Giving Tesla a Hand

Wherein we drive a Tesla Model S.

Your humble correspondent recently had the privilege of experiencing a miracle of modern technology and ingenuity which, at one and the same time, also has tremendous appeal to the most primitive portions of the testosterone-suffused reptilian brain:

I test-drove a Tesla Model S.

This article could wax eloquent about the heartstopping instant acceleration of the all-electric Tesla: yes, it's as ludicrously over-the-top as advertised.  We could also mention that, because a Tesla's braking system is simply reversing the super-powerful electric motors in recharge mode, stopping the beast is nearly as ridiculous.  Never having previously been in a car in which a full panic stop could literally send you flying through your own windshield if not securely strapped in, it's also unnerving.

Fortunately, as it happens, a Tesla is almost entirely drive-by-wire - all the acceleration, braking, even steering are handled by computers and electronics.  This means that it's quite easy to adjust the performance characteristics down to something suitable for mere mortals.

Speaking of mortality, my brief excursion into the automotive world of the Rich and Famous included something very close to the self-driving car of sci-fi legend and Google near-reality.

No, a Tesla can't actually take you from your own garage to your office while you take a nap in the back seat.  When on a limited-access highway, however, the S has a combination of technologies that come very close to being able to drive all by itself.

It has adaptive cruise control, using radar to detect the car in front and adjust speed to maintain a steady and safe following distance.

It has high-def cameras and advanced algorithms, letting the car detect the stripes so as to steer itself, keeping in the lane on its own.

And, it has side-scan radar, so if you're stuck behind a slowpoke, you can poke a button to make it change lanes and go around.

There is, alas, one fly in the ointment: The law doesn't allow driverless cars and Tesla isn't yet prepared to take on that liability anyway.  The manual, waivers, and electronic displays with which the car is festooned make it plain that you are in command control, and anything that goes wrong is your responsibility at all times.

This isn't just legalese, either.  Although the car steers itself in autodrive mode, it expects you to keep your hands on the wheel, only very lightly, so as not to get it confused. If you grip too tightly or add just a bit more resistance to a computer-controlled turn than it's expecting, it assumes that you want to do the driving and stops trying.

But if you let go, after a few seconds the car starts whining at you, more and more insistently until you comply.  And if you don't, eventually it gets tired of carting around a scofflaw and automatically pulls over to the curb and stops, hazard lights atwitter.

The self-driving dream is inspiring to think about, but this incarnation of it tends more towards the annoying.  After some decades of experience in driving a car, I found it took more concentration to ever-so-lightly hold the wheel and not drive than to just do it myself.

No doubt, as with all things, that would improve with experience.  Still, I can't help but wonder whether people like the rally drivers that recently drove a Tesla S coast-to-coast in 58 hours (including recharging time) would appreciate being nagged by a machine telling them where to put their hands.

A solution presents itself: Somewhere out there is an ingenious tinkerer, or a precocious teenager whose rich dad owns a Tesla, who'll rig up a pair of electrostatic gloves with Velcro straps.  Thus you fool the car into thinking your hands are on the wheel in the traditional 10 and 2 position when they're anywhere but.

Of course, if something goes wrong (as did actually happen during the rally drive) and timely human intervention is required, having phony hands in the way might make the difference between life and death.

Which is why, as Wired magazine wrote:

In an extreme case, states could decide Tesla’s cars are unsafe and revoke their registrations, or refuse to issue new ones. The feds could force Tesla to recall its cars and change their settings (something Tesla could do with another software update).

Which brings us to a concluding point about the Tesla: it is designed to connect to your home WiFi Internet connection and, like your computer, automatically download software updates.  This can be a very nice thing: the Autodrive software is regularly improved, as is the Autopark feature.

But it also means that Tesla, and through them the Feds, ultimately has complete control over what you're able to do with your own car, and even where you do it.  So they think, anyway: as long as there is any freedom at all, there will be the ingenious who find ways to circumvent nannystateism.

Or, you could just drive the car as Henry Ford intended.  For me, that's plenty of fun all by itself.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Business.
Reader Comments

I wondered how it would feel to drive a car subsidized by Federal tax credits. And to think that Henry Ford, Ransom Olds and others were able to start car companies without government footing the bill......

March 31, 2016 10:51 PM

And if you don't pay the new taxes, the Feds will probably levy on your right to use auto-drive, they will simply turn your car off in your driveway.
Your job is to pay taxes. Everything else is secondary...

April 1, 2016 10:16 AM

I've got mad respect for Mr. Musk as both an engineer and businessman (much more so than the real estate guy, ahem) but it's difficult for me to cheer on Tesla when so much of their industry and profit comes from subsidies or is backed by large DoE loans.

In their defense, they paid off the DoE loans, with interest, after their IPO came through.

I like that Musk has the right vision on climate change - combat it through better technology, not deprivation. That's the way to go.

April 1, 2016 10:48 AM

@iron - it's not just the subsidies, they sell millions of dollars worth of green credits to other car companies, which boosts the costs we have to pay for their cars.

Utter madness! I think the administration is using greens to try to destroy the economy.

April 1, 2016 1:14 PM

I wish someone would explain to me how an electric car is saving the environment. Afterall, doesn't the electricity have to come from a power plant that most likely is burning coal or other carbon-based fuels? Further, as I understand it, we lose substantial amounts of electricity in the transmission lines, up to 40%(?), which is why superconductivity is so sought after.

April 1, 2016 2:42 PM

@John Volk

You are completely correct, whether e-cars are good for carbon or not depends on how the electricity is generated. In areas like Quebec with lots of hydro-power, e-cars show a positive. In areas with nuclear electricity, the same. In areas with coal power, they're a bit worse, as I remember reading somewhere.

Nobody wants to say anything about the carbon footprint of the lithium needed in the batteries. Mining lithium is an unclean process.

Given the subsidies to the rich, it's mostly another of those liberal "I feel good about myself at someone else's expense" programs.

April 1, 2016 2:57 PM

I wonder: will it ever be possible to have a new product on the market without a subsidy?
As the nation gets poorer (translation: more and more money transferred to Washington and its environs) we will need subsidies for just about everything the elites approve. Current list includes: SNAP cards, medical care, disability, ag production, solar panels, windmills, cell phones for the poor, federal retirement and, of course, electric cars for the rich and progressive.
The Fed is creating money as fast as it can, and the Treasury is printing it out. I wonder if printer's ink is subsidized, too?
The Fall of this edifice will be something to see.

April 2, 2016 11:51 AM

@Solon - The reasons for the fall have been documented by the book at this Amazon link:

April 2, 2016 5:29 PM

Once again, our British media friends tell us what our MSM doesn't regard as fit to print:

Don't be fooled - Elon Musk's electric cars aren't about to save the planet

The Tesla is a scheme to have middle class taxpayers subsidize rich people who want to buy electric cars so they can feel good about themselves regardless of the facts.

If the USA had 10 per cent more petrol cars by 2020, air pollution would claim 870 more lives. A similar increase in electric ones would cause 1,617 more deaths a year, mostly because of the coal burned.

If we were to scale this to the UK, electric cars would cause the same or more air pollution-related deaths than petrol-powered cars. In China, because their coal power plants are so dirty, electric cars make local air much worse: in Shanghai, pollution from more electric-powered cars would be nearly three-times as deadly as more petrol-powered ones.


Over a 150,000 km lifetime, the top-line Tesla S will emit about 13 tonnes of CO₂. But the production of its batteries alone will emit 14 tonnes, along with seven more from the rest of its production and eventual decommissioning.

Compare this with the diesel-powered, but similarly performing, Audi A7 Sportback, which uses about seven litres per 100km, so about 10,500 litres over its lifetime. This makes 26 tonnes of CO₂. The Audi will also emit slightly more than 7 tons in production and end-of-life. In total, the Tesla will emit 34 tonnes and the Audi 35. So over a decade, the Tesla will save the world 1.2 tonnes of CO₂.

Reducing 1.2 tonnes of CO₂ on the EU emissions trading system costs £5; but instead, the UK Government subsidises each car with £4,500.

April 10, 2016 5:02 PM
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