Touching your Tesla: Goodbye knobs and dials you are no longer required

Touchscreen: the vehicle interface of the future.

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From the moment you sit in a Tesla Model S, you know this is very different to every other car you’ve been in. Despite the vast amount of stitched leather and carbon fibre in this P90D review model, your eyes are immediately drawn to the massive 17” touchscreen. This completely replaces the traditional knobs and dials we use to interact with a vehicle and is slightly angled to prefer the driver access, while remaining visible to the passenger.

When I say all options have been replaced with touch options, I’m not kidding, the only hardware buttons are to the sides of the display, the glove box opener and your hazard lights.

 

Get ready to touch your Tesla

With 17 inches of real estate to use, this giant tablet built into the dash actually has a fair bit going on. At first it seems a little overwhelming, but after 2 days of living with the vehicle, I was darting around the interface confidently. It’s like getting a new phone, once you learn it, you’re able to navigate it like a pro.

Let’s start at the top and work out way down and look at each of the options.

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System Tray

At the very top of the display, there’s a set of system icons that are always available, regardless of which screen you visit. On the left, these include the ability to Lock and Unlock the car and another to manage your charging.

Driver Profiles
If you share the vehicle with other people, perhaps and husband and wife, then profiles will let you switch between driver preferences which includes remembering personal a staggering list of configurations.

DRIVING

Steering mode

Regenerative braking

Instrument panel layout

Mirror auto-tilt & auto-fold

Suspension lowering speed

Driver Assistance settings

CLIMATE CONTROL

Temperatures

Temperature sync

Seat heaters

MAPS & NAV SETTINGS

Traffic settings

LIGHTS & LOCKS

Daytime running lights

Headlights after exit

Drive-away door lock

Walk-away door lock

UNITS & FORMAT

Time format

Temperature format

Charging units

Distance units

Range display

While some vehicles use multiple keys to tackle the switch between drivers, Tesla uses the touchscreen, just tap on the driver name at the top and select your profile, about a second later, the car will transform to match you. If you change the angle of the set back, or tweak any of the settings, you’ll be prompted to save that as your preference. Tap save and the car remembers what you like.

Driver profiles

Tesla (Logo)
The top center of the display is prime real estate and Tesla have chosen to use this space for their logo which represents an option to access information about your vehicle. More specifically tapping the logo takes you to a screen where you can name your car, but also check the software version its running. At the time of review, it was v.7.0 (

Bluetooth

Connecting your phone via Bluetooth gives you access to make and receive calls in the car. It also means you’ll have access to music stored on the phone through the Music app. Unfortunately there’s no texting integration and no ability to leverage voice assistants like Google Now or Siri.

3G / WiFi

When you buy a Tesla, included is a 3G mobile sim card. Thanks to a deal worked out with Telstra your car is always connected to the internet. The sim card is built into the car, there’s no user access, so no you can’t replace it with a 4G sim card. To have access to stream internet radio, for free, for the life of the vehicle is an amazing thing. Of course while 3G is more widespread than 4G, it doesn’t mean the 3G connection can always sustain an uninterrupted stream. For navigation to be always up to date and to stream music where you can, its a great bonus for owners.

Internationally Tesla has shipped an internet browser in their car which also leveraged this mobile sim, but it seems our Australian models don’t have that. It’s unclear if that was government enforced condition or part of the limitations of the Telstra deal. The amount of data you can consume using music is one thing, streaming video is quite another. To be honest decent quality video streams over sometimes spotty 3G coverage would likely make for a bad user experience. Still, the ability to search Google or Wikipedia would be helpful at times.

It seems Tesla doesn’t get everything right, they bet on the now failed Rdio music service, but you can expect the next software update to include a switch to Spotify. There’s also TuneIn Radio which gives you access to internet radio stations from around the world, across a long list of genres. This also means podcasts, a personal favourite. Tesla would be well served to add a search option here to speed up the process of accessing your favourites.

Tesla is currently only offering 1st party apps right now, which means there’s no marketplace where the likes of Pocketcasts could make their awesome app available to drivers. I have no doubt there’s a high correlation between people who listen and learn while driving and Tesla owners.

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Vehicle Controls

Removing physical controls and replacing them with digital ones is a highly contentious issue in the industry. I’ve sat across the table from high level auto maker execs who’ve told me their market research continues to show their customers want physical buttons and knobs. That research is fundamentally flawed. If someone has never had access to a digital alternative, of course a survey of their preferences would skew heavily to what they know, familiarity is an amazing thing and change is hard.

There’s some very simple reasons touch will always win over turn and press. The first is simply the amount of options you can provide to drivers. With menus and sub menus and scrolling, you can offer hundreds of options compared to a dozen or so physical buttons. If Tesla had used physical representations for all the options, the car would look very similar to the insanity of a 747 cockpit.

Thanks to driver profiles, these adapt to the driver and allow personal preferences to flow through. maybe the most critical is the ability for things to change and be improved over time with updates.

The top half of the Controls screen is a multi-page menu, just tap to configure the Sunroof, Suspension Driving setup, displays and more. The lower half of the Controls screen is dedicated to the vehicle openings (Front truck, doors, truck, charge ports etc) and interior and exterior lighting.

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Sunroof

Opening and closing the sunroof is as easy as sliding the slider down to the percentage you want to open it. If you need to close it, just tap on close and it’ll instantly start moving. This is a new, modern sunroof, so there’s no limit to the speed you’re driving when you can open and close it. Sure it makes a cool jet sound when you close it at 110km. I felt like I shouldn’t do that, but equally knew the car is self aware enough to prevent users from doing anything it shouldn’t. Basically the car knew I was going 110km and if the sunroof should only be closed at under 40km, it would have told me that.

This means if it did start raining while you’re driving, there’s no need to pull over and deal with things, just tap Controls > Sunroof and tap once more to close. The other thing you’ll notice is the speed at which it operates. The Model S sunroof can go from fully closed to fully open in 10 seconds. If you change your mind, you can always tap to stop the sunroof from moving.

The top-down view of the vehicle on screen animates smoothly to show the exact % opening of the sunroof. This could have been represented as a photoshop slider, but the choice to use a digital representation of the car throughout the menus is a massive success. Seeing how your changes effects the vehicle help connect the virtual and real worlds.

As the sunroof opens, it slides backwards and rests just above the top of the vehicle. Given Tesla worked so hard to make the car aerodynamically perfect, this disruption to the airflow would be unacceptable and of course, they have a solution to that problem. When the sunroof first opens, a small spoiler rises from the front of the sunroof as to direct the airflow up and over the retracted roof. This also prevents air flooding downwards into the vehicle, creating drag. Another great example of an engineering feat that you never think about but is crucially well resolved.

Suspension

Suspension

This is one great example of just how smart the vehicle is. The Tesla is equipped with air ride suspension, this means it can dynamically adjust the height of the vehicle. Most commonly you’ll drive around town in standard mode, but if you approach a speed bump or steep driveway, you can enter Controls > Suspension and tap High or Very High and raise the car up to easily clear the obstacle.

When you do this, you’ll get a tool tip that indicates its saving the location that this occurred. This exact latitude and longitude is registered and remembered so the next time the vehicle arrives there, it’ll adjust automatically. It’s likely the air suspension was implemented to achieve great handling despite the immense weight of the batteries, but this implementation of a technology layer on top of the suspension is brilliant. It speaks to how engineers at Tesla think and how well they understand how the vehicle moves through the world.

In the future, I expect this feature to get even better as object recognition improves, the car should be able to determine the points where it would need to raise up and do it before you have think about it.

The car can also automatically lower at a predefined speed, this means it hunkers down at high speed, like 110km/h on the freeway to achieve absolutely maximum efficiency. That’s just plain smart. You won’t get a indication of how that translates to extra range, but everything in the vehicle tells you the engineers have had an absolute focus on maximising the range. With most auto makers, this goal means compromises left and right, but Tesla manages to achieve these efficiencies while actually improving the driving experience. Often times these solutions aren’t the obvious ones, but its done so well, you’ll never need to think about it.

If nothing else, this is the heart of Tesla, they do the hard work in R&D to make things simple for the driver and this car, despite its power, is the easiest car to drive.

For those concerned with more style that speed, there is a Low setting for the vehicle but you are advise this could cause damage to the vehicle as there’s less tolerance for objects to pass under the vehicle. At the front tyre, there’s 3cm to the guard when on Low and 7cm with Very High, making for 4cm or more than 1 inch of suspension travel.

Insane mode

Driving

There’s no mechanical connection between the steering column and the wheels in the Model S, so that means there’s an option to electronically control how responsive the steering is. Drivers get to choose from Comfort, Standard and Sport. I’ve done most of my driving in Standard mode and that’s my favourite by far. Comfort mode feels light has a noticeable tolerance to wheel movement before responding.

Standard is perfect for most daily operations, providing a seriously ‘connected to the road’ experience. Inputs to the wheel are translated accurately to the point where you just turn and it delivers, also assisted by the 265/35/ZR21 Michelin rubber.

Sport mode adds weight and more resistance to the wheel and steering responsiveness is increased again. If you were enjoying an enlightened trip through a curvy mountain road, this may be a fun mode to be in. Unless you’re used to it, it does fatigue your arms after a some time.

This screen also offers configurations like Creep mode. It takes some getting used to, especially after getting out of my manual vehicle, to lift your foot off the pedals and the car sit still. Only once you hit the throttle to you move forward. If you prefer to creep when you lift off the brake, that option is there. I would suggest you use the car for a few days before instantly opting for your current preference. Humans are incredibly adaptable and after living with it, your brain kind of clicks and knows what to expect. After living with it off for 3 days, I prefer it, mostly because you feel in complete control of when the car is moving and it only moves when you deliver an input to the system.

This driving screen is also where the fun stuff lives, the showcase feature of ‘Ludicrous mode’. To be honest, I really don’t know why the Sport Acceleration exists, you’re best control over how fast the car goes is the throttle percentage you feed into it. It’s not listed anywhere but I’d suggest the Sport mode is 85-90% of the acceleration rate of Ludicrous mode, which normally would be a meaningful difference, but the amount of power in this car makes that difference negligible, its all just bloody fast.

In reality, its to use slightly less power, but again, if you were after that attribute out of a drive, you’d press less on the accelerator. Being in the D variant of the Model S family, the P90D uses a front and rear motor, for all wheel drive acceleration to put all that power to the ground. Thanks to traction control, the car just hooks up and goes. There’s never an opportunity for it to be out of control, which is just ridiculous when you understand most cars with this much power would be a blur of tyre smoke. This is what the car does, it makes average drivers rock stars behind the wheel. There’s no shift lights or optimal rev ranges to watch for, it’s as easy to drive as a golf buggy, go and stop, it’s just the Tesla deploys that massive battery power to get you from 0-100km/h in around 3 seconds.

I can’t imagine anyone getting their vehicle stuck in snow, sand or mud, but people are people and push the limits. Tesla offer an option to slip the wheels for this purpose only. Thankfully I never had a need to try this.

The final options in the Driving screen center around efficiency. The Model S has regenerative braking, like all other EVs. As you get out of the throttle, Its another opportunity to the car can leverage to put power into the battery. It does this by using the kinetic energy of the forward motion the car is moving in and converts that to power back into the battery. This is critical component in achieving the 460km+ range. I left mine in Standard mode almost the entire time and it is a different driving experience with regen braking.

For the most part, you can actually get away with keeping your foot on the accelerator pedal. As you approach a turn, you lift off and the car slows, faster than the normal roll-on you’re used to. This works in your favour as you can slow easily for turns and the only time you really need to reach for the brake in day-to-day driving, is if other drivers do something irregular like cut you off. If you have adaptive cruise control turned on, its likely the Model S will slow you automatically in that instance as well.

Range mode will change the vehicle priorities from delivering creature comforts like climate control, instead focusing on range. This is great if you’re borderline on a trip and need to save some power. It won’t turn off the AC completely, but just won’t allow it to consume as much power. If you think for 2 minutes about where you’re going before you leave, you’ll likely never need this. Entering your location into the GPS does a great job at explaining the charging necessary (location and duration) to achieve that trip.

Seat warmers

Cold Weather

Living about an hour from the snow fields, I’m acutely aware of sub zero temperatures. Like most luxury vehicles, the Model S offers seat warmers, which are configured through the Controls > Cold Weather screen. These are available not just for the front row, but all 5 seats. This screen also offers access to windscreen and steering wheel warming. Given we’re the middle of a typical Aussie summer of 35 degrees and above, I’ll take Tesla’s word that these work just fine.

Trips

Like most modern cars, the Model S provides two trip monitors, this allows you to compare trip A, with trip B. Maybe you’re a competitive family or maybe you just want to improve you’re driving efficiency. Gone are the litres per 100km measurements, replaced with kWh total and average Wh/km. Like you’re phone, the car will tell you how long it has been since your last charge.

Displays

Displays

Standard options for the displays provide access to brightness and day/night modes. Driving back from Chiltern to Wodonga, as I watched the sun set in the rear vision camera, I got to witness the Auto switch from day to night mode, it works as you’d expect, the screen dulls, probably not enough as the ambient light reduces. The Navigation app switches from a white background to a black one to also help reduce the interior light, as to avoid distraction and improve visibility of the outside world.

When you have the Ambient lighting enabled, lights are emitted from the underside of the arm rests in the front and rear of the car. The ambient mode works like a toggle, its either on, or auto and when in auto, the brightness of that light is controlled by the top ‘Auto Brightness’ slider. There is only one colour for this light, white, would be a very welcome addition for Tesla to use multi-coloured lights and give the driver another personalisation option.. light colour.

Under power management, you’ll have the option for energy savings. When on, this can use significantly less energy when the car’s turned off. Turn the feature off and it’ll keep the 3G and Bluetooth connection awake even when the car is sleeping. When energy saving is on, it can take the instrument cluster longer to startup-up, however we’re talking a few seconds, not a big deal.

 

Cleaning the screen

If you’re this deep into the options, you’ve already touched the screen plenty of times. Pretty quickly you work out this large glass surface and your grubby fingers, like your phone and tablet, does suffer from fingerprints. Most of the time this isn’t an issue, as you can easily overcome them with an increase to display brightness. While this has a slight increase on the power draw from the batteries, there’s so many much more battery to draw from than your regular mobile device, it doesn’t really matter.

Tesla clearly understands this can reach a point where you need a wipe down. In the glove box, there’s a microfiber cloth and an option in settings to put it into ‘Clean mode’. Unfortunately that doesn’t mean it’ll clean itself, instead the screen turns black letting you clean the fingerprints. When you’re done, you have to tap and hold the exit button, the only one on the screen at the time.

PowerOff

E-Brake & Power Off

Finally you’ll find E-brake and Power Off. Normally when you’re sitting in the car, sensors in the seats will know you’re there and keep the climate control running. If you’re comfortable and want to save power, you can turnoff the car completely. The number of scenarios where this is required is very few, most of the time, you have the awesome experience of getting out and walking away from the vehicle. That’s it, just walk away. With auto-locking doors once the proximity of the key has been broken, the car locks itself and the door handles retract.

There is no way for people to get in, no door locks to pick, sans a broken window, the only way in is with the key in your pocket. There’s something pretty special about walking up to the vehicle and the door handles presenting themselves to you. Its like you have the secret code, that only your presence can unlock. You open the door and get in. I can imagine what other people must think when they see someone walk up to a car and just get in. This feature as cool as it is, isn’t unique to Tesla. The retracting door handles are, but that is just an extra opportunity to reuse a feature that needed to exist anyway.

The main purpose of the door handles condensing into the vehicle and being flush with the body work is of course to avoid drag. While it may not seem like much, every little bit helps and 4 hands disrupting the airflow down the side of the vehicle is enough to cost you kilometres off your range.

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