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Giving Tesla a Hand

Wherein we drive a Tesla Model S.

By Petrarch  |  March 31, 2016

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.