Mr. Chatterbox

Mr. Chatterbox Test Drives a Tesla and Sees the Future

It was like a ride at a theme park, Mr. C. says.

By Robert Plunket October 31, 2019 Published in the November 2019 issue of Sarasota Magazine

Image: Regan Dunnick 

The boss has gone and bought a Tesla Model 3 and she can’t stop talking about it. She’s like a teenage boy with his first car. She actually goes to the parking lot of the Asolo—when it’s empty, thank God—and practices her acceleration. She can do 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds. I’m expecting her to try wheelies any day now.

So when she suggested rather pointedly that I should do a column on the Tesla phenomenon, I took the hint. It seems like all the cool people in Sarasota are buying one, and I’ve learned that it’s always best to keep the boss happy, no matter what crazy ideas she comes up with. I’ll go for a test drive. Why not?

I have to admit I was not a fan. That Elon Musk seems like a bit of a whack job, what with his spaceship company and his plan to colonize Mars and his pot smoking during interviews. And the real Tesla was even worse. A Serbian by birth, Nikola Tesla was Thomas Edison’s biggest rival; he “invented” alternating current, and many of his ideas are in common use today, like the remote control. But whereas Musk is the 40th richest person in the world, Tesla died broke.

Then there’s the pigeon story. Nikola Tesla remained chaste all his life, but he found great solace in feeding pigeons that came to rest on his windowsill at the St. Regis Hotel in New York. One day he noticed a particularly beautiful all-white female—female pigeon, that is—and he gave her some breadcrumbs. She came back the next day, and then the next, and soon they were in a relationship. “I loved that pigeon as a man loves a woman,” he wrote. “And she loved me.”

With that image in mind, let’s drive a Tesla.

As most of you know, the Tesla dealer in Sarasota is at the UTC mall. It’s right across from the Apple store, appropriate because they are very similar companies. I’m not sure if the mall figures into the future, but Apple and Tesla sure do—you use your phone to operate much of your Tesla—and their little corner of the mall is the hippest place in town.

Inside the Tesla store, a salesman named Sean gave me a tour of the car. From the outside it’s nice but nothing special. It blends in with the other cars on the road. But open the door and sit in the driver’s seat and it’s a whole new world.

What’s most important is what isn’t there. There is no dashboard, just a shelf-like thing that stretches across the width of the car. There is a steering wheel, I was relieved to note, but a total absence of those buttons and switches and knobs that so dominate most cars’ interiors. True, there are two buttons on the steering wheel and it turns out they can do a million different things, depending on how you manipulate them.

But the literal heart of the car is the computer screen, a laptop-sized touchscreen monitor (iPad owners will understand this immediately) mounted right in the center of the nonexistent dashboard. It’s what does the driving. That’s what the Tesla is all about—the software.

And what software. Any piece of information you may need, any map, any address, any task, any chart, gauge, icon, avatar or entertainment comes up on that screen, often accessed by voice command. It can solve any problem.

My big worry was that I would run out of electricity. It does happen. There was that police car in California, where they apparently have Tesla police cars, that ran out of juice during a high-speed pursuit.

But Sean quickly assuaged my concern. The computer tells you where the nearest charging station is—and how crowded it is. And with a range of 310 miles, the recharging situation is pretty easy to fit into your life. The boss made her husband install a special plug in their carport, and she can get by just plugging it in a couple of nights a week.

Issue No. 2: the autopilot. Can the car really drive itself? And do I even want such a thing? To show me how it works, Sean had me drive out to the interstate.

Driving a Tesla is pretty much like driving any car. The braking is a little weird. It stops more suddenly, but it’s easy enough to adjust to. The acceleration is fantastic. And the car just glides along. So unlike my Kia, which huffs and puffs like a coffeepot on wheels.

Once on I-75, Sean showed me how to set the controls and we were off. The Tesla stayed four car lengths behind the car in front of us, slowing down when the car did, then speeding up again. To change lanes you press a lever down or up, depending on direction. The cameras and sensors that surround the car wait for the first right moment and then make their move and the car slips into the next lane.

That was the moment I fell in love. There I was, driving down the interstate at 70 miles an hour, not using my hands or feet, and it was exhilarating. I was in the future. It was like a ride at a theme park. I suddenly saw how regular cars are now obsolete and how driverless cars are inevitable and right.

Of course, you can say that Tesla autopilot is just an elaborate form of cruise control. It can’t yet recognize red lights or stop signs or squirrels. But they are working on it, and when they figure it out you will get a free software update. In the meantime you will have your amazing new car to explore, with all its secrets and surprises. Tell it to “Summon” and it will self-drive across a parking lot in the rain and meet you at the front door. Then there is a “doggie mode” that will keep pets cool while they wait in the car, and a notice will appear on the screen telling busybodies that everything is under control. And if you search really hard you will find an “emissions testing” app, which is weird because the Tesla produces no emissions. What this app does is place an electronic whoopee cushion on the seat of your choice. Tap the screen, and one of seven different fart sounds will pierce the perfect stillness of your elegant new car.

I didn’t say the future was going to be tasteful, but at least it’s reasonably priced. Just $39,000, fart app included.

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