“You park it,” the brusque, fifty-something attendant told me as he stared down a Tesla Model S. As far as I could tell, this Brooklyn parking garage had a simple protocol: drivers leave their keys with the attendant on-duty, thereby allowing them to find whatever spot fits into the Tetris-like equation that New York City garages compute on a daily basis. Not this time. I was driving a $140,000 Tesla Model S P100D—and, clearly, the car was still a novelty for him as much as it was for me.
One of the biggest stories in the auto industry right now is Tesla’s launch of the Model 3, a $35,000 (sort of) electric sedan that the automaker is hanging its future on. It’s the culmination of Tesla’s months-long ascent led by CEO Elon Musk, a champion of electric powertrains and autonomy as a way of the future for the motor vehicle, if not the world.
Until now, Tesla’s pursued that mission primarily through its current and expensive vehicles, the Model S sedan and Model X crossover. And the introduction of its Autopilot feature in 2015 started a wave that began to move self-driving cars out of science fiction and into the very real future of transportation.
The thing is, not all is sunshine and rainbows in the world of Tesla. Its future is far from certain.
The Model 3 is a make-or-break vehicle for Tesla. If it successfully brings the electric sedan into the mainstream, it’d likely cement the company’s status permanently. Or, its failure will help sink Tesla entirely.
In a way, at least part of that reality can be attributed to Musk, a freewheeling billionaire who spouts off whatever thought he desires on Twitter, leaving his barebones communications staff to the chore of responding and clarifying his remarks.
He’s a pariah of sorts in that, despite facing similar accusations found within his colleagues and competitors, Musk comes across as virtually invincible. As Tesla fanatics would put it, he’s a super-genius of sorts, a person who wants to build reusable rockets and fast cars that emit zero emissions.
Yet Musk’s reputation for over-promising several on Tesla goals has also created such a frenzied perception of the company, from financial analysts to everyday observers, that we actually applaud when the automaker meets a benchmark—even if it still fails to align with the CEO’s intentions. (Model 3 production is beginning on time, but Tesla won’t produce nearly as many of the vehicles this year as it previously estimated.)
The company’s consistent unveiling of product launches before they’re perfected evidently winds up treating owners more or less as beta testers, a pratice that could eventually put Tesla into legal trouble, as well. And, in public, Musk seems to find it impossible to grasp with the possibility that Tesla’s factory in Fremont, California, could unionize, a renewed effort that began earlier this year, after an employee went public with complaints about workplace injuries and pay. (Privately, that could be different. A former Tesla executive previously mused to me that the automaker’s leadership has what’s perhaps an unrivaled fear in the industry of a successful union drive.)
But even if the Model 3 ends up being a disaster, plagued by quality issues that were evident early on in Tesla’s other vehicles, the Model S should be remembered as an incredible shot in the dark; a vehicle that, when finely-tuned, is something to behold.
So to better understand what’s driven the company to surprisingly become one of the two most valuable carmakers in the U.S., I wanted to test the vehicle that brought it to the top. That’s why, on a recent trip from New York City to Michigan, I drove a Model S P100D to have the full experience of a Tesla, from charging at a Supercharger station to simply gleaning what Rust Belt folks think of the industrywide push toward electric vehicles.
Sure, I was provided a pristine, press-fleet vehicle, but what this come-from-nothing company has achieved is truly memorable.
Coming equipped with a 100 kWh lithium-ion battery and dual motors, the Model S specs are spot-on: 792 lb-ft of torque, with a curb weight of about 4,950 pounds, and it jams 0-60 in about 2.5 seconds.
I know we’ve said before that the 0-60 obsession for electric vehicle makers is pretty dumb, but plenty of Michiganders drive like garbage, so it was nice to easily weave in and out of traffic and have a confident time making yields onto the freeway.
We weren’t able to punch the throttle much until hitting northern Michigan, where two-lane highways devoid of traffic are prevalent. Every time we went for it, it felt like we’d be thrown back into our seats like a roller coaster.
The barely noticeable engine whirr made the super-fast acceleration all the more impressive. My girlfriend’s mom, sitting in the front, kept her remarks simple: “Oh myyyyyy,” as the car sped ahead. Another relative aired a remark echoed by many: “Wow, that went straight to my head.”
The lightning-fast rates didn’t make travel at low-speeds a headache; the Model S handles winding roads in Pennsylvania and side streets in northern Michigan with ease.
Knowing I was loaned a top-notch Model S, quality issues weren’t present. The car’s spectacularly comfortable to relax in, and the black trim with black wheels in particular made for a striking look up close. It’s about as sleek as you’d expect a $140,000 ride to come.
My girlfriend’s family, and mine, delivered an expected set of questions about the car’s ability to stay alive for a trip. “Range anxiety” is the common refrain when discussing the still-fledgling electric vehicle market, and Tesla’s Model S P100D claims to handle 320 miles on a single full-charge.
For a one-way trip from NYC to Detroit, that makes for a far-more palatable route, even when you factor in the 30-40 minute stops at a Supercharger station.
That is, if you plan the trip over two days.
A Tesla rep warned me ahead of the drive to expect a much longer trip because we have to charge, so I thought I was well-prepared. In my head, I figured, NYC to Detroit with a gas engine can be tackled in 10 hours. In the Model S, it ended up being a 15-hour romp, thanks to a bottleneck early on in lower Manhattan.
Luckily, the car wasn’t cramped, despite the large battery pack inside. Quite the opposite, in fact, as that’s all crammed into the floor.
There was enough space in the trunk for a couple overnight bags, and a few miscellaneous bags of snacks, books, and dog toys. If you’re unsure how spacious a Model S is, know my dog thought it was just fine, thank you very much. She had plenty of room to sprawl out.
With charging, unless you’re actively seeking to travel coast-to-coast as fast as trip possible—and most drivers aren’t—the Model S didn’t make for an easy long-distance trek. It’s undeniably capable—few drive more than 100 miles in a day as it is—but for long distances, the mental hurdles still felt difficult to overcome. And despite loading up a full charge and the reader say I had 320 miles of juice, the car probably could do, at best, about 250-275, without driving 55 mph on the freeway.
I can see that in particular being a nuisance for newcomers. Tesla’s mapping system lays out a number of suggested Supercharger stations along a trip, with an estimate of how much battery life would remain by the time you arrive, as well as how long you’d need to charge to make the next stop.
But, for instance, it didn’t seem to take into consideration the hilly drive through Pennsylvania, which eviscerated the battery life and necessitated an extra charging stop. Again, for someone who expects this sort of thing, it wasn’t too much of a hurdle to overcome—but Tesla’s looking to rope in the Average Joe Carbuyer, and if the car says they’ll get 300 miles on a charge, that driver’s going to want an accurate read.
(Tesla’s owner’s manual explains that the charging calculation is an “estimate” based on driving and environmental factors, including predicted speed and elevation changes. The energy usage is monitored throughout the trip and “updates the calculation as needed.”)
Anyway, an EV makes for a mentally challenging long-distance trip. By the fourth stop to charge, I was over it and ready to be off the road, even though a Supercharger can impressively charge the vehicle in as little as 20 minutes.
Tesla has faced immense criticism since Autopilot debuted in 2015 for appearing, at times to oversell its capabilities, leading some owners to believe the system’s able to supplant human-controlled driving entirely—a reality that Tesla itself seemed to anticipate. The fatal crash that left Tesla owner Joshua Brown dead brought about numerous government investigations, including one that remains ongoing. And Tesla’s rollout of Autopilot 2.0 has been anything but smooth.
The automaker has since honed its definition, leaving no room for doubt that drivers still need to pay attention to the road whenever Autopilot’s engaged. That was clear in the demonstration I received from a Tesla rep before setting off.
With that in mind, it’s hard to understate how impressive Autopilot is when it’s deployed—that is, in conditions with pristine infrastructure. Typically, I found, that was on long stretches on a freeway, with clearly marked lanes, and not in construction zones (like this individual).
On the initial route to Michigan, I had Autopilot periodically engaged for dozens of miles along the highway in Pennsylvania—and found it to be relaxing, if not boring, after awhile. With the vehicle’s adaptive cruise control set to adjust speeds several lengths behind the car in front of me, it felt like I had plenty of time to reassume control of the vehicle in case something happened ahead. Driving with Autosteer felt as if the lane was lined with magnets, working continuously to keep the sedan in-line.
Using eight cameras, twelve ultrasonic sensors, and a forward-facing radar, the Model S on Autopilot—with sunny skies or a driving rain—functioned like my colleague Mike Ballaban said last year: a nearly-perfected execution of cruise control.
It’s uncomfortable at first, but by the time we were out of New Jersey, it felt normal to pull the mini-cruise control stalk back twice, and watch the car go. Hitting curves on the freeway with a semi to my right or left made my stomach drop—a messed up moment where I’m debating life’s existence and whether I’m going to slam into the side of the truck and exactly why I’m letting Autopilot handle a slight curve—but it just didn’t happen.
And whenever traffic ground to a halt, it was easy to let my hand hang on the wheel and simply watch traffic crawl ahead, rather than stress out like a maniac because no one’s moving or some asshole’s making a shit merge. The car gave off a number of warnings when it needed me to take control, but the alerts weren’t alarming in any way.
I just grabbed the wheel, and when things looked clear along the highway again, flicked Autopilot on and watched the road. It was nice.
The experience in the car, overall, was solid—but, that said, the technology isn’t a perfect execution.
By the time we reached northern Michigan, where the roadways shrink to one lane in each direction, Autopilot very clearly moved with unease. The wheel often jerked slightly left and right, and a handful of times—for, honestly, inexplicable reasons—jammed the brakes, even though no cars were ahead.
Drivers are warned in a prompt before enabling Autosteer that the system is in a “beta phase” and performance “may vary during the initial phases of rollout on the new hardware platform.”
“To be clear, when we say ‘beta’, we do so to encourage a higher level of vigilance,” the prompt says. “If this were PC desktop or mobile software, we could not refer to it as such. It is simpy that we believe the standard for the term should be consdierably higher for control of the vehicle.”
Other times on the freeway—and more so when we were in Michigan and the roads opened up momentarily to give a lane to pass slow drivers—the lane change function would go berserk. The car would begin to shift, but then abruptly jerk back into the lane I was already in, even though I was on a freeway with clearly marked lines and no one coming up fast in the adjacent lane.
The mapping data had a few hiccups, too. A couple points on the trip, particularly in Michigan, the route provided by Tesla’s navigation system didn’t make much sense at all. For instance, we were re-routed off a highway for no particular reason into a subdivision, and the side streets evidently had closures that required detours, which led us back onto the freeway we were already on—a move that cost us about a half hour. My girlfriend, a fan of the P100D, said it was “the stupidest thing Tesla’s done.” A few other occasions, we had to figure out a more efficient route on our own, when it was clear the navigation system had a janky trip lined up.
The maps offered weird routes, as well—like on a drive from Brooklyn into Manhattan, when I was directed to veer right for westbound Canal at the Manhattan Bridge, where there’s two roads to take you across the water.
The map route pointed me to the lower (incorrect) street, when I needed the upper (correct) street. I realized I needed to be in the other street for westbound Canal, and veered into the right lane at the last moment. Anyone who has driven through the sea of shit that is Manhattan traffic can tell you: botching directions there can cost you excruciating time in congested traffic.
I’m not trying to downplay the gripes levied against Autopilot, the quality issues found in the Model S and X, or Tesla as a company. With Musk’s unusual style of leadership, it’s a surprise the company’s not buried in controversy like other Silicon Valley unicorns. And Tesla has enough looming, existential questions about its future that, who knows, maybe the Model 3 could break it.
We’re living through an age of growing, widespread inequality—a jarring reality that no lawmaker seems genuinely interested in addressing—and the “young and urban” crowd that Tesla seems to think will eat up the Model 3 is buried in student debt. If the Automaker Of The Future crashes and burns in the coming years, honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised.
Still, Tesla’s been at the forefront of the industry’s push to develop all-electric and—one day—fully-autonomous cars. It’s remarkable to think this frenetic company may have been the spark that pushed car companies to bring into the mainstream technology that could cut the annual 30,000-40,000 U.S. traffic fatalities by 90 percent (Musk’s self-interested horseshit about autonomous vehicle skepticism aside).
While drivers may be weary about handing the reins of their vehicle over to the car itself, I legitimately think one of the easiest ways to make that happen is to get them inside a car with perfected Autopilot (or similar) technology. A nice, steady transition would make the long slog toward an autonomous revolution far more seamless.
Above all, that’s why the Model S should be regarded as a notable, solid car. Throughout the week I had it, any new passenger I had in tow marveled at the technology, coupled with the car’s capability itself.
It was, at its core, very basic insight into what’s going to be needed, if the industry’s ever—barring government mandates—going to successfully overhaul itself and successfully move into the future.
Update: This piece has been amended to include background on how Autosteer and the Model S energy prediction system works.