Ed Zitron is a friend of TTAC, but not much of a car guy. After giving up his old, gasoline powered car, Ed went and bought a Tesla Model S P85 – and we asked him to write about it over a period of 12 months, documenting his ownership experience and what it’s like to live with an electric car. This is the first installment.
I do not know much about cars. I got my license two years ago, after growing up in London, moving to Aberystwyth (Wales), moving to New York, and only then moving to New Jersey, where having a car is somehow more natural than having legs. I unhappily learned to drive, and just about got through my test on the first go, even though my parallel parking was – to quote the instructor – “bad.”
I also know very little about cars – you go fast with right pedal, you stop with left pedal. Don’t stand in front of another car that is moving, especially if it’s moving fast. Porsches are nice, so are Ferraris. GM stands for General Motors. More importantly, petrol (or as Americans call it “gas”) goes inside. It starts an explosion (I think?) and the car moves. When you are running low on gas, you go to a “gas station”, where you stick a thing in your car and it smells a lot, but then you can get on your way again.
I started my driving years with a Volvo S60. It was reliable, unsexy and introduced me to the concept of driving well enough. I then moved to San Francisco, minus the Volvo, and realised that taking the Caltrain to Mountain View every day was going to become rather tiresome, and that it was time to buy a car. So, I decided I wanted a Tesla Model S.
I wrote about games and gadgets for about seven years before moving to America and into the awful world of Public Relations, and I’ve always wanted the latest gadgets. To me, the Tesla is just an extension of this compulsion.
Waiting for my Tesla to arrive, I’ve been in Getaround and Zipcar rentals for most of my week. I’ve been in low-end and high-end Mercedes, BMWs (including their electric DriveNow rentals), Audis, a smart ForTwo and a Chevy Volt. Probably around fifteen different cars, all from good to great manufacturers. I even rented a 2013 Tesla Model S. I’ve seen a fair sample – though by no means an exhaustive one – of what the car industry has offered for the last two years. Yes, they all have wheels and drive in a straight line, and got me to the places I was going without catching fire, but the actual experience, compared to the Tesla, was inferior and anachronistic.
It’s not the actual driving that’s the problem – cars are, well, cars. Especially to a car-knowledge-defunct person like myself. However I’d consider myself the general purpose sample of most people – I’m guessing most do not know much more than I do. The problem is that most of these cars have navigation, bluetooth control of your phone’s music (and sound systems), and general car settings. You also have to control air conditioning, cruise control, and other car functions *while driving*.
This is what in tech they’d call the User Interface. And the ‘user interface’ of most cars sucks, because before the Model S there has been no solid proof that you can do it better. The comparison is easy to make – this is what happened to cellphones. Before the iPhone, your average cellphone was an awkward chocolate-bar shaped thing that you texted on by hitting in numbers. The iPhone arrived, and the industry collectively shat its pants – touchscreens were, before this point, a quasi-joke that only Microsoft would back. Ironic, right?
Similarly, though not to the same extent, many carriers didn’t want the iPhone around, and claimed it was too expensive, that there was no market for it, and so on. Carriers didn’t like supporting it at first. Millions of people wanted it. Then Android happened. Overnight it was apparent that a lot of people didn’t like buttons.
Tesla’s growth is not going to be so rapid: this is a car, one that’s anywhere from $60,000 to $120,000, and you can’t just walk up and buy one in the traditional manner.
When it comes to the purchasing process, it seems like Tesla treats the customer with a degree of kindness and thoughtfulness that is missing from the motor industry. Perhaps I have not spent enough time driving cars to understand why people accept this – perhaps there’s a low-grade tinnitus that stops you from noticing that your car – even your just-bought car – in comparison to every other interactive medium is about a decade behind.
Even though it’s unfair to compare a Model S to a Prius, or an S60, or a Cruze or anything really below a nice Audi or BMW, the average guy like me is seeing very clearly that you can build an interaction with a car that’s as pleasant as your phone. It means that they have to start putting more energy into R&D, and means that simply adding a screen or tweaking a touchscreen each year is not going to work.
It’s an attitude built on a fat, old industry with great swathes of red tape and corporate groupthink. Cars are meant to be like THIS because our FOCUS GROUP says so. Decisions are made from the perspective of an executive (who would never drive said mass market car in a million years good lord no), thinking that they are in touch with the typical consumer. Branding experts win the battle against engineering and usability, and car commercials have become little more than televised SEO (look at all the meaningless statistics and figures they throw at you – even gearheads know that a lot of it, like horsepower-per-liter, is BS) and Deepak Chopra-rejected platitudes – they are a black hole for information with a pricetag at the end, because they are anxious at having to admit that, in their eyes their product is just another car.
The Tesla upends this because it provides differentiated product. Yes, it goes fast and all that, but the interface is different, the car is different, it looks different, it feels different, you save money on gas, they have service techs that will drive to you, you have a network of superchargers, and so on. It’s no longer a case of “THIS YEAR…THE CAR THAT YOU DRIVE COULD BE A LITTLE BIT DIFFERENT FROM THE OTHER.” This is a new kind of car.
That’s scary. How do you compete with that? Apart from making a product as good as it, or better. But that costs money and effort, and doing so admits that Tesla might be doing something right. Which will piss off your dealers, and regulators, and gas fans, and…shit. Isn’t adding an updated version of MyEnTouchLink just so much easier?
This isn’t to say that the Model S is perfect, or that the supercharger network doesn’t have problems, or that the beautiful electric car future is here Let’s face it – it’s very, very far away, and only the most deluded fanboys would think otherwise. But I’m not a fanboy. I’m just a regular guy who decided to roll the dice on a new kind of car. And I’m very happy. Let’s see if I stay that way over the next 12 months.
Next-up: what it’s like to buy direct from a factory store, using the Supercharger and getting used to driving an EV