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Tesla Tech — Unexpected Surprises

I’ve talked a lot about what it’s like to drive a Tesla, and I’ve definitely spent a fair bit of time telling you about things I think could be improved. I thought that it was time to focus on some of the unexpected delights of the technology in the Tesla Model 3.

Situational Awareness

One of the most important things when driving any kind of vehicle is situational awareness of your environment. I loved my two Acura TLs, but they both had visibility problems. The A-Pillar, which is the metal beam that comes down on either side of the front window, seemed to be at the perfect angle and location that when you turned right, it would completely obscure anyone stepping out into the crosswalk. Because of this blind spot, I was actually rear-ended in my first Acura when the car was only a few months old. I started a right turn and Steve yelled: “Stop!” I didn’t know why, but I followed his suggestion, and a split-second later a pedestrian came out of that blind spot. Sadly the person behind me didn’t expect me to go and then stop so suddenly. I was rather proud of my reaction to this. As I looked at my damaged new car, I kept repeating, “The pedestrian didn’t die.”

In stark contrast, the first time I drove the Tesla Model 3 I was truly surprised at how huge the front window is. It’s deep, it’s broad and has the most unobstructed view of any car I’ve ever driven. Pedestrians are much safer with this fabulous level of visibility.

The back window is on the small side and I wish it was bigger, but that disadvantage is far outweighed by the positively huge, 15-inch screen that displays the backup widescreen camera view. I learned during my earliest driving instruction to always twist at the waist and look as far around behind me as possible when backing up, but more often than I would have liked, there was still something coming that I didn’t see. With the incredible backup view in the Model 3, I know that I can see much wider than twisting to look. I have not yet been surprised like I was in my Acura.

But that’s not the only advantage of the giant screen when it comes to situational awareness. When you’re driving forward, the right side of the screen is the map, and the left side of the screen shows things like your speed, the speed limit at your current location (which is awesome), but it also has an animated view of your car.

This view of the car shows you any vehicles around you. Cars look different from trucks, and motorcycles and bicycles are unmistakable. I remember one time I was dropping someone off at the airport (probably Dr. Garry) and I was about to move to the right lane when I saw a bicycle in what was definitely my blind spot. I didn’t believe there was anything there, but sure enough, a bicyclist rolled right past me in the next second.

I definitely don’t count 100% on this top-down view but it’s been really great to have yet another piece of data along with the rearview mirror and the side view mirrors to help me navigate the road without endangering myself or others.

Operating System Updates

Self Driving Features Coming

When I first got the car, that top-down view worked great when we were moving, but it was sort of a disaster when the car was sitting still. The algorithm seemed to have trouble knowing what a car was doing when it was not moving, so the animation would show the cars and trucks dancing and spinning while we waited at a traffic light. Sometimes they’d dance over on top of each other too. Even the pedestrians would dance. It was rather entertaining but not really what you’d hope it would look like.

Tesla Dancing Cars and Pedestrians

A big surprise of owning a Tesla is how quickly they are advancing the operating system. I’ve chosen to be on the fast track for OS updates, and after one update, the dancing cars stopped dancing. While we were sad to see the dancing stop, they did also add many enhanced capabilities to the animated view.

The Tesla can now recognize stoplights and stop signs, which is a precursor to their eventual full self-driving capability. There is a massive warning explaining that this is only the graphics and that the car will NOT stop for lights or signs. It’s amazing how accurate it is though. Many Los Angeles intersections can have as many as 8 traffic lights that are pointed right at you (not counting cross traffic lights) and so far the Tesla seems to see them all.

The only time I saw a failure of the stop sign recognition was when I drove past an auto repair shop that had a giant, 20 foot stop sign on top of the building and the car picked it up.

On streets, you can see painted arrows for left and right turns along with straight through arrows when available. The screen will even show trash cans! We have those giant rolling ones issued by the city and it’s pretty darn good at recognizing them. It is also able to recognize orange traffic cones. While every real cone is recognized as such, many times the screen displays a cone when there isn’t one. An overly large orange spot on a vehicle, or sometimes a reflection of a turn signal on a wet street can trigger an orange cone blinking on and off. They definitely have some work to do there.

Audio Commands

Every car I’ve owned in the past 20 years has claimed to have audio commands, but Acura’s recognition of voice commands made Siri look like Lt. Uhura in language skills in comparison. In a recent software update, Tesla added a plethora of voice commands to the car. I would say it’s better than my previous cars, and definitely it’s been done with a sense of humor. For example, if you want to turn on the seat heater for the passenger, you can say “Eject passenger seat!” I like that one.

You can simply say, “I’m cold” or “I’m hot” and it will change the temperature by 3 degrees. Most of the time, it moves that temperature in the right direction, but definitely not all the time; sometimes it gets it backward. If you ask it to increase or decrease the temperature by 1 degree, it usually does it correctly, but again not all the time. It seems to like the 3-degree swing much better.

Listener Jack Ellis sent me a giant spreadsheet of the commands, and we have had some fun testing the audio command options together.

I know a lot of cars can read text messages out loud now, and the Model 3 just got that capability in another recent software update. It works really well and allows me to respond by a click of the rolly wheel on the steering wheel. Again not a huge innovation but an example of how great it is to have a car that gets software updates like this.

Less Braking

I think I spoke early on about how different the actual driving experience is compared to all of my previous cars. With the Tesla (and I assume all Electric Vehicles), you kind of feather the accelerator to speed up and slow down because as you release the accelerator, the car turns the momentum into regenerative braking. That not only slows the car down but it adds some energy back into the battery.

I remember when Steve, Pat Dengler and I were test driving the Jaguar I-Pace EV, and the Jaguar rep was showing us how the battery percentage was going up as we went downhill. Pat made a joke about how maybe we could get back to their location with more energy in the battery than when we started. The rep didn’t understand that this was a joke and said that perhaps we could. I had to patiently explain the conservation of energy and why that wasn’t possible. Pat turned to me and said, “I say it’s magic and I want to believe in it!” Don’t we all…

As Steve and I have been driving the Model 3, we realized that this feathering of the accelerator to slow the car down actually makes driving it somewhat safer than driving an internal combustion engine vehicle. Let’s say you are hurtling down the road, and for some reason you need to stop suddenly. The instant you take your foot off the accelerator in the Tesla, the car will start to slow down, and will be going significantly slower by the time your foot gets over to the brake. But in an ICE vehicle, when you start to move your foot from the accelerator to the brake, the car continues to hurtle at nearly full speed. It doesn’t take long to move your foot to the brake, but that split second could be the difference between life and death.

In a recent software update, Tesla improved a feature they call simply Hold. With Hold before the update, when you came to a full stop with the brakes, you could let go of the brake and the car would not roll. It makes waiting at a light more relaxing because you don’t need to keep your foot on the brake. There’s an option to disable Hold but I can’t think why you would. Tesla enhanced the Hold feature with a recent update. Now when you take your foot off the accelerator, the car not only slows down rapidly, it will actually come to a complete stop.

At first, it was very disconcerting because the deceleration was so dramatic, but after the first drive, both Steve and I found that we loved it. With the Hold feature, if you feather it correctly, you can actually do most of your driving without ever using the brakes. I’m not exaggerating. I can even drive into my garage and come to a complete stop without the brakes. It’s amazing. Not only are we saving wear and tear on the brakes, but we’re also regenerating that energy back into the battery.

Bottom Line

The bottom line is that there are a lot of unexpected surprises about this car. From the giant front window and amazing widescreen backup camera to the constant software updates, this car continues to amaze. I love it when my car says “Hey, I’ve got a software update, want it now or shall I do it at 2 am?” Why yes, I do.

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