21 February 2020
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Tesla S First Impressions

For once, a non-cryptic blog title. I just got an S. I've put almost a thousand miles on it. I'd offer a review to add to the hundreds already available from owners and professional journalists, but there's far more information on the web than I can offer. So, here are a few first impressions, a photo of my license plate, and, perhaps, a bit of woolgathering.

The Tesla S Manual

I think there would be a market for de-warningized car manuals. The sheer bulk of paper that infests glove compartments must contribute in its own small way to inefficiency and energy waste, not to mention taking up room needed for other glove-compartment denizens. That being said, I don't think there is such a thing as a printed Tesla manual, so the warnings have no physical existence and merely serve as distractions from the flow of useful information.

And that being said, I have to compliment Tesla on producing a useful and comprehensive manual. It boasts many useful asides that most car manufacturers would be hesitant to commit to print for fear of scrutiny by white-lipped attorneys looking for lawsuit opportunities. It's far better than most car manuals, and I especially appreciated being able to download it before purchase so I could get a handle on operation before actually driving it home.

The Bigness of the S

I've been driving a Prius for the past 15 years. I'm not used to driving what feels like a much bigger car*, and I don't like it. The folding mirrors are irritating but almost necessary. That two-person jury, Scylla and Charybdis, is still deliberating. I imagine I'll get used to the size after a while.

The Self-Drivingness of the S

I was so looking forward to having a car steer and pace itself. (I did not get the $7000 option they call "full self driving" because, well, it isn't full self driving. If it were, I would snap it up.) The standard feature they call "Autopilot" which "enables your car to steer, accelerate and brake automatically for other vehicles and pedestrians within its lane" is far more useful to me and is included in the price of the vehicle. The two semi-features of Autopilot break down thus:

Steering: Almost perfect! It seems to get just a little nervous near an exit when the white line on the right goes toward the exit while the line on the left remains constant. But it hasn't yet made any mistakes, and after only a little while I got confident enough to just keep my hand lightly on the wheel. This is a wonderful feature! If I had to quibble, and that's what reviews are for, I'd ask it to drive more like I do. I use the width of the lane to stay on the inside of curves or on the outside when passing big trucks. Instead, it stays in the middle of the lane. I'm told there are people who actually prefer that!

Accleration and braking: Problematic, in part. It's great in stop-and-go traffic, on limited-access highways, and it even does a good approximation of being polite if somebody wants to change lanes in front of you. What it doesn't do at all well is deal with cross traffic. If someone is crossing the road in front of you—yes, to get to the other side—the Autopilot views the other vehicle as a potential obstacle and slows down unnecessarily and sometimes sharply. A human driver recognizes the situation, knows the cross traffic will be long gone when he arrives, and ignores it. Why is this a problem? Because, if a human driver is behind you, he, too, will recognize and ignore the situation. When the Tesla brakes suddenly, there is a danger of getting rear-ended by someone who had no reason to expect "your" braking, and who not only has a valid grievance but most likely a middle finger. Having to watch for this situation in part vitiates the advantage of the Autopilot.

The Electricness of the S

Wow! The responsiveness and acceleration are just spectacular. And that's without the ludicrous Ludicrous option. I was so tempted, but I do have a few sane neurons. Sigh.
Boo. Takes time to charge. But we know that, don't we?
Wow! What's more fun than watching your car "going" 400+ miles per hour, even if it's just on the screen of an app? You don't get this for the full charging period due to battery characteristics; it slows down as you approach a full charge.
DoubleWow! No gas. No cost. Thank you Mr. Supercharger! (OTOH, pouring gas in a tank is the equivalent of maybe 10,000 miles per hour.)

The Buying Decision

While irrelevant to the review of the car itself, I want to add a few words about deciding to buy an electric car. I've already had a babble about the US federal tax credit on electric cars. The various states have electric car incentives as well, and two were especially relevant to me. Arizona, my state of residence, has a very high annual registration fee. Many hundreds of dollars, vastly more than most states. This fee is reduced or waived for an electric car, with the result that Tesla registered the car on my behalf for five years for a token fee. It included an "alternative fuel" license plate that gives HOV lane access to single occupants. Here's a good place to add a picture of the license plate:

The additional charge for a vanity plate is $25/year. The only reason I can think of for charging by the year instead of by the plate is greed, but that won't be a surprise. It could have been a lot worse!

One boondoggle of which I did not take advantage was the sales-tax waiver offered by New Jersey. I think I could have bought the car in NJ sales-tax free and driven it to AZ where I'd get the big break on registration. I don't know if that would have worked out on both ends because it just got to be too much trouble and I neglected to research the laws. I ultimately didn't bother.

Blue, Hands-on-the-Wheel, and Other Thoughts

The car is blue. I would have preferred a lighter blue, such as was the unlamented Audi. But it's a beautiful color and car nonetheless. Everybody says so, as do I.

I find somewhat irritating the necessity of jiggling the steering wheel from time to time to prove to the car that one is paying attention. I'm not sure that actually proves anything, and, worse, one needs to commit a calibrated jiggle. Not enough, and the display continues to complain, too much and the steering reverts to manual. At CES I spoke with a company that offered a bowl of Finnish chocolate, and, as a commercial by-product, sold a pressure-sensitive polymer that could be used to sense a driver's hand holding the wheel. I suggested they give Tesla a call.

Speaking of paying attention, this subject deserves its own blog (and, tragically, will probably sustain one). The car allocates hands-off time algorithmically instead of "intelligently." The faster one is going, the less hands-off time you get, correctly assessing you can get in trouble sooner at high speed. But situationally, e.g., on an arrow-straight, well-marked interstate in the desert, you can ignore the road for miles at 80mph. Other conditions lend themselves to white-knuckle driving even if you're doing the steering, yet the Tesla blithely assumes all is well.

A few years ago, I was very encouraged by progress in autonomous vehicles and hopeful that the predictions that 2020 would be the year of full autonomy would be realized. I'm now less sanguine. Fortunately I am not so ancient that I feel uncomfortable driving. That year will eventually come, and when it does, I hope it is preceded by true "full self driving."

* What is a much bigger car. The Tesla S is four inches wider than the Tesla 3 and 15 inches wider than the Prius.

Richard Factor


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Sea Island, I discovered after carefully scrutinizing their web site, is on the "southeastern coast of Georgia." It's beautiful and probably very expensive, unlike the T-shirt, whose main feature is "blue."

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