Owning a Tesla comes with a fair bit of curiosity and questions from people. After a few months and plenty of miles with a Model 3, here’s an overview of what owning an electric car is really like and explanations of Tesla features for those not familiar.
The foundation of Tesla is its electric motor and battery power. This is what gives the car its quick start (referred to as torque) and quiet drive. There’s not a typical combustion engine in the front of the car, so there is no spark plug, timing belt, and other mechanical parts.
The electric motor is really small and sits behind the rear passenger seats. (There’s a second, small motor in the front for all wheel drive versions.) This creates more available space than other vehicles and lets Tesla add a front truck, or a Frunk as people like to call it. The rear trunk also has plenty of space.
Lots of people notice that the rear, middle seat has more space than they would expect. That’s because there’s no bump as a result of no drive shaft.
It doesn’t look like there’s a huge battery powering Tesla’s cars, but there is. It spans the length of the car just below all the seats. People hear that Teslas are electric, but I still get the followup question quite a bit, double checking that it doesn’t use any gas. That’s correct. The car is powered only by the battery built in and recharges just like your mobile phone.
Teslas are quick, have more available room, and are packed with technology, but plugging in a car to recharge it, versus filling it with gas, is still the item most people get hung up on.
Most people are concerned with how to charge the car. The car comes with a wall plug, and you can plug it in to a regular outlet, anywhere, and it will start charging. If you plug the car into a regular (110v) U.S. house outlet it won’t charge fast, but it will work.
If you want the car to charge faster, you can have a 220v or 240v outlet installed (typically in the garage) to get 20-30 miles of range per hour. That means, if you leave it plugged in for 6 hours overnight, you’ll get an average of 175 miles of drivable range.
While there’s not a place to charge an electric car on most corners, like there are gas stations, the reverse is that you might never need to make inconvenient stops, always recharging overnight.
There is an option to schedule charging to start at certain times, like when the electricity rates go down to off-peak hours.
Your home electricity bill will go up because you’re using more electricity than you were before having an electric vehicle, that’s true. Depending on how much you drive daily and your local utility’s rates are, the cost of charging at home and paying for gas offset each other. So far, electricity rates have come out more economical than refueling at a gas station.
You, however, aren’t limited to only charging at home. Lots of malls, businesses, and parking structures have electric charging available. This should be cheaper than going to a gas station or possibly free.
There’s also solar for your home which can minimize costs.
One of Tesla’s advantages is its Supercharger network. It knew electric vehicles and charging stations were a chicken and egg problem, one needs the other, so it just started building lots of fast charging stations around the world. You can now go pretty much anywhere in the U.S., including coast to coast, just using Tesla’s Superchargers.
These Superchargers are much faster than home chargers and, on average, could recharge a car from near empty to full in 45 minutes. It takes longer than putting gas in a car, but it makes road trips much more viable. As a bonus, most Model S and Model X cars don’t pay for Supercharging. The Model 3 does need to pay, but it costs local electricity rates and is still half to two-thirds cheaper than a gas station.
If you’re wondering how you find these Superchargers, Tesla shows these locations on its maps in the car. When you type in a destination, it will alert you if your current battery level will reach the destination or not. If not, it will automatically re-route you to quickly recharge.
You can also see any Supercharging station’s capacity at any time. It will show how many stalls are available and how many are in use. Because you’ll likely be there for 30-60 minutes, it shows what amenities are around each station; like places to eat, shop, or rest.
The car will do nearly everything to make sure you can’t accidentally run out of power. Range anxiety is less of an issue in practice than theory.
Tesla cars can show this type of Supercharging information because each one has cellular data built-in. This connection is used for maps, navigation, software updates, and music streaming, among other things. This cellular connection has been free for the last eight years. As of July 2018, there will be a nominal fee for advanced uses of this connectivity, including to stream music.
Turn-by-turn navigation is largely an expected feature in cars, but streaming music built-in is less so. In the U.S. Tesla provides native access to Tune In and Slacker Radio. Tune In covers podcasts and access to radio stations all over the world, while Slacker provides Pandora-like music streaming. In Europe, Tesla has Spotify built in. Of course, you can still use the Bluetooth connection to listen to any music service on your phone or tablet.
The biggest advantage of having a cellular connection is the over-the-air software updates. In the same way your mobile phone will get updates to add new features and fix bugs, Tesla cars benefit in the same way.
My favorite example of how the Model 3 is more like a gadget than a car is its rear heated seats.
When I got the Model 3 in late March, the front seats were heated, but the three rear ones were not. A few weeks later a software update gave the car new functionality and the rear seats were able to be heated from the touchscreen. The coils were already in the seats, there wasn’t magic involved, but the update brought the feature to life.
Tesla has also improved the braking distance and shortened the time it takes to stop when slamming on the brakes, from a software update.
Not all electric cars can improve over time like Teslas will, this is still something largely unique to the company.
Not only do Tesla cars get software updates, but the Tesla phone app does as well. The Tesla app can perform nearly all car functions remotely, such as honking, blinking lights, locking and unlocking, starting the car, and opening trunks.
The mobile app can also control when charging takes place, how full you let the car charge, and if you want to stop it charging.
The most convenient item is the notifications the car will send, letting you know when these items have taken place. For example, it will tell you when it starts charging and when it is finished, rather than just having to guess.
The two things people notice when actually driving a Tesla for the first time is the acceleration and the braking. Regenerative braking refers to the car capturing energy from the wheel rotation and putting it back into the battery.
The result is that when you completely let off the accelerator, like you might in a gas car to coast, a Tesla will slow down very quickly. At first, this is a constant gut-check. It takes a lot to break long driving habits.
Once you get the hang of pressing down to go and easing off to slow down, it makes it hard to drive a non-electric car.
Autopilot is probably one of Tesla’s best and misunderstood features. Once you’ve seen or tried it, it makes more sense; but from news stories and other sources, it can sound dangerous.
Autopilot is really just advanced cruise control. It’s meant to assist a driver during highway driving. The problem is that it works really well—most of the time—and can work wherever there are clear lane lines.
It will perform auto acceleration and braking based off the car in front of you. This includes coming to a stop and resuming driving. It will also auto-steer the car and move the wheel for you. This feels a lot like the car is driving you—and I suppose it is. The problems arise when the driver is not paying the same attention to the road as if they were fully driving.
Since Autopilot isn’t perfect, it will get confused by some road conditions. It doesn’t currently read intersections or stop signs and stop lights. There’s also other drivers which present unknowable conditions and demand the driver pay attention to his or her surroundings.
Beyond those caveats, Autopilot really is a fantastic advancement to cruise control and a glimpse at autonomous vehicles.
The Model 3 is very similar to other Tesla cars. It’s built on the electric foundation with similar software features as the company’s other cars. The Model 3 base model, however, is designed to more affordable to more people and could likely be a lot of people’s first electric car.
When you look inside a Tesla for the first time, the first thing people’s eyes immediately go to is the large touchscreen. In the Model 3 it’s even more the case because there’s not much else to look at.
Everything happens on the screen. The speed read-out, the locks, the music, moving the vents, really, everything. I’ve found this to be nice to have everything in one place. It makes the button-filled cabins of other cars look outdated to me. But, I can also understand if people don’t care for it at first.
There’s no reason you couldn’t get use to it, however, like the layout of any new car’s controls.
Most people think I’m joking when I say the air vents are controlled with the center touchscreen. The dashboard only has one visible vent that spans the width of the car and it’s very different from other vents, even in other Teslas.
The driver and front passenger each have dots to slide around and adjust what direction the air goes. From the technical side, it’s interesting that the air blows out in a manner than curve down; and if you want it to go up, there’s a second vent you can see which blow the downward air up to redirect it.
This system works fine, but I have found it a little hard to get the air direction right on the first or second try most times.
The speed being displayed on the center screen with nothing visual in front of the driver has been a complaint for many people considering the car. In use, even for my wife, this isn’t a problem.
You have to glance down when the speed is in front of you; in the Model 3 you glance to the right side. They are different and muscle memory will come into play, but it’s not a negative.
The Model 3 isn’t the car of the future anymore. It’s just forward looking. After a few months with it, it’s hard to go without the connectivity and mobile app other cars don’t have. The biggest feature of the Model 3 and the reason to buy it is that it’s electric.
More than anything else, the torque, the quietness, and handling is what defines the Model 3. I have a feeling that once others experience the benefits of electric cars, they will feel the same way too.