Driving the Future

A year and a half ago Tesla was not a car manufacturer that was particularly on my radar. I had heard of them, and vaguely remembered seeing Elon Musk in an Iron Man movie, and maybe that George Clooney owned one once, and that was about it. I only knew that they were starting to make appearances in San Luis Obispo because my husband kept pointing them out on the street.

At the time I couldn’t entirely understand his fascination. Yes, the lines of the Model S were sleek: so sleek as to render the cars nearly invisible to me. In order to identify one I’d have to scan the entire body until my eyes finally landed on the stylized T logo, and by then it had invariably driven past, so I still didn’t really know what it looked like. It lacked the conspicuously adorable curves of an RX-8 or a classic Jaguar, so it didn’t really grab my eye. I appreciated the fact that Tesla had finally overcome the range limitations of other all-electric vehicles (the Leaf’s 107 miles on a charge was not going to cut it for people like us that regularly had to drive to Los Angeles or the Bay Area), and I could see a certain appeal to the autopilot…but was it more than twice as appealing as my Subaru Forester, which I had thought unconscionably expensive at about half the price?

My husband and I are the kind of people who are, shall we say, leisurely about large purchases. It typically takes a year or two of mulling, and research, and poking at the desire like a bruise to see if it has faded over time before we make a commitment to something that’s going to involve monthly payments, or even edge near the limit of our credit card. So we read about the underlying technologies, watched the Supercharger network build out, contemplated waiting for the cheaper Model 3.

There were compelling reasons not to wait too long. His Subaru Impreza was twenty years old with over 200,000 miles on it, and though we probably could have nursed it to 300,000 it was showing its age in noise and cracks and chipped paint on the roof racks and a few expensive internal repairs. We had paid off the house and my car, so we could certainly afford the loan and the insurance without even really noticing a difference in our finances. California and the Feds were both still offering generous incentives, which were likely not to last forever. Tesla was offering lifelong free Supercharger access if you knew someone else who owned a Tesla – which I did – and that definitely wasn’t going to last forever.

There was, in fact, only a single reason for delay: my mother’s dwindling finances. If they ran dry we were going to have to take up some of the slack, and we had no clear idea how much of the slack, aside from knowing that we couldn’t afford to pay for her board and care. But in the end I decided that I had subordinated my own goals and desires to my parents’ more than enough for one lifetime, and that I sure as hell didn’t want to drag my spouse into that morass, so I booked a room for us in Santa Barbara with the goal of taking a test drive.

The Santa Barbara Tesla dealership is of a style that perhaps could be best described as Lego Modernist: cubical, all bright red and white, floor to ceiling glass on two sides, with a veritable forest of tiny halogen lights overhead. A single Model S and Model X were on display, surrounded by space and lighting worthy of the Mona Lisa or the Lindisfarne Gospels. Big LED screens mounted on the walls flashed technical information and copious images of Teslas driving along winding roads abutting forests or the sea. My husband brought his enthusiasm. I brought a headache that was teetering on a migraine.

We had driven down on impulse, only to discover that Tesla doesn’t deal in impulse. Appointments were required for a test drive, a scowling employee behind a desk told us without bothering to rise, and he didn’t care how far we’d come. His cheerful, sturdy and bald coworker however, overhearing the pronouncement, marched up to us with a wide smile and extended a big hand. “All the way from Atascadero!” he exclaimed. “Just to drive a Tesla? I think we can work something out, can’t we?” He looked at the man behind the desk, and it was obvious that his question wasn’t really a question. The other man grunted, and our salesman tracked down yet another employee to make sure an S and an X were washed and ready to go.

My husband was definitely gravitating toward the S, but after smacking my head three times on the low door frame trying to get in and out, I asked if we could just try the taller, roomier X. The salesman, perhaps sensing an enthusiasm gap and suspecting that I was the veto power of this particular transaction, asked if I wanted to get behind the wheel first.  I gauged my headache, and decided that I could probably manage a short drive.

It was not a short drive. For nearly twenty-five minutes we cruised around Santa Barbara. Along winding roads lined with oak groves and the sea. On the freeway to show off the autopilot. On city streets to get a feel for regenerative braking. And then we did it all again in the S. So that, I thought an hour later, is why they want you to make an appointment.

My husband and I are not the kind of people who are easily given over to electronic or mechanical whimsy. We have named neither our cars nor our succession of robotic vacuums. I still type search queries into my phone rather than using voice commands – although to be honest, that has more to do with Google and Siri failing to understand and provide interesting responses to requests such as “Where are the Lindisfarne Gospels on display?” than a desire to avoid anthropomorphizing technology. But there was something endearing about the way the Tesla woke up when we walked over to it. The door handles sliding out from flush as we approach: Hi there! The suspension shifting heights like an amiable elephant to make it easier to get in. The side mirrors unfolding like happy dog ears: Are we going for a walk? Who wants to go for a walk?

I slid into the driver’s seat and after a short tutorial from the salesman…just backed up. There was no starting the car. You were in it: of course you wanted it to go. And it backed up silently. I knew intellectually that there would be no engine noise, but actually experiencing that quiet was another matter altogether. And from there the minor miracles just piled on, one after another. Merely letting up on the accelerator to slow down rather than actively shifting over to the brake every time was relaxing: I could easily imagine being a lot less fatigued and stiff on long drives. And knowing that the car was using those moments of relieved pressure to charge itself was a little mind-blowing. Setting a follow distance and letting the car worry about when to brake in traffic was more than a little alien, but it was also a bit of a relief. It took a bigger leap of faith to let the car change lanes on its own on the freeway – and in fact the salesman said it was more to demonstrate the Tesla’s capabilities on a test drive than a habit we necessarily wanted to get into – but it was also a little magical.  And while we had laughed about bioweapon defense mode when we first heard about it, with wildfires raging all around us accompanied by poor air quality alerts for days on end it suddenly seemed a lot less amusing.

The experience wasn’t perfect. I had mixed feelings about the very large center display, which seemed to my dashboard-accustomed eye like a potentially dangerous distraction, and I had to avoid looking at the big rearview camera images for too long if I didn’t want to get carsick. The steering wheel occasionally provided some weird haptic feedback, and our salesman – a former pro tennis player – didn’t know why (I wasn’t convinced he knew what the word “haptic” meant either). The autopilot turned itself off for the duration of my husband’s test drive, claiming he didn’t have his hands on the wheel (he did), which led to some discussion of how long he’d been hiding his vampiric turn. Every representative I talked to dodged my questions about integration with Google or Amazon music so persistently that I settled on “must be awful.”

But I finally understood what about the Tesla had seduced my husband. And as he began to express reservations about the expense in the face of a looming, concrete commitment, I grew more resolute. “No, I get it now,” I said. “You’re investing in the future as much as buying a car. In battery technology, in self-driving algorithms, in alternatives to gas stations…it’s just a car, sure, but it’s also kind of…not.”

Musk had upended any number of conventions in his quest to push the EV industry forward. Longer range? Here it is. Don’t want to drive a practical little sedan? Have a luxury sports car or an SUV. Worried about a cross country trip? We’ll build out our own charging network. Don’t want the hassle of dealer franchises? We’ll sell you a car direct. (This got Tesla banned in several states that decided to get a little protectionist on behalf of their franchisees.) Used to your smartphone interface? We’ll build something very much like it into our center console. He seemed at least to be trying to drag the manufacture and sale of electric vehicles out of their niches for environmentally conscious consumers and into something closer to the mainstream (within the constraints of their prohibitive pricing, which hopefully the Model 3 will alleviate somewhat).

And so we decided. Yes, we’re going to buy one. An S, not an X, because nimbly as the X handled for its size, a gross vehicle weight of over six thousand pounds had a number of disadvantages: a noticeably longer stopping distance, a somewhat attenuated battery life, an inability to park in the garage of a Burbank hotel we frequented because it exceeded the maximum weight capacity. Our salesman looked a little surprised, as if he had been expecting us to say we needed to go think about it. And maybe we’d come back, but more likely we wouldn’t.

As we started talking financing, it became increasingly obvious that we didn’t fit the typical profile of a Tesla customer in Santa Barbara. For one thing, we needed financing. We were not, as our salesman noted casually and with no apparent malice, one of their not infrequent customers who plopped down a wad of cash and said, “I’ll take two.” He attempted to alleviate our sticker anxiety by reviewing their used inventory (which at least they just call “used” rather than papering its status over with precious, obfuscatory labels that mean the same thing). He seemed to be tailoring the pitch toward me a bit, but he’d misread the terrain. I’ve never been a fan of used cars, and once I was on board with buying a Tesla, I was on board. Why spend all that money and then not get exactly the car you wanted, down to the color and the options?

So we filled out the paperwork for a brand new Model S, metallic midnight silver with extended battery life, plunked down a deposit and returned home to wait a couple of months for our little piece of the future to be built, watching its progress on the Tesla website. We can take the train! I suggested as the December delivery date drew near. I’d never been on a train in my life, and a nice, leisurely trip down to Santa Barbara and a sporty drive back seemed like just the way to welcome the vehicle to our home: the old and the new, side by side.

But then things began to go wrong. I fell in the house and sprained an ankle and a knee so badly that it wasn’t at all obvious that I could safely drive my car back even from just the train station on the return leg. Two banks rejected our loan application before a third was willing to take the apparently unconscionable risk of lending money to someone who over twenty years had paid off a house and three cars and maintained a spotless payoff record on two credit cards. (Yes, I feel like that says more about the banks than us. And yes, I’m a little bitter about it.)

Then the raging Thomas Fire burned its way so close to the tracks that Amtrak canceled service. As it continued its fiery march toward Santa Barbara, the dealership called and said that they were shipping all the showroom’s cars elsewhere and could we pick the S up in the Bay Area? Which we couldn’t, not easily, since we were heading down to Pasadena to spend Christmas with my mother. Burbank, then? they asked.

Yes, we could manage Burbank. Since with my injuries I definitely couldn’t drive from Los Angeles back to San Luis Obispo we rented a KIA Soul, packed up our luggage and our dog, and headed south on the 5; only to discover that the fire had been beaten back from Santa Barbara and the S wasn’t going to be in Burbank after all. It was frustrating, but things were burning – our primary contact’s Montecito back yard was covered in fire retardant and he’d almost lost his house – so we just tried to roll with the changes. He was profuse in his gratitude and finally confided, to my husband’s astonished dismay, that it was nice to have a customer who wasn’t yelling at him.

The day after Christmas we pulled into the Santa Barbara dealership in our little rented SUV. Guinness, our luggage and I were disgorged curbside while my husband drove to Enterprise with a Tesla employee. The rental agency, who apparently dealt with Tesla often and liked being on good terms with them, waved away the inconvenience of our dropping the car off at the wrong location. If the dealership manager was nonplussed by having a boxer mutt, a duffel bag, a Briggs and Riley rolling case and a dog bed piled in a corner of her pristine, elegant showroom, she hid it well. Guinness snoozed through the half hour orientation, where the technician took advantage of one last opportunity to not answer my questions about music integration, and after hitting my head again while getting in we were on the road.

My husband drove – a little gleefully, accelerating so rapidly at one point that my head was pinned against the headrest and in a slightly peevish tone I asked him to warn me next time he did that – and I played with settings, both on the center console and my cell phone, because of course there is an app. Seat and steering wheel settings can be personalized for individuals drivers, the car and the front and rear trunks (because the battery sits underneath there is a small space where the engine would ordinarily reside, known as the “frunk”)  can be locked and unlocked remotely, status of charging checked and desired charging level modified. You can not only locate Supercharger stations on the navigation map but see how many charging bays are free, and the app lists nearby restaurants, restrooms and shopping. Every so often changes are made to the software and the car updates, like a laptop, while sitting in the garage. It is, in short, a dream car for people like us who have irrigation controllers that water based on weather forecasts and who take a certain pleasure in maps showing where the Roomba has cleaned today.

When we got home we realized for the first time that the S was…not small. The little Impreza and the beefier Forester had coexisted neatly side by side in the garage, but this was definitely going to be a tighter fit. So another techno-wizardry feature came into play: summoning mode, which allows you to move the car without being in the car. Usually I park the Subaru far enough to the left (without smashing into the planer, ideally), and my husband gets the S far enough to the right (without crushing the washer and dryer), that it isn’t a problem, but it’s nice to have the option. We didn’t pay for full self-driving capability, since at the moment it isn’t really much more than vaporware, but the features we do have such as summoning and auto park for parallel parking are undeniably convenient.

We’ve had the car for almost a year and it still feels like it was worth what we paid for it, in ways both practical and entertaining. Having a car free from dependence on gasoline is nice. (I’ve gotten used to the frame height and have stopped hitting my head, which is also nice.) We have a Supercharger about five minutes away in downtown Atascadero, so often we don’t even charge at home, and have learned more about the charming little breakfast and lunch places in the area in nine months than we did in the preceding twenty years. I thought that having to stop and charge on long trips might be annoying, but in fact we’re both of an age where we ought to take a break if we don’t want to be stiff, and the car enforces that.

I couldn’t tell you why the S rolling out of the garage on silent wheels is so endlessly entertaining, but it is. Autopilot still amazes me. It’s especially helpful in heavy traffic, where a moment’s distraction or fatigue can cause an accident, because the Tesla never gets distracted or fatigued. Being able to change the height of the suspension on the fly may feel like a gimmick, but if so it’s an awfully useful one, both for aiding people who might otherwise have trouble getting in and out of the car and for dealing with parking space stops set at heights designed to carve gouges in an unsuspecting undercarriage. Gasoline-powered cars have had their own impressive technological advances. I abandoned my much-loved 1984 Toyota pickup to acquire ABS, and the backup camera in the Forester is a very handy feature. But none of them felt like driving the future in quite the way that the Tesla does.

I recognize every Tesla we pass now, and have made a good start on being able to identify their design eras. The new ones in particular – courtesy of the narrow, slanting headlights – have a feline contour that I’ve come to appreciate. And checking the charge level a little while back I discovered that the S now has a name. My husband christened it Shadowfax.

Author: lorraine

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4 Comments

  1. Goddamn, that’s a good name.

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      • Ha, thanks 🙂 “Tireless, swift as the flowing wind. Shadowfax they called him. By day his coat glistens like silver; and by night it is like a shade, and he passes unseen.” Also, “if I have need he will come at my
        call.”

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        • When we *do* decide to anthropomorphize an electronic device, no half measures here 🙂

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