simple regenerative brakes. After tuning the system to recapture as much of the kinetic energy as possible in the braking phase (through a unit called an MKU-K) they then turned to the turbo charger. Here, hot exhaust is run through a turbine that is connected to a compressor such that the rising pressure of exhaust from an accelerating car is used to create pressure for the fuel intake that boosts horsepower.

But there is a lag –”Turbo Lag”- in motor-speak. To eliminate the lag and make the whole system more efficient those geniuses at Formula 1 created a system to recapture the kinetic energy stored in the turbine the same way it is recaptured under braking. It is called the MKU-H. As the exhaust fumes spin up the turbo, electricity is produced and stored that is then used to spin up the compressor in those early stages during turbo lag. Now, no lag. And more energy recaptured to make the car faster and more efficient at the same time. This system is starting to show up in production cars and is called an eTurbo.

Formula 1 cars leave no doubt they are on the bleeding edge of motorsport technology, and are in fact the testing ground for brilliant new developments in future production cars. But the fact remains they are creations that seem to defy logic. A 1.6 litre V-6 engine that produces 1,000 horsepower is in the same vehicle that weighs 1,500 lbs fully loaded but produces over 2,500 lbs of downforce at speed. So, theoretically, these cars can drive upside down.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

#6 - No One Buys a Tesla to Save on Gas…

Let’s be clear, no one buys a $100,000 car solely to save on the cost of fuel.  In my case, it was the fifth of five reasons I cited here when I bought my Tesla.  But I wanted to figure out how much electricity my Tesla was using and if that was a measurable savings on the gas I would have been paying for to run my old car.

Where I live in Canada electricity costs have been rising steadily for the last few years, and that will continue.  The incremental (or highest) cost I pay is $0.124 per KWh.  That was the easy part.  Figuring out how many Kilowatt Hours of electricity my cars uses was a little tougher.  I checked a number of Tesla forums (there are way too many of them) and found other owners were trying to figure out the same thing.  Everyone, it seemed, was coming at the problem from a different angle but eventually I figured out an equation that gave me an answer.  I don’t keep a log of how many KWh of electricity I use every time I drive the car and if I started doing that it wouldn’t help me with the first 18 months I have owned the car so I needed my own approach.
Happily, Tesla’s capture plenty of data on energy consumption including the average Watt Hours per Kilometer driven over the last 10km, 25km or 50km.  With that number (an average of approximately 200 Watt Hours of electricity per km) at $0.124 per Kilowatt Hour over the 26,000Km the car has logged since purchase works out to:

I tend to own cars for long periods of time (10 yrs is not unusual and to that end I still own the car I bought in 2001) so that will work out to around $25,000 over the 10 yrs I expect to own my Tesla which is much more than I expected.

Now, if you are considering buying an electric vehicle (and “EV”) a few other options exist that are considerably cheaper than a Tesla Model S or X.  The highly anticipated Tesla Model 3 is rumoured to be in Beta production currently with a few cars expected to roll off the assembly line later this year.  And at a starting price of US$35,000 (around $50,000 in Canada) it will fit many more car-buying budgets.  The Chevy Bolt is getting rave reviews, even from an existing Tesla Model S driver and is priced the same as the Model 3.  However, since the Bolt is available in some US states today and the Model 3 is still a news release rather than a reality most consumers are left to choose amongst the Prius Highbrid or one of the existing EVs like the Nissan Leaf or the Honda Insight.  The Nissan Leaf is the clear leader in that category and despite its limited range I see many of them on the road (as well as parked at local EV Charging stations).

Until recently I hadn’t thought of the economics of owning an EV, and even when I looked at it in detail before buying my Tesla I found it was more about the savings in maintenance that really made the difference in my decision (partly because the alternative to a Tesla Model S for me was a used Porsche 911 – not exactly comparable cars but that was all part of my decision making process).  The other day I met a young man who works several jobs and just bought a new Nissan Leaf.  One of those jobs was as a Pizza delivery guy (I did this job in my youth as a direct means to pay for the gas, insurance and maintenance on my first used cars).  This guy told me he previously drove a used Chevy Geo (a 3-cylinder sub-compact car from the 90’s that any objective observer would describe as a crappy car) and where this was primarily (but not entirely) used for his job delivering pizza it cost him $400/month in gas to run.  Plus maintenance.  He proudly pointed out that the all-in lease cost on his new Nissan Leaf was $400/month.  And his gas costs were now zero (with essentially no maintenance).

 Now, electricity is not free as I calculated above, but this guy lives in an apartment so has to park his car at the grocery store across the street where they have a couple of spots with an EV charger.  In my province the monopoly provider of electricity cost is the only entity permitted to do that so others can charge for parking but not for the electricity.  In this case, where the parking is free so is are the electrons.  And the simple matter of smoothing over relations with the night manager who say this same car parked every night was expertly managed with a couple of large pizzas.  Not a bad little story especially when he added that in addition to the $5,000 incentive he got from the government to buy an EV he also got $6,000 from another government program designed to provide an incentive to get old cars off the road.  He paid $500 for his old piece of crap and got $6,000 to take it off the road…

What both the Model 3 and the Bolt have that sets them apart from any other affordable EV available today is a substantially larger battery pack.  That helps with “range anxiety” and makes feasible longer trips or linking together several short trips that don’t revolve around chargers.  The chargers themselves are getting better as well, such as the growing presence of CHAdeMO chargers that can fill an EV with 120km of range in less than half an hour.  One of the main problems I can see with the proliferation of smaller “economy” EVs is how to charge them.  I have a garage and installed a 220V connection to charge my Tesla but I grew up in a house with no garage where we parked on the street out front.  Houses without garages where the occupants park on the street and apartments or condos make up a large proportion of the living situations for much of Tesla’s Model 3 market or most people in the market for smaller “economy” EVs.  To charge an EV parked on the street in front of a house would mean running a long extension cord out across the lawn which is totally impractical.  And many apartment buildings only install one or two EV charging stations in their garages so even if you can charge your car you still have to move it to your regular parking space after an allotted amount of time.

The charging issues are a small hurdle to EV ownership and likely less of a concern for the drivers as long as the benefits of owning that type of car outweigh the costs by a significant enough margin.  With 400,000 Tesla Model 3s on pre-order, the reduced cost of fuel and maintenance appear to be outweighing the hassle factor.  At least in theory…

Sunday, January 8, 2017

#5 - Buying a Car from a Dinosaur

How Tesla has improved the process of buying any car

I bought my Tesla in 2015 and I only half-joke that it is my largest online purchase ever.  I did everything other than take delivery of the car online.  While I did get on the phone and ask a series of technical questions, like “How long will the battery last?” and I did meet with Tesla sales people in their showroom, that was nothing but research.  I did also complete a well documented test drive (here), but the final decisions regarding options, color and purchase vs. lease were all done online, not to mention putting down a deposit and frankly, managing my ownership of that same car through my profile on the website ever since taking delivery.  No visit to a dealership required.  You cannot do that with any other vehicle that I am aware of.

This comparison arises because my wife and I just went through the process of buying her a new car.  A GMC truck. It seems, however, the experience we had, and have repeated a few times with other new car purchases in the past, is virtually the same regardless of the make of car.  These days, all automakers (in North America at least) have a website where you can “Build your vehicle”.  It is straightforward; pick the model, color, drivetrain, interior, wheels, options, etc.  When you have done all that, you get handed over to a Dealer.  Why?  Because consumers never actually buy a car from GM, Ford or any other automaker.  By law, we can only purchase cars from dealerships.  That is what Tesla has eliminated with their new sales model and why you could not buy a Tesla in New Jersey, Arizona, Michigan, Maryland and Texas initially because those states maintained laws that prohibited consumers from buying cars direct from automakers. 

It seems a little crazy that consumers are prohibited by law from buying a car direct from the automaker but it is not nearly as bizarre as the arcane system dealerships have trapped themselves and their customers in for the purchase of a vehicle.  While it may start on a website these days, it always ends in a dealership and with a multi-step process that is so inefficient, painful and disjointed that it makes Soviet era Russia seem modern.  

First, we start with the salesperson.  The smile, the pitch, the useful information about each model, perhaps even the white shoes with white belt.  All of it designed to hone in on the “right car for you”.  You may already have done that on the website so next is the Test Drive. 

The test drive is an obligatory process and one even purchasers in Tesla’s new sales model of car buying want to do.  Some dealers will even bring the car to your home at an appointed time, as Tesla will do, to make this second step as seamless and as fun as it should be. 

The third step is the price negotiation; options, color, interior, etc.  Didn’t we already do this on the website?  Perhaps, and that may speed things along except for the fact that in the dealership model the cars in inventory are the ones the dealer wants to sell you.  As a result, the sales person engages in this annoying process of matching what they have to sell you with what you actually want.  Okay, but why can’t you just make what I want like Tesla does?

The fourth step (or is it step 3b) where the sales person searches for the car you are looking for.  Where Tesla simply builds the car you have designed, dealers actually own the cars on their lots so the salesperson will direct you to a vehicle as similar as possible to the one you want on their lot or on another dealer’s lot elsewhere.  If you choose a factory order, it seems that all price negotiation goes out the window.  The “customization” within the dealership model appears to be the salesperson selling final add-ons like undercoating (famous for being something that provides un-needed protection at some cost to the consumer and a tidy profit for the dealer), theft protection, Sirius XM radio or other after-market products and services.

The next step is when the sales manager is brought in to “finalize” the sale.  This always seems to me like the salesperson you have just been dealing with for the last hour is not authorized to close the deal.  Like they are in training or something, so they need to bring in the manager to finish it all off.  That can get a little sticky but once you are through that step you can press on… 

If you are leasing the vehicle you next go to the finance or leasing department, something you would have to do even if you were leasing a Tesla, but it is yet another step, it involves yet another person in another office and it can take an hour itself as you comb through the most confounding mathematical exercise ever conceived.  I have spent my entire 26 year career in finance, and consider myself fairly sophisticated in understand quite complex financing structures, but the leasing department takes the prize for most complicated and opaque.  Even after an hour of checking and re-checking certain figures to ensure I understood roughly how they were being calculated, there remained portions of the calculation I simply had to take their word for how it was being done.  Most consumers, I believe, simply focus on the bottom line which is the monthly payment.  And frankly that is how most cars in North America get sold – it is almost entirely a function of the monthly payment. In our purchase, we were now on to the sixth step but it was dark by now, and I was feeling defeated by the army of dealership soldiers I was working my way through. 

The sixth step was insurance.  On to another office within the dealership, yet another person involved in the process (we are at four so far, not including the receptionist).  Auto insurance is a necessity but now it is approaching 10pm and we are hours into the process.  The sun has long set and I have to leave to pick up one of our kids so my wife presses on with the actual delivery of the car.  Are we at step seven?  I lost track.  A brief explanation of the many features of the new car, a fifth person to affix the license plate, insurance sticker to ensure this hulk is roadworthy and we are finally done.  Any remaining explanation is left for another time because the purchaser has long since run out of interest in the process.  Phew, can I go home now?

As it turns out, the dealerships, and the car companies for that matter, don’t make much money selling cars.  All the profit for the dealer is in the optional extras sold at the end and the follow on service of the vehicle.  And in the lease.  I recall seeing a brilliant comment by a research analyst covering the auto sector that truly captured the essence of the auto business: in this case it was Ford being described a money-losing manufacturer of cars with a profitable bank on the side (referring to the fact that they made all their money leasing cars, not selling them).

How does it work when you buy a Tesla?  Well, when you make the decision a bright light appears, angels sing and and the car appears in your driveway.  Well, not exactly but it sure seemed like a close description compared to buying a car from a dinosaur dealer.  

As I stated above, I consider my Tesla to be my largest ever online purchase.  Once I had configured the car on their website, put down a $2,500 deposit with my credit card, I got a message:  “Thank you for your purchase.  We will hold your deposit for 10 days before starting the build process.  You are able to make any changes to the vehicle whatsoever during these 10 days.  At the end of the 10 days we will send you another email notifying you that we have taken your deposit are about to start building your car to your specifications.  You can still make changes but some changes may result in an additional $500 charge and/or a change in the delivery date.”  Presumably you can change something like the wheels anytime prior to when they are put on the car but changing the color after it has been painted would result in a charge and a change in the delivery time.  A little less than two weeks after the deposit was taken I got a VIN number and a couple of weeks after that the car was made and I was selecting a delivery date.  Now that was simple, transparent and it felt custom made.  But not exactly rocket science, and I still had to take delivery.

When it came time to pick up the car it was such a completely different experience from the GM dealer.  The same obligatory details needed to be completed such as lease details if that is your choice, and insurance, but at Tesla they are all handled by the same person.  One person.  Not multiple departments.  And all while I was seated in the same chair.  The vast majority of time I spent at the dealer receiving the car I had bought was all spent learning how it works, basic features and simple setup (like how to charge it, connecting to Bluetooth or where the windshield wiper fluid is refilled).  All the awkward steps involving multiple people, separate departments and individual offices each run by a specific manager had all been taken care of online.  Why?  Because I was buying the car from Tesla, not from a dinosaur that already had an inventory of cars they needed to move.  My car was factory ordered, made in three weeks and delivered in another three weeks.  The price was the price and the only haggling arises if you are factoring in the value of a trade-in.

The best part is, this way of buying a car is not proprietary to Tesla.  Anyone can do it.  The traditional auto makers, however, would have to unwind their entire dealership network in order to do what Tesla does so it is not likely to happen with them anytime soon.  Hopefully, the moment one auto maker adopts Tesla’s online configuration and the direct purchase model, the others will be forced to follow.  And then, the painful, exhausting and unnecessarily complex process of buying a car will be replaced with something more akin to a purchase on Amazon.

Monday, May 16, 2016

#4 - Getting Around in a Giant iPad

It is a little hard to claim that you are a “car guy” when it is true that in the ‘70’s your Dad drove a green Ford Pinto (that took me and my sisters on an epic journey to Disneyland) and your Mum drove an AMC Pacer (with a 3-speed manual transmission) in the ‘80’s.  But I do claim the title and I have even done some fairly advanced car maintenance on the old junkers I owned.  But the cars I owned back then were simple mechanical engines with no computer controls, no Bluetooth and certainly no 17” flatscreen in the center of the dashboard.

The Tesla is accurately described as “something like driving a giant iPad”.  The screen is a major distraction at first but it soon becomes what it is designed for which is the central point to control everything in the car.  Not unlike Steve Jobs’ approach to the iPod and iPhone where he insisted on eliminating all the buttons, including one that turned it on (and off), Tesla’s engineers (some of whom came from Apple) did exactly that.  The car is “turned on” by stepping on the brake once you get in.  Then it turns on the driver.  The steering wheel has the obligatory levers for turn signal, gear shift and a wand to adjust the cruise control (and AutoPilot) but every other button on the dash, save two, has been eliminated in favour of the screen.  The two buttons that remain are one to open the glove box and a second to control the Hazards, apparently a regulatory requirement for auto safety. 

Visually, the screen controls are a thing of beauty.  One screen has an image of the car from above, the same appears on the “dash” in front of the steering wheel which displays speed, etc. but always in the color of your car (red in my case, black, white or otherwise depending on your car).  It is animated as well, so when the driver’s door is open the car image shows this or when it is charging it shows the cable trailing away from the charging port.  Simple but great reinforcements of the driver’s experience.  To open the sunroof you simply touch the roof of the car image on the screen and drag your finger down as far as you want it open.  And of course the image animates this while the sunroof opens revealing the inside of the car as the sunroof slides back – full points for attention to detail.

This sort of thing is fairly easy to do with a software-driven interface which is also why Tesla’s engineers have buried a few Easter eggs in the system.  One is 007 mode where the driver enters 007 on a maintenance screen and the image of the car on certain screens changes to that of the Lotus Esprit from the James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me where his white Lotus blasts off a pier, lands in the ocean and then transforms into a submarine.  Apparently Elon Musk bought the original car a few years ago.  Another is the fact that the volume control goes to 11 – paying homage to one of my favourite movies “This is SpinalTap”.  There may even be a Mario Kart one buried in there but the point is these are easy things to do when the cares controls are all software that is regularly updated over the air with improvements, bug fixes and new features.  When I took delivery of my Tesla I had paid $2,800 for the AutoPilot option but the self-driving and self-parking didn’t come for several months afterward.  When they did, it was like getting a whole new car all over again.  Brilliant.  The updates are free for every Tesla owner and they will keep coming.

As a competitive advantage this is a feature unique to Tesla that is unmatched.  During 2015 several enterprising hackers got into the control system of a few modern cars in order to hijack the vehicle control system leaving the driver helpless.  In the case of Chrysler’s Jeep this resulted in a hasty and red-faced recall of 1.4 million vehicles where owners had to be contacted and the cars taken into dealerships for an upgrade.  The Tesla Model S was also hacked, of course, but Tesla wrote a patch and two days later every vehicle was updated overnight.  Problem solved.  You can just see Elon rolling his eyes while he thumbs his nose at the entire 100 year old auto industry.  What a bunch of boneheads.

The power of an operating system for your car that can be updated overnight like any iPhone is staggering.  No longer are cars tied to a model year where I have the 2015 Tesla Model S but in 2016 they introduced an Auto Parking feature but I didn’t get that – ‘Nuh uh.  If it is software, I get it.  That is why I have been lobbying Tesla for a small feature change.  You can help by using #teslateenmode which I believe is just a few lines of code that will not only put Tesla even further ahead of every other car maker but may even save a few lives.  Valet Mode already exist that limits the car’s top speed, locks out the Nav system and glove box as well as the front trunk (the frunk).  What Tesla Teen Mode would do is allow the vehicle owner to set the max speed and dial down the acceleration – say a 0-60mph time of 8 or 10 seconds instead of 5 seconds or less.  My 16 year old daughter has her L and is learning to drive with me.  Yes, it is truly a “First World Problem” that my car goes too fast for a young driver to manage, but I have told her she needs to enjoy the time she spends driving my car with me because as soon as she gets her N license there is no way in hell she’ll be driving that rocket ship without me in it.  

One of the coolest features of the Model S is AutoPilot.  Part of this is just a suitably advanced adaptive cruise control system that will maintain the speed set but also keep the car a designated number of car lengths behind the one in front, even if they are going slower.  But AutoPilot will also manage the steering.  Tesla calls this a Public Beta mostly because it is still being improved, and it is not fully autonomous driving when the system doesn’t recognize traffic lights or stop signs.  That's right – the car will just fly through an intersection on AutoPilot if the driver is not paying attention.  On the highway it steers a little like a nervous teenager but will maintain its lane through most curves and will even change lanes like an expert.  A few other luxury cars have these features, or something similar, but it seems that only Tesla has put all the goodies together in one gorgeous package. 

I wanted to try out a little highway driving so I seized the opportunity when I was asked to speak at an event in Seattle.  I figured this would be a mini road trip where I could test out the highway driving features and even use Tesla’s Super Charger network.  It took a little bit of advanced planning to line up a parking space for my overnight stay that had a charging station in it but Seattle, like most cities now, has plenty of options.  The SuperCharger locations tend to be on highways strategically located on the way to a destination rather than at the destination itself.  The public charge point I located happened to be one in a parking garage next door to my hotel that was operated by Blink.  To use it, I had to register online with a credit card to pay for the electricity.  That was in addition to the cost of parking but easily done.  And when I got there, like most EV charging stations, the parking spaces (painted bright green) are in position A right at the front.  I hold my Blink card up to the reader, it gives a soothing bloop, and I am ready to start charging.  The screen flashes up the cost per KWh and as I am walking away I pull out my phone and use the Tesla app to check how much charge the car needs so I can use that to do a quick calculation of what it will cost.  Then I do the calculation again, with a calculator.  That can’t be right, I am thinking $45 - $50 to charge the car (US$ too so I get to pay another 30% ontop of that).  That seems like a lot for less than a full “tank of fuel”.  Later I look up the charge on my credit card and discover I missed a decimal place.  It was $4.50, not $45.  Huh, now that’s cheap.