Beta testing the Tesla Model S

My Tesla Model S

My Tesla Model S

I bought a Tesla Model S earlier this year. It’s a dream car: comfortable, responsive, spacious, and great looking. It’s a total geek dream gadget, and I feel good about owning an environmentally sensible electric car. It’s 95% of the way to perfect – and it’s fun being part of the ongoing experiment to find the last 5%.

Scheduled Software Updates

Tesla updates the car occasionally – the car has a 3G cell connection. A dialog box on the massive 17” screen says an update is available, you schedule it, and wake up to an improved car. It’s like updating iOS on your iPhone. Indeed, it’s very similar – your car could be quite different after the update, and it’s clear the car is designed to be a flexible software-driven platform. This is mostly where the beta testing feeling comes in.

Scheduled Charging

Scheduled charging. My car is configured to being charging at 1am when it's plugged in at home.

Scheduled charging. My car is configured to begin charging at 1am when it’s plugged in at home.

The most recent update added scheduled charging. You plug the car into its charge point, and it’ll start charging when you tell it – this allows you to take advantage of lower electricity rates in the early hours of the morning. What’s cool is that it is location-aware: you can set different charge behaviors for different locations, and the car remembers those. So, for example, you could have it charge as soon as it’s plugged in at work, and beginning at 1am at home – and once it’s set, it just works. Pretty neat. (I’m glad this feature arrived – I was beginning to figure out how to install a timer on my 50 Amp 220 volt plug at home.)

Plugged in for charging with the mobile charging cable.

Plugged in for charging with the mobile charging cable.

I actually got this new feature about a week ahead of everyone else. How? Well, I scheduled an update and it failed. I woke up to a dialog box that told me to call Tesla Service. The climate control didn’t work, the odometer read 0 miles, and a few other things were a little off – but the car was completely drivable. I called Tesla service, dreading the need to take it to their service center – but it was way simpler than that. The guy on the phone asked me when I’d next have the car parked for a couple of hours. They later logged into my car, remarking that “the packages were all there but didn’t unpack properly” (suggesting a Linux flavor to the car), and “cleaned things up”. When I got back to the car, all was great – everything back to normal, and I’m the first guy on the block with the latest software that includes scheduled charging.

Climate Control Problems

Climate control must be a harder problem than you’d think. It’s entirely automatic by default: you set the temperature, and the Model S looks after maintaining it. However, I get blasted with cold air most of the time – if you jump in the car when it’s warm outside, and ask for 70 degrees inside, it’ll get you there as fast as it can. And once it’s there, it’ll lower the fan speed until (I guess) it gets a couple of degrees warmer, and then it’ll Arctic blast again. It always feels like it’s not quite doing what I want – sometimes 70 degrees feels rather too warm, and other times I’m freezing. There must be subtlety in making this an awesome feature (maybe other car companies took a long time to get this right?): you want the occupants to be comfortable as soon as possible, but you also want them to have a pleasant time getting there. I bet there’s a software update coming.

Spinal Tap humor: the volume control and even the climate control fan settings go all the way to 11

Spinal Tap humor: the volume control and even the climate control fan settings go all the way to 11

The web browser and nav apps fall short

The giant 17” screen includes a web browser and a navigation application. The browser is about as basic as you’ll get: it doesn’t have autocomplete (with much-needed spelling correction), it doesn’t save form data, and it randomly seems to lose its history and cookies. It’s also got problems with its touch interface: you need to press a little above any link you want to click, and often a few times. The navigation application is ok, but has a few quirks: it’s always oriented so that north is facing up, which isn’t how I like to use navigation, and traffic data seems to update on its own frequency (even if you turn traffic on and off) – which can lead you into a jam. I am not quite sure whether the traffic data is used to determine routes – I suspect not yet ; it’s certainly not configurable to tell the navigation app whether you’d prefer a faster, shorter, non-highway, or highway route as in many other nav tools.

If the 17” screen has issues, you can reboot it by holding the two scroll wheels on the steering wheel. You can do this while you’re driving. You can reboot the screen behind the steering wheel separately by holding the two buttons above the scroll wheels. Again, no problem while you’re driving. This suggests there’s several physical or virtual machines in the Model S – at least one for each of the screens, and more behind running what’s needed to drive the car.

Am I unhappy? No. The future has arrived early – a car that’s as much software as hardware, and that can be iterated on and improved without you going near a service center. Is it entirely baked? Not yet. Do I love my Tesla Model S? Best car I’ve owned easily.

See you next week.

By the way, while I own a Tesla, I don’t own any shares in the company nor do I plan to buy any. I wish I did, after their spectacular rise in the past couple of weeks.

4 thoughts on “Beta testing the Tesla Model S

  1. Steve Milton

    Hi Hugh – great looking car – what’s the drive quality like? Friend of mine cancelled his order after a test drive, an bought an M5 instead – he insisted he loved the look of the car, but not driving it…

  2. Hugh E. Williams Post author

    Steve, thanks! I personally love driving it — fast, responsive, nice ride, corners great, and it is configurable (I can adjust the feel of the steering and suspension at the slide of slider on the center screen).

  3. Venkat Sundaranatha

    Congrats on your Tesla Model S. Great writeup on first impressions of our car, super cool.
    As you have mentioned in your write-up its great to see a car that is part software and part hardware, the possiblities are endless. Now i can proudly say i know folks who own Tesla.

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