Tesla Model S – a new way of thinking

Peter Atkinson
(Australian Associated Press)

 

Henry Ford.

Karl Benz.

Elon Musk.

All pioneers of the motor industry, albeit it a century or so apart.

Benz might have invented the motor car, and Ford might have delivered it to the people, but South African-born, US-based entrepreneur Musk might just end up having an equally big influence.

His upstart all-electric marque Tesla has elbowed its way into the prestige market with ridiculous haste – treading on toes and upsetting apple carts all around the motoring world in the process.

Just 15 years into its existence, Tesla has become one of the most coveted and innovative brands on the planet, stealing buyers by the thousands from the traditional prestige marques, despite their century of history and brand credibility. Tesla recently overtook General Motors as America’s most valuable carmaker. Extraordinary, really.

The trick, of course, is that Tesla doesn’t so much consider itself as a carmaker as it does a technology company.

And in the tech world, UX (User Experience) is the golden rule.

That means viewing design and functionality not through the prism of the motor car itself, but through the eyes of those who drive them.

In the process, Tesla has questioned – and then reimagined – many of the things that we’ve typically accepted as part and parcel of the driving experience. It’s the same concept that has inspired Apple’s iPhone – a sensory product that’s as much a personal device (camera, music player, map) as it is a telephone.

Tesla’s Model S executive sedan, which we drove for the first time this week, reflects that mindset. It challenges much of the logic that has defined cars for decades.

For a start, there are virtually no buttons or switches in the Tesla.

Yes, there’s a key that lets you lock and unlock the car, but once inside there’s no start button to turn the vehicle on or off. Why should there be ? You’re already inside the car – so all you need to do is drive it.

When you stop and apply the park brake, the same theory applies. Just get out, lock the door and walk away. Simple.

The dash is dominated by a massive 17-inch touch-screen which controls virtually every cockpit function as well as a welter of other vehicle preferences, entertainment and connectivity options. Unlike many cars, it automatically updates its software almost daily, much like your phone or tablet – so it always remains cutting edge.

And it uses commercially-available apps – including Google Maps – for many of its functions. This includes access to your Google Calendar so the car will remind you – and one day soon may even drive you to – any appointments. (More about that shortly).

Other features equally define Tesla’s unique approach.

If refuelling (or recharging) the car means spending half an hour somewhere, why not position your charging points at a restaurant, or a shopping centre. There’s even one at a major winery.

In many cases the charge points are free – and in some they even absorb the parking charge so you’ll spend time, and money – shopping or dining – while your batteries are replenished. And if all else fails, you can always plug it into your standard 240v socket at home and let it trickle charge all night.

The Model S almost thinks for you.

Punch a destination into the satellite navigation and it will also calculate how much of your battery charge you’re likely to use getting there – and whether you’ll have enough to get home again. Not such a problem, given this car’s 600km of driving range.

You can set up a personal profile so the car will adjust itself to your every preference – radio station and volume, suspension setting, light and lock settings, seat positioning, mirrors, climate control – and restore the car to those settings every time you get in. Change any of these and it will ask if you’d like to store them as your new preferences.

Adjust the car’s ride height via the air suspension – which in normal mode sits incredibly close to the ground – to tackle a steep driveway or difficult gutter – and the Tesla will remember the location, automatically raising its height every time it approaches that point in the future.

If you’ve already heard about the Model S, you’ll no doubt be aware of two particular features – its self-driving Auto Pilot function, plus the “Ludicrous” mode that makes it one of the fastest-accelerating cars on the planet.

The optional Enhanced Auto Pilot, plus Self-Driving Capability (both currently in Beta testing mode) will eventually enable drivers to click on a calendar appointment and instruct the car to drive them to it.

In the meantime, the feature is still being perfected by Tesla, via data captured from current users.

We tried out the Auto Pilot system and felt it still has a way to go before we’d fancy using it full-time. On a busy freeway it showed itself to be fairly reliable – steering a steady course while speeding up, and slowing down to as low as 20km/h – in stop-start freeway traffic.

But it’s a weird sensation – particularly as I’d always prefer to drive the car myself, anyway – but I could imagine it being particularly useful in a busy commute where you’d prefer to allow the car keep pace with the vehicles surrounding it.

We didn’t get to try out Ludicrous Mode – which allows the Model S to reach the speed limit in a blurry 2.7 seconds. But the P100D we tested still delivered stunning performance.

The driving experience is otherworldly. In standard mode it will reach the speed limit in just over four seconds – comparable to a Porsche 911 – yet it does so silently, seamlessly and without any apparent effort. It just thrusts you forward, almost like being squirted out of a giant hose.

One friend described it as like “being whisked along on a magic carpet” – which captures it pretty well.

The Tesla’s battery range is astonishing. On a full charge the P100 will cover almost 600 kilometres, and further if driven judiciously. That’s at least three times the range of most electric rivals – courtesy of Mr Musk’s world-leading batteries division.

The Tesla’s range, as you might expect, is determined partly by the way you drive it. At 100km/h the P100D tested here will travel up to 580km on a single charge. But if you’re travelling slower – say 80km/h – and you’ll be able to stretch that to 744km.

Ambient temperatures also affect range – the warmer the weather, the further a charge will get you, which is good news for Aussie owners.

The “ludicrous” mode is not the only attention-grabbing feature on the Tesla.

Musk is perhaps guilty of using a bit of hyperbole – like the Bio-Weapon Defence Mode setting on the climate control, which effectively filters 99.7 per cent of all impurities from the air entering the cockpit.

Would it save you from a biological attack? Probably not. But this car would get you out of harm’s way pretty quickly.

The lack of a conventional engine – and subsequently of a fuel tank – frees up all kinds of space for luggage and other items. There’s 750 litres in the rear boot, plus a decent-sized, squarish cargo hold beneath the front bonnet. Beneath the floor of the rear cargo area sits another esky-sized hidden storage nook.

Inside, the lack of a transmission tunnel (the Tesla’s two electric engines are situated above the front and rear axles) means more foot room for front and rear-seat passengers.

The instrument panel, like just about everything else on this car, is unique.

But because it’s unencumbered by the need for a tacho, temperature or oil pressure gauge, it’s amazingly versatile. It shows your speed in digital form, but the rest of the screen can be customised to display everything from energy usage an infinite menu of functions – phone numbers, climate settings, radio choices and and the like.

Is the Tesla perfect? Absolutely not. In fact there are some areas where they’ve got a bit of catching up to do.

And it’s certainly not cheap. Prices for the most humble variant of the Model S start at $118. Our top-spec test machine, with options, will set you back close to $300k which would also buy a fully-equipped Benz S-Class or BMW 7-Series, including their electric-hybrid options.

But no other car on the planet can deliver the same combination of performance and fuel-efficiency that the Model S offers.

In that sense, it’s unique – even if on some levels (fit and finish, for example) it doesn’t yet quite match up with the prestige marques.

But keep this in mind. Tesla has reached this point after just 15 years. Karl Benz and Henry Ford have had almost 10 times that long to evolve.

And the gap is closing fast.

TESLA MODEL S P100D

HOW BIG: It’s roughly the same size as a European exec sedan, such as Mercedes-Benz E-Class or BMW 5 Series. But despite its slinky design cabin and cargo space is impressive, with no engine or transmission to fit in. The floor is thicker, and sits higher, than normal, thanks to the massive batteries sitting below.

HOW FAST? Incredibly. While we didn’t get to sample the much-touted Ludicrous mode, but with a combined 568kW its acceleration in normal mode is staggering. Punch the throttle at 80km/h and it feels as if you’ve been hit from behind by a sledgehammer.

HOW THIRSTY? It doesn’t use any petrol. Ever. And if you’re clever, you’ll be able to recharge the batteries for free. Some retailers, including Stockland Shopping Centres, will offer free charging for Tesla owners so they’ll shop while their car recharges. Others offer a full charge for as little as $1.

HOW MUCH? The Model S range starts at $108,000 right up to the $250,000-plus P100D tested here. However Tesla will introduce a smaller, cheaper car called the Model 3 in the months ahead.

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