Last week we visited my mother in Arizona for the first time in more than a year. Driving 1800 miles and trading sitting isolated in one house for sitting isolated in another isn’t the most pulse-pounding Spring Break you’d ever imagine, but there was one thing that added novelty to the trip: A friend of mine who is currently working overseas for a year kindly offered to let us take a road trip in his Tesla Model 3, which was literally gathering dust in his boss’s garage. Before this trip I had been a passenger in a Tesla exactly one time, for less than 20 miles.
I figured that spending nearly two thousand miles in a Tesla would teach me some things about the current state of electric cars and long-range trips with charging stops, about the all-screen interface of the Tesla Model 3, and about how a Tesla interacts with an iPhone. And I was right—as the valley, city, and desert landscapes whizzed by, I learned an awful lot.
Let’s take a ride in an electric car
A few years ago, we bought an electric car—a used 2012 Nissan Leaf. It’s only got about 60 miles of range, and that’s being extremely charitable (and only if you drive 55 mph on the freeway, which will make all the other drivers around you very angry). It’s essentially a town car, because we have a second gas-powered car for range. My wife uses it to commute two miles to her job, and we use it to run errands in our local area and occasional trips very slightly further afield.
For all the old Leaf’s limitations, it’s convinced both me and my wife that we’re never buying a gas car again. Driving up steep hills in San Francisco in a gas car is a white-knuckle experience even if you’ve done it dozens of times. In an electric car, it’s like the hills aren’t even there. Quick acceleration, no engine rattle, and no trips to the gas station because we charge at home—it’s great. Even the weirdly bulbous and iMac-like old Leaf makes me feel like I’m driving a souped-up car compared to the practical cars I have owned over the years.
Driving the Tesla—a modern, actually sporty electric car—just affirmed all those feelings. I’m done with gas cars, once the ones we currently own are gone.
The Tesla app and other Shortcuts
The joke about electric cars is that they’re big rolling iPhones, and there’s some truth to that. They’re tech products with software and user interfaces, and you have to plug them in regularly or they stop working.
The Model 3 takes it a step further, with an iPad-like touchscreen interface for most features—more on that in a bit—and an iPhone app that’s deeply integrated with the car. After a minute of configuration, I was able to pair my phone with the car as its key, so that whenever I walked up to the car with my phone in my pocket, I could just get in and drive.
The app itself lets you lock or unlock the car manually, open the trunks, pre-cool (or heat, but I went to the desert so cooling was required) the cabin, and most importantly, check on your charging status. And because the car has its own data connection, you can do this stuff even if you’re nowhere near the car. (I enjoyed the feature that allowed me to send an address straight from my phone to the car by tapping Share in Maps and then choosing the Tesla app.)
The tech behind the app is, as you might expect, a web service. With a (private and sometimes changing) API. On my journey I also used Six Colors member Karan Varindani’s collection of shortcuts as an alternative to the Tesla app. It really reinforced how powerful the Shortcuts app is, because they replicate many key features of the Tesla app (and improve on them) all within Shortcuts, thanks to the Tesla API. (Of course, you have to log in and authenticate before being able to control your car.)
Using Shortcuts for controlling the Tesla is fast. For example, consider turning on the car’s climate controls. To do this with the Tesla app, you have to launch it, wait for it to connect to the car, tap on Climate, then tap the arrows until you get to the right temperature. Instead, I can tap on a widget, tap `Control Climate,’ and then either tap on my preferred temperature or enter a custom value. I can wait for a confirmation message, or just turn the phone off and put it back in my pocket.
Also, the Shortcuts work on the iPad, even though the Tesla app is iPhone-only. The shortcuts also work on the Apple Watch and via Siri. I wasn’t expecting to spend time looking at a complex set of Shortcuts when I asked to borrow a car for a road trip, but—well, this is me. This stuff happens.
Like a car controlled by an iPad
When I first read about the Model 3, I was a bit baffled by Tesla’s decision to eliminate the traditional dashboard and instead park a 15-inch touchscreen right in the middle of the dash. Like Apple’s Touch Bar, it’s a touch surface (which requires looking at it to use it) in a context where most interactions should happen entirely via feel.
But after a few minutes of driving the car, I realized that the screen isn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was. The decision to put the most important information at the top left corner of the screen—in my peripheral vision—was a good one. Most vital information is in that corner, or at least on the left side of the screen. The two controllers on the steering wheel provide access to some key features, such as cruise control and media playback, and two stalks provide quick access to shifting and lane signalling.
Some features, such as headlights and windshield wipers, are theoretically offloaded completely by being automated. (I didn’t get to test the wipers, because this was a trip to the desert.) A few, like adjusting the cabin temperature, were more awkward and further away than I’d like. You shouldn’t need to tap through a menu to get access to any key function, and Tesla’s interface isn’t quite there. But it’s much better than I anticipated. After a few days in the car, I really see the appeal of the spare dashboard, which gives the front seat a really open feel.
After years writing about Apple’s focus on accessibility, I was shocked to discover that Tesla’s interface lacks any ability to adjust text size. I wear progressive glasses, so I can see both far away and close up, but my wife needs reading glasses and couldn’t see the time, temperature, or battery status clearly—and there was no way to adjust that. This seems like a miss for a company who probably counts a bunch of older drivers among its customers.
I was impressed with the onboard map software, which will plot your trip and calculate out where you need to stop to charge (and for how long) so you can reach your destination. However, this still-in-beta feature needs to be better, so that drivers can choose where they want to stop—some Superchargers really are better than others—and even offer alerts for upcoming Superchargers in case you want to take an earlier-than-scheduled break.
I’m disappointed by Tesla’s lack of support for CarPlay (and Android Auto). Those features exist because most car makers don’t care very much about keeping their tech up to date or building good interfaces, but just because Tesla does care and wants to build the entire interface itself doesn’t mean it’s actually going to do a better job at everything than our smartphones do. With CarPlay, I could’ve selected a podcast or music playlist or streaming MLB game, but without it I was left either trying to do it with Siri or asking my wife to unlock my phone and play something new. Not everything is about you, Tesla interface.
One final point about the Tesla on-board entertainment system: The company seems to be spending way too much effort on building games and stuff into the interface. I admire the impulse to provide a great back-seat experience for kids, or time killers for people cooling their heels at a charging station, but couldn’t this effort be better spent on Tesla-specific features, rather than providing experiences that will—let’s face it—be inferior to what could be brought onboard with an iPhone, iPad, or Nintendo Switch.
Oh yes, the driving part
I’ve never driven expensive cars. My cars have been Honda Civics, Nissan Sentras, and more recently a VW Passat station wagon and a Honda Odyssey minivan. Even our electric car was a $9,000 CarMax bargain. As you might expect, then, the Model 3 impressed me in a lot of ways, many of which would’ve impressed me in literally any car nicer (or newer) than the cars I’ve mostly driven over the years.
My favorite feature (and my wife’s, too) is adaptive cruise control—which, of course, is available on all sorts of cars these days. This was my first experience with it, and it completely changed our long drive in a positive way. On endless two-lane stretches of I-5 and I-10 with cars and big trucks endlessly passing one another and speed varying from 45 mph up to 90+ mph, I’ve always been frustrated by the mental toll of slightly adjusting speed up and down to match traffic—and moving to a standard cruise control just moves the work from my foot to my hands. Adaptive cruise was also great in slow-and-go traffic in L.A., where we would frequently stop, then speed up, then creep, then stop again.
I also really enjoyed Autosteer, the mode in which Tesla’s sensors take over and keep your car in its lane, curving with the road automatically and even changing lanes automatically when you signal. I found Autosteer was an aid to driving most of the time, doing more or less what adaptive cruise control did—namely allowing me a little less cognitive load while I was still paying attention to the road. (In contrast, my wife hated it.)
But Autosteer also convinced me that Tesla has a long way to go before I would trust a more complete self-driving option. It got confused when a lane appeared and then merged into mine, and was utterly baffled by some extreme changes in lighting as we drove through underpasses on an L.A. freeway at sunset. Since I was focused on driving and kept some tension on the steering wheel at all time, I was able to just override its questionable decisions and keep driving, but I walked away convinced that this stuff just isn’t ready to be more than assistive technology to drivers who are still paying attention to the road at all times.
I should also mention that while my teenaged son was a little cramped in the back seat, we luxuriated in the very comfortable front seats and appreciated the per-driver presets for chair and mirror position and preferences for driving settings. (I drove with one-pedal driving and regenerative braking turned on; my wife chose a more traditional feel.) The only thing I really missed was the little refrigerated compartment in our minivan where we can fit seven cans of soda. We tucked an insulated picnic bag in the back seat instead.
I should also praise the luxury of having an electric car with a power system that lets it run its climate control system even when the car is “off.” I found this useful when I needed to pop into the San Tan Village Apple Store in greater Phoenix for a minute to pick up something, and returned to the car to find it just as cool as when I’d left. (There’s also Dog Mode, which keeps anyone left behind in the car at a comfortable temperature while displaying a reassuring warning on the touchscreen. My son stayed inside to play games at one point, and he got to be a cool 72-degree dog the whole time we were gone.)
From driving our Leaf, we already knew that tooling around town when you’ve got plenty of charge in your battery is easy and fun. The real issue with this trip was that, despite the Model 3’s nearly 300-mile range, we’d be making four drives of about 430 miles each. That meant at least one, and more likely two, stops to charge on each leg. And as you might expect, everyone we talked to about our journey wanted to know about that experience. It’s clearly the area of greatest concern for anyone who doesn’t already use a long-range electric car.
On a normal drive like this, my wife and I will usually take turns as the driver every couple of hours. We’ll also stop for at least one meal, if not two. And we’ll take bathroom breaks. Sometimes we combine those stops, and sometimes we don’t. And in a gas car, we’ll probably need to stop for gas at least once.
Instead, in the Tesla we planned our stops around the need to charge a couple of times. Yes, this meant we spent more time on our journey than we would’ve in a gas car. But not a lot more, and we used the time we were charging to eat, go to the bathroom, and stretch our legs. At places where there weren’t eating options right at the Tesla Supercharger, we’d pick up food first and then eat it while we charged.
I found that needing to charge a couple of times introduced a rhythm to our journey that I really enjoyed. We weren’t doing a Cannonball Run. The journey was made a bit more pleasant by getting out of the car a little bit more. We visited two of the largest Supercharger spots in California’s central valley, including one with its own Tesla Lounge that in normal times would offer places to sit and relax, but in pandemic times was good for a bathroom break and a hot chocolate from an on-duty barista. We spent time in the parking lot of a Carl’s Jr. in Quartzsite, Arizona, looking out over the same landscape (and the same rock shop) featured in “Nomadland.” Some chargers were busy, and some weren’t, but I never had to wait for a space.
If I felt any range anxiety on the journey at all, it was when we were nearing our destination at my mother’s house in Arizona. We charged up on the outskirts of Phoenix, just enough to get to my mom’s house—and as we got closer, it became apparent that I had barely given us enough cushion to get there. Still, we arrived at her house with eight miles to spare (and probably ten miles more in the buffer). The car complained to us repeatedly that we were not in range of a Supercharger, but we made it—and plugged in to a standard electrical outlet in my mother’s garage using the car’s included home-charging adapter.
This led to some amazing stats in the Tesla app and in my friend’s shortcuts, as we discovered it would take more than two days for the very slow (five miles per hour) trickle charge to fill the battery. This sounds bad, but the truth is, we arrived at my mother’s house at sunset, and if we had wanted to leave the next morning, we would’ve had more than enough range to get to the nearest supercharger, 27 miles away. (I should also mention that there would’ve been another way for us to charge, using any level 2 charger via a simple adapter that we had with us—this is how we charged the Tesla at our house, using the same cable we use to charge the Leaf.)
Maybe it’s that I’m the owner of a Leaf with almost zero range, but the 300-ish mile range of this Model 3 was never an issue, and the Supercharger network was fast and convenient. Range anxiety? It just wasn’t an issue.
Off it goes, into the sunset
Of course, now I have to give this car back. (I’m taking it in for its scheduled service and then driving it back to its storage location, where it will wait for its true owner to return later this year.) Has spending a week with a Tesla Model 3 ruined me for other cars, as several of my friends suggested it would?
Sort of. I was already ruined in the sense that I’m not buying a gas car again if I can help it. But yes, I am now ruined in the sense that I’m not going to buy another car without adaptive cruise control, either. I also came away very impressed with Tesla’s overall product design philosophy. Yes, they make some dumb decisions—what’s the deal with that stupid steering wheel?—and misguided priorities, like their continued fantasy that these cars are suddenly going to become self-driving robots overnight.
But the sum of Tesla’s design decisions and priorities are actually pretty good. The car’s interior is delightful. The touchscreen system works well. It’s a pleasure to drive. The charging network is great. I love the fact that the car feels like a single product, designed as a unit, unlike literally every other car I’ve ever driven, all of which feel like they’re a single car body with a half-dozen different OEM systems badly integrated together in the dash.
My Honda Odyssey’s still got a few years left in it, but after that? Yeah, I’ll consider Tesla—but I’ll also consider its competition. That said, if I had to buy a new car today, it would almost certainly be a Tesla. Fortunately for my budget and bank account, I probably don’t need to make that decision anytime soon. I’m grateful for my friend’s generosity in giving me a week to spend with a pretty fun car and some unexpected iOS user automation, to boot.
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