I’m probably not the typical Tesla demographic. I’ve never been a big car fan, nor am I a huge techie. I do software engineering for a living and my degree is in Electronic Engineering, but I resisted getting a cell phone for many years, I usually run an OS two or more versions behind the latest. I upgrade to new tech when I find a need for it, but I don’t get new tech just for the sake of getting new tech.
I’ve been driving a Buick I bought new in 1992. It’s in amazingly good condition for it’s age, but it is 24 as of this writing. I’ve been working from home since late 2001, so I haven’t been putting lots of miles on the car, but I’m getting to a point where I need to make more road trips to California.
I telecommute for a company in the Bay Area and my father is 96. He’s in good shape, but we did have a health scare last year when he developed a large blood clot. The company I work for wants me to come down a bit more often and I may need to drop everything and run down to deal with family matters at any time.
So I began shopping for a new car. My specifications weren’t all that tough, I thought:
1) I have very long legs, so enough legroom was vital.
2) I wanted about 20%-25% better gas mileage than my old car.
3) I wanted at least 80% the cargo capacity of my old car.
4) I wanted acceleration at least as much as my old car. (I want to be able to merge onto the freeway safely, but I’m no racer.)
5) I wanted a sedan, though I could deal with a station wagon. I don’t like SUVs and for me trucks are occasional use vehicles when you need to haul something bulky or messy.
23 years had gone by so I thought these conditions should be easy to meet. I knew going in #1 was going to put me on the larger end of the market, but I’m used to a large car so that doesn’t bother me. I was shocked at how small the cargo space was in most cars, but there were some that still got to 80% what I had. What I found was impossible was the trade-off between acceleration and gas mileage.
The mainstream car companies make a lot of noise about getting more out of smaller engines, but in reality it really isn’t true. The cars that get the better gas mileage have horrible acceleration and those that have acceptable acceleration have terrible gas mileage. To get the same acceleration as my old Buick (0-60 in 8s, nothing spectacular), the cars got the same gas mileage or a little worse. I was amazed after 23 years my old V-8 Buick was on par with the latest and greatest. Fuel economy has not really advanced as much as they’d like you to think.
With the smaller engines moving these heavy cars, I wonder how long the engines are going to last. In engineering you’re always dealing with trade-offs. If you make something smaller and make it work harder, it probably isn’t going to last as long.
I began looking at hybrids and I was disappointed there too. The only ground up hybrids are the Priuses, which aren’t that bad for capacity, but I quickly had to cross every Toyota off my list because I just couldn’t get the seat back for enough in any of the cars, even the Avalon. All other hybrids are designs as regular internal combustion engine (ICE) cars, but they replace the regular ICE with a specially designed gasoline engine and batteries. The only problem is all of them put the batteries in the trunk, which reduces the already smallish trunk to minuscule in some cases.
When I was test driving one car I asked the sales guy why they didn’t put the batteries under the floor. From an engineering point of view that seemed like the best place to put them. In a car, you want the center of gravity as low as possible, and having most of the weight in between the two axles also helps vehicle stability.
After I had been looking with little success for a few months, something on Tesla caught my eye. I was aware of them, but the Model S started at twice the price I was aiming for and I figured a pure electric was a bad idea for car being bought for road trips. I read on anyway and became intrigued.
Here was a car which had the same wheelbase and same width as my current car (though a little shorter overall), even the cheapest model had way more acceleration than I was looking for. It looks like a sedan, but it’s really a station wagon. The cargo capacity was equivalent to a Subaru Forester. And as far as gas mileage, the EPA equivalent was up around 100 MPG.
I was worried about long distance travel until I found out about the supercharger network. The network along the routes I would have to go were already in place and the network is growing every month. It takes a little longer to charge the car at a supercharger than it does to fill the gas tank on an ICE, but the trade-off was the “gas” was free. I don’t see Ford or even Rolls Royce offering free gas on the highway for the life of the vehicle.
I didn’t know if the seat would go back far enough, but I had found the only car that not only met, but exceeded all my other criteria. Not only is it one of the most efficient cars available, it’s also one of the quickest. It’s exceedingly rare in engineering to ever get a no compromise solution like this.
I joined the Tesla Motors Club forum and a local member gave me a test drive. To my amazement, the driver’s seat actually went back too far! I’ve only had that happen once before in a car, and once in a pickup. I was amazed.
So I got aggressive about saving. I already had enough saved up to buy any of the ICEs I have been looking at, but I needed to save a lot more. I am lucky enough to have a not huge, but decent income, and other factors, so I could eventually rat hole enough money to afford the Model S I wanted.
As someone with a scientific bent as well as a background in engineering, I am just gobsmacked by this car. It is expensive, it takes longer to “refuel” than an ICE, and about 300 miles on a charge is about the best you’re going to get in real world driving, but in every other respect it is so far beyond any other car out there, it’s like an pro sports team playing against a high school team. Really, the gulf is that big.
Tesla has gone a long ways towards addressing the limitations of the technology. The Model 3 is going to be much more affordable. And the supercharger network addresses the fueling issue pretty well on the road. We’ve found it fast enough that by the time we get some take out and answer nature’s call, the car has charged from 50 -> 90% which is plenty in most situations.
As for fueling the rest of the time, doing it at home is vastly more convenient than going to a gas station. I don’t have to stand out in the cold in the winter, I don’t run the risk of spilling nasty chemicals on me, and every time I leave the house I have a full tank.
I’ll explore more aspects of the car and what makes it so different in future blogs…