I bought a Tesla Model 3 electric vehicle (EV) about two months ago. Tesla is undeniably cool, but is an electric car practical today and is it plausible that the hype about electric, self-driving cars will come true sometime soon? This post gives my initial impressions after putting about 4,000 miles on it, including a two-day 700-mile trip and a two-day 500-mile trip.
The official party line
Greenhouse gases from transportation contribute about 29% of all US greenhouse gas emissions. Eliminating car emissions would help. A lot.
Yes, I know that most power plants emit greenhouse gases. Even so, burning fossil fuels in power plants generally produces less emissions than burning gasoline or diesel in internal combustion engines (ICE). Charging EVs partially from renewable sources, like rooftop solar, or grid-delivered renewable sources like hydroelectric, solar farms, and wind farms, makes the picture even better.
Making big reductions in greenhouse gas emissions is going to take progress on multiple fronts simultaneously. We have to accelerate replacing ICE vehicles at the same time that we make progress on replacing fossil-fuel fired power plants with renewable sources.
It’s a chicken and egg situation. To get people to buy EVs, they have to become better and cheaper, with rapid charging infrastructure readily available everywhere. I want to help make the market, even if, from an individual perspective, it would be sensible to wait for the technology to mature and prices to drop further.
The other reason
My wife would tell you that the Tesla is my new toy. She’s right! I like technology and computers. The Tesla is more a computer on wheels than a car with computers inside.
I believe enough in Tesla’s vision that I’ve long owned shares in the company. I’ve stuck with it through lots of volatility as the company has made bone-headed decisions like buying Solar City, has overpromised and underdelivered in a number of ways, and has run afoul of various issues with the SEC. It has been a very profitable investment.
Now that I’ve experienced owning one of their products, I’m more convinced than ever that Tesla could disrupt the transportation industry. So, I continue to own Tesla stock. It is only a few percent of my investment portfolio, not enough to influence what I write, but I’m letting you know nevertheless.
You might have read that the Model 3 is a $35,000 car. For a long while, you couldn’t actually buy the base configuration. Maybe you can now; I’m not sure.
Mine is the long-range, all-wheel drive version (+$12,900), with premium interior (+$1,000), 19-inch wheels (+$1,500), metallic paint (+$1,000) and full self-driving capability (+$6,000). The latter is more a bet on the future than a reality today.
In practice, you’ll also want to buy a Wall Connector ($500) — Tesla’s name for a charger — and pay an electrician to run a 60-amp, 220V circuit for it.
While neither the least- nor the most-expensive configuration, at $58,690 delivered (not including the charger), it is, by far, the most expensive car I’ve ever purchased.
It is also the most phenomenal car I’ve ever driven. The quiet, effortless acceleration, whether from a standstill or at highway speeds, is astounding. Even its partial acceleration is forceful enough to be uncomfortable. I can’t imagine why anyone other than a racer would want the high-performance Model 3.
Beyond sheer performance, it handles wonderfully and is a pleasure to drive. The regenerative braking takes some getting used to, but after a week or so it is completely natural and I rarely need to use the brake pedal other than to come to a complete standstill.
It’s All About the Software
It also takes getting used to the complete lack of a dashboard — all information is displayed on its computer screen — and most “buttons” and “knobs” are menu items on the screen.
Want to open the glovebox? There’s a button on the screen. At first, I thought that this was ridiculous. But once I learned about valet mode, which restricts the car’s speed and acceleration, it made sense: Valet mode also prevents access to the glovebox and frunk (front trunk). It is all controlled by the software.
This is a theme. The car is, at its core, software that controls a mechanical platform. Software updates, which are delivered via WiFi in your garage or the car’s built-in cellular connection, change the car in significant ways. There have been six updates since I’ve owned my car.
These updates have delivered changes ranging from the silly (new games that one can play on the screen while parked), to the more useful (like new streaming music and entertainment options), to new features (like “come to me” — under some circumstances the car can drive itself to you from where it is parked), to improvements in its “autopilot” system, to still more power. The most recent update improved regenerative braking so that it is more effective at very low speeds, improved the autopilot system to recognize construction cones, and added a setting to have the navigation system automatically direct you to the location of the next appointment on your calendar (the car can optionally synchronize with your phone’s calendar).
Of course, software updates, being what they are, can cause changes that people don’t like. I haven’t experienced such undesirable updates, but I know others who have.
The bottom line is that, as a car, the Tesla Model 3 is phenomenal. Although all modern cars have computers embedded in them, Tesla takes this to a new level, where the computer and software control are central to the experience, not hidden away in the innards. People who are uncomfortable with computers probably won’t like it, at least not at first. But the iPhone generation will find it compelling, as do I.
As if to signal the new experience awaiting the buyer, the purchasing experience is new too. I bought the car entirely online.
Tesla has struggled with how to sell the car. Many states have laws that help car dealerships and prohibit direct sales by auto manufacturers. The details don’t matter here (although they certainly are an example of regulations to protect influential businesses not consumers).
Tesla’s website makes it simple to configure your car and place the order. I was comfortable ordering online without a test drive because of Tesla’s return policy: You can return the car for a full refund within 7 days or 1,000 miles. Indeed, whoever got a 7-day test drive before?
The website handles financing and trade-ins too. I didn’t finance, so I can’t report on that part of the experience. But I did trade in my old car. The website asks for make, model, and VIN number, asks you to certify that is in working order, then they get back to you with an offer a few days later. As a reasonableness test, I also got an offer from CarMax. I accepted Tesla’s better offer.
Tesla promised two-week delivery. It took just under a month. There were a few communications glitches, like receiving an email telling me when to pick up my car when it wasn’t really available yet. And, the website could have been clearer about the timetable for providing insurance information.
Once pickup was really scheduled, everything went smoothly, but the experience was bare bones: We signed the papers while standing next to a chair-less desk in a garage-like setting, and the introduction to the car was, to put it generously, scattered and haphazard. On the other hand, the Tesla app they tell you to install on your phone has excellent video introductions.
When friends learn that I bought a Tesla, the first question they ask is “how far can you drive it?” Indeed, this was the first question my wife asked when we were considering the purchase. Tesla’s answer for the “long range” model I bought is 310 miles. They’ve recently increased it to 325 miles.
As with ICE cars the real answer is “it depends.” There are many factors, including speed, how fast you accelerate, outside temperature, using the heat or A/C, and more.
But range per se is not the real issue. The real issue is where are you going to charge the car, how long does it take, and does this make it too inconvenient to travel where you want to go.
I want to be clear: Compared to the availability of gas stations and the time to fill a car’s gas tank, taking a long trip in an EV will take more planning with more and longer stops than the same trip in an ICE vehicle.
Whether this matters to you depends a lot on your travel pattern. I can only speak to my experience thus far.
Local Travel is Anxiety-Free
I live in a house with a garage. I had a Tesla Wall Connector (charger) installed in the garage and charge the car every night I’m home to 90% of capacity, which is what Tesla recommends to maximize battery longevity. It takes me about 15 seconds to plug the charger cable into the car at night and another 15 seconds to remove it in the morning.
Since time-of-day electricity rates are available where I live, I set the car to charge during off-peak hours, which lowers the cost of the energy I use by almost two-thirds. It is an impressively smooth process. I spend less time dealing with charging than I did at gas stations with my ICE car.
For me, local travel is anxiety-free. Your experience would probably be different if you live in an apartment complex or urban area.
Trips Away from Home Require Planning
As I said before, I’ve taken two two-day trips. I’ve done these trips many times in an ICE car, with no planning whatsoever. With the Tesla, I have to think about it.
At one-level, planning is easy: Enter your destination into the nav system and it will plan a route, including charging stops and an estimate of battery charge state at the destination. I’ve been impressed with its accuracy (more on that later).
Superchargers are Key
Tesla’s extensive network of superchargers makes long trips reasonable. Superchargers can pump a lot of energy into the car rapidly. Whereas my home charger can fully charge the car overnight, some superchargers can do it in well less than an hour.
Superchargers are sprinkled along major highways and other locations. Some are located in mall parking lots, so there are, for example, eating options while charging. Some are located in parking lots of gas station convenience stores like Wawa. Others are located at highway rest stops.
Once charging starts, the charging cable is locked to the car and you can leave the car. So, if there’s someplace to eat or shop you can do that. Sort of.
The problem is that when charging is complete, you’re expected to move your car to make room for others. If the charging station is busy, a 50 cents per minute idle fee kicks in if you don’t move your car within 5 minutes of charge completion. The fee rises to a dollar per minute if the charging station is full. These fees are steep, so you really have to move your car.
The Tesla app on your phone notifies you when charging is near complete and when it is complete, so it is possible to do something else and still avoid the idle charge.
Better Planning is Needed
There are two big problems though.
The least important problem is that there’s no way to specify that you’d prefer to stop at a charger with good eating options while you’re charging. If eating and charging have to be done separately the trip takes longer. Tesla’s website does have information about the amenities available at each supercharger location, but that information is not integrated into the nav system’s planner. You can plan manually, but that is without benefit of the car’s knowledge of your battery’s charge level and accurate predictions of energy usage based on driving and weather conditions.
The more important problem is that the nav system doesn’t plan trips with multiple destinations, or, alternatively, allow you to specify a desired charge level at the destination. I’ll explain why this is important using an example from my 700-mile trip.
Our trip originated in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. We were going to a funeral in Baltimore on a Friday morning. On Thursday, we drove to my sister’s house in Northern Virginia and stayed overnight, intending to drive to the funeral Friday morning, about an hour and a half drive.
We set out from Chapel Hill with my sister’s address in the nav system. It had us make two short charging stops on the way to my sister’s house. No problem.
But how much charge would we have when we arrived at her house? Not enough to feel comfortable about making it to the funeral and then to the meal after the funeral.
If I had been able to specify a desired charge level when arriving at my sister’s house, the nav system could have planned a charge at a supercharger close to her house on the way there and we wouldn’t have had this problem.
So, early Friday morning I used the Tesla app to find the closest supercharger and told my sister I was heading out to charge up the car. When I told her where it was, she said that was crazy because I’d get caught in terrible rush hour traffic and might not make it to the funeral in time. Not a good solution.
I then looked at Tesla’s list of what they call destination chargers. These are chargers located at destinations like hotels. There was one at a hotel about 3 miles from my sister’s house. They charged me $15 to get into their garage and use the charger for an hour. The charger, unfortunately, delivered even less power than my home charger. After an hour of charging it only added a few percent of charge: Expensive and inadequate for what I needed.
It would have been fine for an overnight charge if I was staying at the hotel. Or would it? This hotel had hundreds of rooms but only two chargers. There’s no way to reserve a charger. So, it is a crapshoot whether a charger will be available to use overnight. You can’t necessarily depend on destination chargers.
We Made It!
Well, we went to the funeral and then to the meal afterward. By the time we arrived for the meal, the battery indicator was yellow instead of green. When I parked, the car shut sentry mode, which uses the car’s sensors as part of an alarm system, to preserve battery. This was disconcerting.
Since I knew that there was a supercharger about ten miles away I wasn’t really worried about running out of charge. But that supercharger was off the route for our trip home. Going to it would have probably added 45 minutes to an already-long drive through what I knew would be heavy traffic.
After the meal, I put our home into the nav system as the destination. To my surprise, the plan had us going to a supercharger about thirty miles away but on our route home. The plan said we’d arrive at the charger with 7% charge. I was thinking that we should go to the closer supercharger instead, but my wife said that we should go for it since the charge predictions had been accurate so far.
We arrived at the Laurel, Maryland supercharger with 6% charge, the battery indicator now red. We charged up and headed home!
Dealing with Range Anxiety
I don’t really have range anxiety. I bought the car knowing that I’d have to think about charging way more than I ever had to think about finding a gas station. And, I’m now convinced that the supercharger concept works to make long-distance travel reasonable.
But I’m also convinced that the nav system’s planning capability needs to be improved to consider how the charging plan meshes with one’s real-life plan. A simple approach would be to allow the driver to specify charge level goals at destinations.
Perhaps a better approach would be to use information about one’s real-life plan to influence the charging plan. Or maybe there could be away to edit the charging plan the nav system proposes.
Whatever approach is taken would require careful design to avoid too much complexity. The nav system already has a loose integration with one’s phone’s calendar — this might be an avenue for doing something better.
As I’ve said above, the Model 3 is a phenomenal car.
Beyond being a car, Tesla and others are hyping self-driving. Today, the Model 3 has what I’d call nascent self-driving capabilities. It can do a few things quite well, but it is far from being able to drive itself in general situations.
One of the most interesting aspects of Tesla’s software front-and-center approach is that the car’s capability is constantly evolving. Indeed, the updates my car has received so far have made noticeable improvements in “self driving.”
I’ll discuss Tesla’s self-driving capability in a future blog post.