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.  

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

#3 - Two Cars Towed in the Same Day

It all started with the idea that we would all go up to the Turkey Sale at Whistler to buy some of last year's ski gear on sale.  We did find a great deal on boots for my son and a pair of skis for me.  We even walked the dog in the pouring rain before heading back home in what was torrential rain. Just about then, the tire pressure indicator came on (says front right tire needed air) so we stopped at the last gas station before leaving Whistler to pump it up. Did so, and the warning light went out so everything seemed fine.

Stopped again in the next town about 50km from home to hit the Supercharger and get a coffee - Tesla seems to put the SuperCharger stations right next to Starbucks.  Very nice. When we got back on the road, the tire pressure light came on again and this time had an ominously red symbol (instead of the slightly less concerning yellow symbol before). Went straight to the nearest gas station and by then the wheel hub was almost on the ground. 

No problem - I had purchased a $35 tire inflation canister on the advice of the Tesla salespeople when I bought the car. Pulled that out and started to inflate the tire. But no joy. The tire inflated a bit but then all the air seemed to leak out so I moved the car (slowly) around to the air pump on the other side of the gas station and tried filling it with that. However, as quickly as the pump put air in I could actually hear it coming out of the tire. 

So, I called Tesla roadside assistance. Great service but an hour for a flatbed truck to come and get us.  I seemed to be developing an uncomfortably close relationship with flatbed tow trucks. The only problem was that I had my three kids and a wet dog with me - my wife was away on a trip in the UK.  So I had to call a taxi to take two of the kids (and the dog) 50km down to the city.  My youngest stayed with me.  That was $120, but worse, I was putting two of my kids in a cab with a driver I didn't know so he could go down a windy, notoriously dangerous road in the rain and at night.  I am definitely not happy about this but didn't see any alternative.  

We finally got the car onto the flatbed but as we were driving down I realize it is after 6pm on a Saturday night during a long weekend so there is nobody at the tire shop to let us in, and I didn't want to have to tow the car again three days later when the shop opened up. As luck would have it, the boyfriend of the dispatcher at the towing company, a very helpful woman, was the manager at the tire shop so he went over before we got there and opened the gate so we could put the car on their lot.  Fortuitous.  And very kind of him to do so.

Okay, so things are getting better now.  I even got a call from a friend with two tickets to the hockey game that night so as soon as we dropped the car at the tire shop the truck dropped us at home and I was able to take my 15yr old daughter downtown for the game.  In a rush, we get into my wife's car now but as soon as I start the engine the "out of gas" light comes on.  Great.  But, I have rationalized far worse - I declare out loud that "I am sure there is plenty of gas to get us downtown" to myself as much as to my daughter.  Besides, the game has already started.  

At this point, I turn to my daughter and only half jokingly say "When we get out of the car, make sure you hold my hand when we cross the street."  She gives me the same look you would expect a 15yr old girl to give her father when he says something odd like that so I explain, "I am just worried the gas light and everything else is a bad omen and we have to be careful we don't get run over or that we come out of the game and this car gets towed too".  She says, "Two tow trucks in one day - Haha, never gonna happen".  Uh oh.

We get downtown, listening to the game on the radio.  The score is 1-0 for Calgary and the first period ends.  We drive through two bloody parking garages that are both completely full.  Now the second period has started.  We come out of the second garage and find a spot to park on the street and find a spot with a parking meter between many other cars. Did I make that clear – many other cars were parked along the street where we were… We feed the meter and I note the street intersection before we both run to the stadium.  

Plenty of fun at the game.  Tied after three and it goes to overtime.  Very exciting. But when we get to the street where we parked the car, of course, it is not there.  My daughter is doubled over laughing.  Not helping my mood at all.  I looked for a No Parking sign, albeit in a rush, but now upon closer inspection I see there is a sign where we parked that is probably 10 feet off the ground and it says something like refer to some other sign to see if you can park here.  Seriously?!  The “some other sign” is way over there, down the block, and has a bunch of temporary stickers on it with a list of dates in tiny print on which you cannot park between 830pm and midnight.  There appears to be no pattern to the dates until I realize they are all the dates for the hockey team's home games.  Nice, now the mayor is out to get me.  None of this is on the permanent parking signs and all of it is in tiny print with temporary stickers added to the permanent signs.  Did I say it was in tiny print? With stickers.  And it was dark.  And we were late for the game.  Brutal. 

Anyway, the car was towed to a yard about 8 blocks away.  Traffic is gridlocked with cars coming out of the game so we have to walk.   Thankfully it is not raining anymore. Another $100 later (those discounted skis and boots are starting to get expensive) and a painful lineup to deal with but we then get the car back.  My wife's car back.  We get in the car and I turn the ignition and what is that warning light?  Oh yeah, out of gas.  Still.  

We sort out the gas and go find a restaurant because neither of us has eaten and it is now 1130pm.  We find a cool place with music and food and I am thinking, this is not so bad, hanging out with my 15yr old daughter after the hockey game.  And then it happens - my wife is in the UK which is 8 hours ahead so it is Sunday morning and she is on her way to the airport to catch her flight home.  Uh oh.  Texting with my daughter and what is that? "Mum wants to know why we are driving her car?"  

I'm like "Don't answer that text!  I need to get the story straight first..."  

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

#2 - The Test Drive

Okay, having made the decision not to buy a Porsche, or a replacement for my aging little convertible, I got on the Tesla website and booked a test drive.  Of course, I told them I wanted to drive the P85D with Insane mode.  Why not? 

The salesperson suggested a route along a nearby highway then up to the local ski area so the car would be able to show off its power and torque on the uphill as well as the regenerative braking on the way down.  Okay.  Who's going argue with that, let's go.  So up the mountain we went. 

Once we were off the highway, the road proceeds through a series of hairpin bends like switchbacks all the way up.  Not unfamiliar with this road, I was looking forward to it and as we came out of the first hairpin I opened up the throttle letting the car pull us out of the corner with surprising acceleration.  But as the car chewed up the road and we hit 80mph it stopped accelerating, even when I put the pedal right to the floor.  I turned to the salesperson in the passenger seat with a look like "WTF?  Is something wrong?".  Confused at first he then realized what it was and said "Ah, Valet Mode.  The car is in Valet Mode".

I'm like "What the hell is Valet Mode?".  Turns out it is a handy little feature that does a variety of things like lock out the glove box and front trunk, block the navigation system (specifically your Home location) and, of course, limits the car to 80mph.  Personally, I think this is a brilliant feature but remain skeptical that a Valet needs 80mph to park my car.

Anyway, now we are moving up the hill at a pace that feels like we are crawling since we are no longer accelerating.  Time to look around the cabin and take in some of the interior features I guess.  But just then, as we come over a rise in the road - BAM!  A speed trap.  Seriously?  At 3pm on a Wed afternoon with no one else on the road?  Brutal.

We pull over and the kind police officer asks for all my information which I provide to him once I tell him we are on a test drive and that I don't own the car.  The faint hope that our test drive status would result in just a warning faded completely when the policeman arrived back to inform me of the damage. 

At 80mph I was subject to a $378 fine because I was 40mph over the posted speed limit.  40mph over?  Weren't we just on a highway?  Apparently not.  And to rub salt in the wound, this route is popular with cyclists who blast down the hill on the same road.  Every one of them is exceeding the speed limit, but none are getting tickets.  I'm sure I can see them smirking as they buzz by at 70mph+.

Now, that was bad but it was not over.  After dropping that little bomb, the police officer pulls down his Eric Estrada sunglasses and proceeds to explain that at 40mph over the speed limit there is a mandatory 7-day impounding of the vehicle.  "So you two" he explains "need to get out of the car right now.  The flatbed is on its way to take the car."  WHAT?!

So there we were.  Two sad dopes, standing by the side of the road watching the car we were just driving - and which is still in perfect working order - be loaded onto a flatbed for a journey to who knows where.  Meanwhile, the salesperson is apologizing profusely.  I look at him puzzled.  "You know I was driving, right?  This is not your fault" I explain.

He sheepishly calls his boss down at the Tesla store to explain the situation and ask for another car to come pick us up.  Needless to say, I did not do the driving on the way down.

Monday, May 9, 2016

#1 - The Decision

I have always liked cars.  From my first ride in a go-kart at the outdoor Richmond Go-Kart track as a kid to the jalopy cars I owned in highschool, I have loved to buy, ride in, fix and customize cars.  Once I started working and was able to buy new cars I ended up owning some nice ones.  A factory order 2001 BMW X5 and BMW 323Ci Convertible that I still own.  But I always wanted a Porsche 911.  I even had the make, model, colour and features written down for over 10 years before eventually getting to the point I was able to buy it.

Then, finally, I was ready.  I went to autotrader and started looking at my dream car - a Porsche Carrera 4S Targa or Cabriolet.  I even set the year range so I could get Bluetooth.  The searches I set up sent me notifications almost every day and soon I had a spreadsheet of more than 80 cars that fit my criterion. 

Time to take the next step so I called a dealer to get a quote.  Well, I figured I may have to deal with some attitude but nothing prepared me for the pure, class-A pin-heads I had to speak to.   In almost every case the sales person I spoke to was not willing to set up a test drive "until they had a signed offer to buy the car".  Seriously?  So basically, that means they only want existing Porsche owners, or idiots, to come agree to buy the cars they have.  What an ass.

And if that was not bad enough, it got worse.  When I started to talk about a trade-in I was told my existing BMW 323Ci Convertible, which I had owned since I drove it off the lot, was only worth $6,000.  "Try selling it on Craig's List and you might get $8,000" says the Porsche pin-head.  It may have had over 125,000km on it but everything was original and I had taken care of it like it was one of my children.  I was not about to give it away for $6k.  That's it.  I'm keeping it.

Now, wait a minute.  That means I'll still have a convertible so I can look at some other kind of car.   How about I test drive that Tesla I have been reading so much about?  The next thing I know is I am on their website booking a test drive, reading more about the car (and the cost, of course) and I figure out why I am attracted to it.  Of the top five reasons I chose to buy a Tesla Model S, "no gas" was 5th.

  1. Performance: By far the most surprising thing about a Tesla is the pure, unrationed acceleration.  And to find that in what is a 5,000 lb beast of a car that carries 5 adults with luggage is truly unique
  2. All Wheel Drive:  I live in cold climate (at least during the winter) and I like to go skiing so all wheel drive has always been a priority - well, perhaps not when I bought the 2-wheel drive BMW 323, but ever since then
  3. Advanced Technology:  The car is loaded with technology, but like a giant iPad, it is all easily accessible, intuitive to navigate and completely contained in the giant central console screen
  4. Virtually Zero Maintenance: No oil to change, fluids to monitor (except the washer fluid and brake fluid) gears to worry about or moving parts to replace.
  5. No Gas:  I have almost forgotten how to fill a car with gas
And after owning the car for less than a year, I remain completely in love with it.  It is not enough that the thrilling ride means I now never (truly) complain about picking up and dropping off my kids for their many programs, every few months I get a completely free upgrade from Tesla.  It is like downloading a new operating system for your iPhone.  New features, a new look, and every once in a while a whole new thing - like Autopilot or Autoparking - comes through and it is like getting a new car all over again.