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.  

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