Productivity-murdering bottlenecks are a common feature in cities with century-old transport networks all around the world. They are the roads that make people late for everything: job interviews, parole registrations, dates, and life-saving medical treatment.
Sydney has many of these time vortexes. On top of death and taxes, there are two other certainties about life in the city: conversations about the property market, and the occasional complete and utter disintegration of the metropolitan transport network.
It was one such occasion the first working morning I was driving the Tesla Model S. There had been an accident on a major artery across town and I found myself idling on one of these bottlenecks, right after the school drop-off. It was 800m long and would take me 20 minutes to traverse.
Road safety Nazis and anyone who works in insurance may disagree, but I thought this was a great time to try the autopilot feature, which is a major software addition to the car this year.
Switch the feature on, set it to follow the nearest vehicle by a single car length, and sit back as the Model S magically becomes one with the traffic queue, creeping and nudging forward all by itself. All you have to do is trim the steering.
(I did hover a foot over the brake most of the time, self-driving car virgin that I was. And yes, I had tested it a bit before trying it in the busy traffic.)
The autopilot is the latest showpiece technology feature to roll out for the Model S. Just like system updates to your mobile phone, Tesla improves the car with regular software upgrades.
Elon Musk’s Tesla has deservedly built a reputation for taking the car industry in huge leaps forward in technology terms, dismantling the boundaries of petrol-fuel combustion engines with rechargeable batteries, with the vision being consumers slowly getting weaned off the enormous component of the heavy-emission global economy built around the motor car.
Good for them. Go planet Earth, et cetera.
Talking to people about Tesla cars, though, I’ve found that in equal measure both people who love environmentalism and those who detest the whole idea of taking care of the planet like hearing about the car. Tesla has tapped people’s curiosity.
What’s also clear from almost every single conversation I’ve had about my couple of days with the Model S is that the company is missing a big sales trick. After driving it for only a short time I found the most surprising characteristic of the Model S was not in any of the technological gizmos. It was the driving experience.
Put crudely, most people think an electric-powered car would drive like a tricked-up sewing machine. But the Tesla is big, fast, and fun – a beast of a machine that makes your daily drive a joy.
It’s five metres long and has a curb weight 150kg either side of 2100kg, depending on which version you plump for. But they all hit 100km/h in around 4 seconds. The realisation that you’re truly in something different comes from the instant power delivery, with 100% of the torque under your foot 100% of the time. Blink, and you’re at 50km/h.
In a world where we’ve grown used to high-rev, go-nowhere first pushes on the accelerator, even in high-performance sedans, the Tesla makes petrol cars seem like they were put together in the dark.
Once you gain confidence in the handling – the best parallel is that it takes about as long to get used to as the basic features on a new phone – you can enjoy the technology perks.
A good start is the button under your thumb on the wheel that allows you to ask the car for any song you feel like listening to at that moment. Let’s try Monkey Wrench, by the Foo Fighters:
That feature is thanks to a built-in Rdio subscription. Yes, it downloads whatever you want to listen to from the internet.
The Model S is not a huge head-turner. A glancing look from someone on the street or in a car nearby won’t hold. When it’s at a red light, people don’t point and stare – immediately. But if you’re stopped just long enough, heads start to snap back, repeatedly. They realise they’re looking at something new and different.
“Is that the Tesla?”
Well it’s the Model S, but yes. Yes it is.
That’s when the phones come out for photos, and when people start doing ostrich impressions to peer at the unusual size, chassis, and wheel settings.
The point is it’s noticeable, but not ostentatious. Elon Musk has built this to be an everyday car with deep style.
For all the talk about how a car behaves on the open road, actually stopping one safely and securing it is core to its practicality, especially in big cities where car parks were designed 20 years ago in an era of smaller cars. Parking is also associated with a high rate of accidents – and arguments – so cars that are hard to park are unnecessary sources of stress.
When you pull up beside a parking spot, the Tesla’s famous oversized central digital display panel switches to parking mode to help guide you through the manouevres. The Model S is deceptively long at five metres. I’ve tried a few assisted parking technologies in top-end cars and this is, by far, the most comprehensive and reassuring.
There are front and rear cameras with wheel alignment guides (the white lines in the photo), backed up by the radar sensors that give you a centimetre reading of how close you are to other objects. I still found myself turning my head and looking out the back but I think after a while using it, you’d get pretty comfortable parking by just looking down and left to the dash.
Let’s see how I went in this tight spot outside the school at pick-up time. Pretty good:
(Parking didn’t go so well one night at home. The Model S is five metres long – I actually got a parking ticket because its butt was hanging over the end of the driveway, being almost a metre longer than the family SUV we have.)
There are some details that add to the everyday experience. The windows snap in deliciously when you shut the doors:
And then there’s the trademark retracting door handles and wing mirror. They fold away when you lock the doors, and automatically pop out again as you approach the car.
My seven-year-old loved it. The best car she’d ever been in. “Drive fast again, daddy!”
The variable-retraction, front-and-back sunroof, controlled from a slider on the main panel, was a particular treat. 63% retracted? We can do that.
And nobody noticed the car at the school. Ticks all round.
But back to the drive. The classic Tesla review is testing its endurance on a vintage road trip, where the big question is whether the driver can reach a faraway destination on a single charge, with some foil about how the technology contributed to the experience.
Surprise! They get there in the end, and confirm the screen is big, and the car is great.
With a car, I mainly want to know if it’s any good handling the reality of life. So Tesla let me take it for a couple of days doing school runs, gym class drop-offs, and rush hour commutes. It just so happened that it was raining for most of the time, and on one of the days Sydney had one of its vintage transport network implosions. The Model S got a proper workout.
The summary is: it was a blast, I wanted to drive it more, and I was very sad when it was over. I want one of these cars. And when I showed it to others, they wanted one too.
But spending a bit of time with the Tesla, with its revolutionary power system and ever-improving technology platform, makes you realise the future of driving is going to look very different.
After picking the thing up and driving it around a few back streets to figure out how everything worked, I pointed it back towards the CBD and joined the freeway a bit gingerly at just over 60km/h, pulling out in front of a Porsche Boxster who slowed down to let me in, and maybe have a stickybeak. The road was clear ahead so I thought I’d try the power properly.
Wham. Spine, meet internal organs.
The Boxster that had been ambling along behind me was a dot in the mirror. I was unexpectedly speeding, and by a fair bit.
I took my foot off the power, and this is where another defining feature of the Tesla driving experience kicks in.
The most noticeable thing about the Model S is how it slows down much more quickly than a petrol car. It’s always trying to suck energy back into the batteries. The mechanic for this is through some little brake pads that dig into the wheels once you take your foot off the power, with the result being that, even though you are sitting on around two tons of speeding metal, you immediately decelerate.
Tesla calls it “regenerative braking”. It best described as “a strange lurching”. But the effect of it, I found, was it made driving a lot safer.
US authorities have repeatedly given the Tesla Model S the highest safety rating of any vehicle in history. Rear-end collisions make up between one-fifth and one-third of crashes in most developed countries. When the brakes are automatically applied with your foot off the power, the chances of you dinging someone from behind drastically reduce. Combine it with the Tesla’s radar-based collision avoidance and alert system – lots of beeps telling you to brake – and the likelihood of rear-ending someone, even with your brain set to idle, almost evaporates.
At the end of a couple of days in the Tesla I felt safer on the roads than ever before. Between the braking effect and the collision avoidance, driving it feels like you’re in a car wrapped in invisible foam that extends three feet in all directions.
If more cars were like this, roads would be much safer places, with significant implications for the insurance industry, law enforcement, and traffic regulation.
Then there is the energy question, the most well-known aspect of the Tesla with the potential to cause the most disruption. It is ironic that for a company that is all about pushing the boundaries, one of its biggest challenges is that its cars have very fixed physical limits because it runs out of power.
I didn’t have to charge the car over the two-and-a-half days I had it for, as it has a range of about 400km on a full battery. But there was a charger about 5km from home and, if you owned one, you’d have a wall unit to give it a boost at night anyway.
By the end of next year Tesla will have a charger network stretching from Brisbane to Melbourne with the aim of eliminating “range anxiety”.
Fundamentally, Tesla is not just all about cars as as it is just one facet of Elon Musk’s vision to change the way humans get from Point A to Point B while trying to make as little impact as possible on the environment.
Tesla is also working on revolutionising batteries, and that includes creating ones big enough to power a home. He wants to build a Mach-speed competitor to the locomotive, and his private space company SpaceX is working on reusable rockets and sending people to Mars.
Tesla’s car arm has struggled to hit its delivery targets, which has had some analysts skeptical about the stock this year. It’s perhaps to be expected when Musk is stretching himself over so many different projects with extremely advanced technology.
What Tesla does is hard, so it’s no wonder some ask if the company can actually do any of it really well in a sustainable way. But Musk wants people to know we have the technology to change the world, right now.
What better place to start than under the behinds of millions of commuters, every working day of the week, with the incredible Model S?