Erin Baker: How a Tesla left me with a headache – of the good kind

15th September 2016
erin_baker_headshot.jpg Erin Baker

My head hurts. This can be explained by my inability to get in a car and not show off. And so it was that, after a weekend spent living in the Middle of the 20th century at the Revival, I went straight to the middle of the 21st century, by-passing the present day, and ludicrous mode in a Tesla Model S.

Showing off to my boyfriend, I swiped the button on the huge tablet screen to "ludicrous" and floored it from a standstill. Both our heads shot back against the headrests, my parking permit flew off the dashboard, and expletives filled the cabin. The instant torque the Tesla electric motors provide is just ridiculous. There is nothing other to say than "ouch" and "ha ha ha".

Autopilot is a different matter again. This is a worrying development. I'm not talking about the Tesla driver who died in the States recently after engaging Autopilot then watching a DVD while his car drove under the wheels of a lorry, but it's worrying in the sense of just how quickly one gets used to the notion of being piloted by an autonomous car.

For those of you who have yet to experience the major controls (throttle, brakes and steering) being taken care of by the car while you sit in the driver's seat, it goes something like this: You deploy the automated-driving system (and active cruise control, present on so many cars, is two-thirds of the way there –use lane-departure warning systems in conjunction with the active cruise control and you basically have an automated car).

For the first five seconds, you squeal with anxiety, your instincts fighting to take over the steering as you careen between two sets of white lane markings, bends taken at 70mph, cars passed in the adjacent lane at speed. But five seconds later, you are already blasé. The experience is already a natural adjunct to driving yourself, and the logical progression of the automobile.

How does that happen?! One minute you have broached an alien technical frontier, upsetting the hitherto natural order of the universe, and the next, your experience has become part of the world's ebb and flow, so woven into the usual fabric of driving experiences, that having a car drive you at 70mph is no more interesting than stopping at a red traffic light. It's very weird - something in the brain is ready to accept new experiences long before they arise, clearly.

Tesla, of course, knew all this long before I or you did. They are clever industry disrupters; they understand trends, social behaviours, consumer demands and economies, and the effects of all these on the way we drive and how we perceive driving, years before the public does. They have to, for that's the nature of a successful disruptor.

The other key ingredient is the willing lack of scepticism or cynicism. They launch a car in the market, they listen to the public reception, they take on board the criticism, and they adapt their product. And all of this they do quickly. 

And so, within half the time of the natural four-year life span for a new car on sale, they have drastically changed the owner experience of a Model S. Now, when you get in one and put your destination in the satnav, it will bring up not just the route, and not just the supercharger stations along the way, but the system will calculate how much charge you will have when you reach that station on your route, and will therefore tell you how long you will need to charge it for to comfortably reach your destination.

As well as superchargers, the system will tell you about destination chargers, which are slower but are positioned in places such as restaurant car parks, where you are likely to spend longer.

There are many more clever developments – an app for you to creep your car out of the narrow garage so you can open a door and climb in easily, and soon they will give us an upgraded Autopilot system, which will get very cross should we take our hands off the wheel.

It's life, Jim....

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