My father, Dr. Lawrence T. Papay, passed away in 2014. He had a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from MIT and spent his entire career working with all forms of energy as a utility and private engineering firm executive. He always was in search of technologies to improve our energy future.
He also loved cars. When I was a boy in the late 60s, we lived in northern Italy for two years and regularly toured the country on the AutoStrada, watching fast-lane dogfights between Ferraris and Lamborghinis from the bubble windows of our red, slow-lane Volkswagen bus.
Three years ago, in honor of both my inherited fascination for energy technology and performance cars, we purchased a Tesla Model S. A year later we purchased a second one and have not owned a gasoline-powered car for the last year and a half.
I will never buy a gasoline-powered car again.
Not because our all-electric Model S is greener, cheaper to operate, and safer to drive and more innovative than our previous cars – which it is.
But simply because it’s a better experience in almost every conceivable way: a better driving experience, a better ownership experience, and it’s a better cultural experience.
The Driving Experience
It all starts with the Tesla’s batteries, 7,104 of them, which are actually modified laptop batteries. These feed the electric motors, which have essentially instantaneous torque, taking this seven-seat sedan from 0-60 mph faster than Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Bugattis. And it does this silently with the electric motors, so the driving experience is not unlike piloting one of the pod racers that glide across the desert in Star Wars. Seriously (I think).
The battery is also the floor of the car, a skateboard. This platform gives the car incredible stability and dampening, even weight distribution, a low center of gravity, tremendous torsional rigidity and extra space inside the cab due to lack of a drive tunnel. Performance and safety intertwined.
All of this is packaged in the most aerodynamic production car made, with a teardrop shape, and door handles that retract while in motion but extend to greet you as you approach. This greeting welcomes you into a modern cockpit, simple shapes and a 17-inch touchscreen that eliminates all knobs, buttons and switches – totally intuitive in our digital age.
In all aspects the car’s design is derived from performance, and performance is amplified by design. The two are integrated, purposeful, meaningful and beautiful.
The Ownership Experience
Just as significant as the car is the ownership experience connected to it. It starts with sales. Tesla sells direct to consumers, there is no dealership involved. That direct connection to customers allows Tesla to demystify electric car ownership to a skeptical public.
Once you own the car, it periodically improves. What? Yes, every couple of months, Tesla sends over-the-air updates to its cars. Every year, all cars become more software centric. The Tesla Model S is the first continually upgradeable car, the first where its constant connectivity to the Internet allows data to be collected and analyzed so the car can be improved.
To run, though, the car most be periodically connected to an electrical source. The primary options? Plug in at home every night and leave every morning with “full” batteries – never lose time filling up at a gas station ever again. And if on a road trip, Tesla’s provides a growing network of fast superchargers. These are free, completely free, to all Tesla owners.
But the most dramatic improvement to the ownership experience is Tesla’s integration of autopilot functions in the car. With hardware sensors and software that learns with every mile that any car drives in autopilot mode, Tesla is leading the transition to autonomous driving. This will dramatically increase highway safety and “driver” convenience, and eventually will allow people to purchase driving services rather than a car – like an Uber without the driver.
The Cultural Experience
A month after we received our first Model S, I wrote a blog post extolling its virtues and relating people’s first encounter with the car. Here’s an excerpt:
…in a span of about 60 seconds (approach car, beautiful, the handles extend, THE HANDLES EXTEND, get in, stunning, the touch screen stares back at them, panoramic roof slides open, foot on break, speedometer flips over, roll away silently, first straightaway – punch it, reliving memories of first rollercoaster ride, fat-ass grins all over faces)…
And then they think, NO WAY, as in NO WAY has this freaking out-of-nowhere company kicked sand in the face of 100 years of automaking. NO WAY have they done it, NO WAY is it American, NO WAY is it 7,000 laptop batteries in the right kool-aid. NO WAY did I just laugh my head off driving in a 3/4 mile loop around your neighborhood!
That captures an initial rush of excitement that came with purchasing the car, but it goes deeper. A couple weeks after that post I received the following from an engineer at Tesla:
I read the Tesla forums often and with great intensity. In particular, your brilliant and inspiring piece on Tesla and the Apollo program really hit home for me.
The choice to come to Tesla Motors for me was deeply personal and a very high risk to the comfortable lifestyle of a typical automotive engineer like myself in Detroit. Like many automotive “Detroit expats” at Tesla, I hungered for something more than what the Detroit machine was putting out. I was never really able to put it in words for people who asked why I made the leap, and then I read your Apollo post from a few months back. As I read each line, the smile on my face grew wider and wider, and then tears actually formed in my eyes. I was really moved.
I immediately sent out an email with a link to your post to my most trusted friends, family and Tesla colleagues with the simple title “This is why I work at Tesla.” The response I got was incredible. People finally got it. They got why this company, its products and its people are so different, they got why I made the change.
Working at Tesla (as you might imagine) is far harder than anything I have ever done in my life. When I was interviewing for this position, I read a portion of the job description which said: “You must have a passion for engineering electric vehicles. Without passion, you would find what we are doing too difficult. There are easier jobs.” Your words still reverberate in my mind and often provide the extra energy I need to get through a particularly difficult day.
I could relate dozens of similar stories of strangers becoming friends over a discussion about the car – in supermarket parking lots, at Tesla conventions, in my driveway. It’s a car, hardware, software and a movement all in one.
The Model S is at the intersection of performance an innovation. Their next car, the crossover Model X, extended these themes – and I recently purchased one. In two more years Tesla will introduce the Model 3, a mass-market car that will spread the electric vehicle revolution to millions. Maybe because it’s greener, cheaper, safer and more innovative. Or maybe simply because it’s better.
All electric and all in.
I think my dad would be happy.
*Top image: Tesla Model 3 at Alamo Beer Company’s brewery in the Eastside. Photo by Greg Papay.