Monday, July 28, 2014

Test Driving the Tesla Model S

This review is a slight departure from my usual UX blog entries.  Since the Tesla Model S is in fact a rolling smartphone, I’ll give myself some leniency.  And it will make the petrolhead side of me happy.  Here it goes:

That was one tweet that started it all because my friend in Canada had just bought one and that led me to question why I was paying $4/gallon for gas.  I was tired of doing so.

@Teslamotors then asked me if I had ever test-driven one.

I haven't, but I did allude to buying my M3 without even driving it.  Does Gran Turismo count?  That's what you do when you're a devoted petrolhead - buy cars when you haven't test-driven them.  I did that with one other car I had for 10 years.

In a matter of minutes, I signed up for a test drive because Tesla was having a northeast tour in different places, letting strangers drive their perfectly engineered cars.  And as fate would have it, they were in Maine this past weekend.  But then a snag - the Kennebunkport event was booked solid.  A customer rep called minutes after I signed up and arranged another time for my test drive in Ogunquit, in the middle of summer.  In the middle of tourist season.  (Do you see what I'm getting at?)  But the people from Tesla were on the ball - so much so, it almost felt like they were stalking me like the NSA.  Actually, they were anticipating my every need because that's what the good experiences are supposed to provide.

With the appointment booked and some excitement and anticipation already building, I had to put my objective mindset on.  I did some background research on YouTube to see what people were saying, and what things to look out for.  All I found were testimonials of how great the car was.  Talk about an insurmountable pile of tree-hugging propaganda!  Okay, it wasn't exactly that, because you wouldn't want to wrap a performance sedan around some timber.  But I digress.

@byhamilton was in for a treat!

I tweeted out asking who wanted to join me in my test drive.  Of course, my good, designer friend @byhamilton raised her hand.  She insists she invited herself.  But I knew she'd wanted to experience it [again], especially with a madman driver behind the wheel.  She said she trusts me behind the wheel.  She was in for a treat.  She didn't know about the hours of Gran Turismo I had played through now, 6 versions of the game, nor the numerous in-real-life track days.  Looking at my resume of cars driven, though not entirely impressive, is more than what an average person might drive:

1985 Toyota Camry
My late uncle's 1989 Toyota Supra
1990 Oldsmobile Delta 88
2001 Ford Mustang V6
2012 Ford Mustang Convertible
1991 Chevrolet S10 Blazer
1995 SAAB 900 SE
Lotus Elise
2001 Subaru Impreza RS
2007 Porsche Cayman S
2002 Ford SVT Focus, 6sp
2013 Ford Focus ST, 6sp
Nissan Altima
Honda Civic SiR
SAAB Turbo X
Infiniti G37S, 6sp
2003 SAAB 9-5, 2.0t
2008 BMW M3, E92 (current)

Who could say no to her?
Driving down to Ogunquit was a breeze.  As I approached the Beachmere Inn, there she was in all her beauty.  She was sexy and sultry, had on the red lipstick and dress to match, posing like Jessica Rabbit.  The Aston Martin and Maserati curves spoke to me, seducing my eyes and dropping my jaw as if I were Wile E. Coyote.  I was hooked.

Brian was awesome!
I was greeted by a very pleasant man named, Brian.  We were early so he offered to show us around the car.  The Telsa was decked-out with all the options.  It was the P85+ version with a carbon fibre spoiler, 21-inch rims, summer performance tires, Brembo brakes, fog lights, panoramic glass roof, leather seats with alcantara headliner.  I didn't get a good look at the back seats but according to @byhamilton, she had plenty of legroom and she's tall.  The trunk was massive.  It had dual compartments - one to keep all your cycling gear, the other to keep your secrets.  It also had roof fittings for a rack.

After the walkaround, it was time to get in.  Brian showed me the touchscreen controls.  It had every setting for everything you could imagine.  It was involved.  It was somewhat complex.  Yes, the information architecture was logical, read well and I didn't need a decoder ring to navigate through it.  A place for everything and everything in its place.  But how would I handle it when I was driving?  I would have to familiarize myself with the interface beforehand, and this test drive wasn't enough.  I'd have to live with it for a few days or months to truly get acclimated.  The BMW I have now with its iDrive system was like that.  It took me more than a year to even begin exploring and operating the standard radio.  Granted, that was more of a motivational block as the engine soundtrack is so intoxicating.

My favorite function
My favorite function for the Model S was operating the motorized glass roof where you manipulated the actual rendering instead of just being relegated to a slider interface button (that immediately became redundant).  That’s the delight of discovery and I’m sure there are plenty of that in the controls.

The startup sequence was pretty simple albeit out of the ordinary.  There's no gear shift lever, but there was a lever on the steering column to set the drive mode.  You do this by pressing the brake pedal and selecting the drive mode.  The screens for the dashboard shows you the car itself in its proper color, so you remember what you were driving and stare at its beauty, ogling the pin-up every time.
The dashboard cluster.
Once started, rolling along was super quiet.  Oh. So. Quiet.  Even at speed.  I could actually hear myself think, it was so Zen.  I should try meditating while driving.

"I'm actually afraid of hitting someone because they won't know I'm there," I declared as I began my think-aloud protocol.

I meandered out of the parking lot and Brian assured me that beyond 5 mph, it does make some noise.

"What music do you like to listen to?" asked Brian.

How genius!  Music sets a connection to the driving experience.  Of course he would ask that question.  He was also trying to set my mind at ease.

"Just tell the radio what you want to listen to," he instructed.

"Brian Transeau," I stated after pressing the voice button.  And it immediately went to a track in his Movement in Still Life album.  Apparently, it has Internet radio and is linked to a service similar to Spotify, Pandora, etc.  And it's included.

Getting into the zone.
It only took a few minutes before my timid driving became spirited.  I was seduced.  I got into the zone.  The smooth, twisting, winding roads were beckoning for my rubber.  So I punched it.  Acceleration was so instant (as was braking), it was actually off the charts!
Look at the telemetry! Lots of orange!
  The entire time, I never really pressed the brake pedal and just let the regenerative braking slow down for me.  All I did was feather, sometimes, the accelerator pedal.  With the driving mode in sport, the Model S drove like a slot car.

Interaction effort is high especially when driving.
I didn’t bother navigating the car’s interface at this point because I was much too busy navigating through the trees, trying to avoid them.  The touchscreen interface was built for recall, not recognition.  I don't want to have to think about the interface and drive at the same time, navigating and selecting functions, even if the information architecture was spot-on.  This is why voice control is so important.  I’d rather have prompts for what to say on-screen to control settings so I don’t have to remember everything.  (Here’s some innovation for you, Tesla.  Correct me if I’m wrong.)  That might get me to being the perpetual intermediate user a lot faster.  And well, with a touchscreen, there’s no tactile feel where buttons have some advantage.  Haptic feedback marginally solves the problem.

Big map.
The one saving grace about it was the fact that it was big enough and accessible enough for the passenger beside me to operate.  Brian was a great co-pilot, gesturing and tapping the controls before my eyes.  My attention was purposeful to driving and not crashing.

I could really get into trouble with this car.  The acceleration was addictive.

It's a car with SAAB sensibilities and BMW M3 speed.

It had all the utility of a SAAB 900 (or 9-3) with its large hatchback, four doors, interior space and stability.  Compared to the M3, driving the Tesla felt more direct and sometimes stiffer, pulling lateral G's with more precision.  It performed in a way I wanted it to, almost.  It's not as forgiving in the corners as the M3, but it comes close.  You barely feel any body roll – it will definitely throw your passengers around without warning.  (Or maybe it was my driving.)  The suspension was firm but wasn't jarring.

But what was it missing?  Maybe it was too robotic.  It drove like a video game (but without the reset button).  Maybe it behaved like a Nissan GTR, lacking some soul like others have stated.  But is that a bad thing?  (I’ll have to drive a Nissan GTR to compare.)  Or maybe it was too perfect.  Who could argue with not paying $4 a gallon of premium gas?  You’d save Brinks truckloads of money by driving a Tesla Model S.  But it wasn't perfect.

What it was missing was range.  With a 4-litre, 414 horsepower V8 engine, my M3 actually gets better range than the Model S.  I can go for long distance drives with my M3, and I did.  Just last year, I drove to Monterey, CA for BMWCCA’s Oktoberfest from Maine and back, winning the longest distance award.  It took me four and a half days to get out there.  But I spent a small fortune on gas.

Tesla would argue that their supercharger infrastructure is being put into place and more and more states and cities are getting them.  While that’s progress, the battery technology still isn't up to par with refueling, or in this case, recharging.  And swapping out batteries is still a Band-Aid solution.

Despite its shortcomings, I want one.  It would be great to commute with and perform short range errands and trips with it.  Would I give up my BMW M3 for the Tesla Model S?  I’m on the fence.  Mainly because of the steep price of entry and limited range.  What Tesla has done is package a forward-thinking car in economics, environmental friendliness and utility to appeal to petrolheads like myself with speed and looks, telling me there are alternatives to driving an electric vehicle and you don’t have to be boring doing it.

But at the end of the day, I’ll have to keep Jessica Rabbit waiting.  And I hate making a lady wait.