I've Seen the Future and It's Spelled T-E-S-L-A

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | May 03, 2016

The rain cut into registration for the Fourth Annual Connecticut EV Rally, a sort of scavenger hunt with batteries attached. Drivers follow clues as to the route, and the winner is the team with an odometer reading closest to ideal. It’s not a race, but it sure could have been, since I was piloting green architect Bruce Becker’s Tesla Model S P90D—the ultimate EV, complete with Ludicrous mode.

Architect Bruce Becker with his Model S P90D: Ludicrous mode fully enabled. (Jim Motavalli photo)Teslas dominated at the rally, and apparently they’re not afraid of a little rain. Tesla sent a rep to the event, too, and he handed out flyers making the case for why Tesla’s direct sales model should be upheld by lawmakers in Connecticut (one of five states blocking the automaker, along with Arizona, Michigan, Texas and West Virginia). The company “seeks the same freedom of choice the other American manufacturers had when they chose to franchise in the 1930s and 1940s,” the flyer said. Tesla’s effort failed—more on that later.

Driving the P90D, with Becker as a faultless navigator, was a revelation. Tesla is stingy with test cars; I’ve only driven them at events, never in a longtime loan. During the rally, I got a couple of hours behind the wheel, mostly on twisty country roads. I’ve had all kinds of performance cars—American, European, Japanese—and none of them had the acceleration, poise, versatility, confidence-inspiring roadholding and cutting-edge safety/environment/infotainment of this car.

The green car lineup at the Fourth Annual EV Road Rally. Yeah, a lot of Teslas. (Jim Motavalli photo)Says Computerworld, “The Model S is a tech marvel. It feels like the auto industry has reinvented itself, this time catering to the iPhone-carrying whims of the tech-savvy driver.”

On a highway section, Becker encouraged me to try Autopilot. It’s easy—click a stalk twice, a blue steering wheel icon appears on the big screen, and the computer is in control. I’ve been in a dozen self-driving cars, but always under very controlled circumstances. This was much different, since the car was moving at 65 mph and those were real cars all around us. It worked flawlessly, closely mimicking the steering and acceleration of the SUV up ahead.

But…but…sitting in the front seat—arms at your sides, feet idle—and having the car do all the work flies in the face of decades of driving experience. It’s scary! Becker says after 20 minutes you get comfortable with it, but until that kicks in it’s a hell of a ride. No question, though, self-driving cars aren’t a novelty, they’re the future, and Tesla is pioneering it in the real world.

You can cruise at 65 mph on Autopilot. The first time, it's double-scary! (Tesla Motors photo)The P90D was so fast that the competition soon disappeared from the rear-view mirror. Indeed, we arrived at the finish line 15 minutes before anyone else. Did I mention it wasn’t a race? As it happened, three of us had near-perfect times, and the winner was determined by answering some EV questions. If I’d known that Nikola Tesla was born in 1856, our team would have been first, but instead we were happy with second. 

The experience left me desperately wanting a Tesla Model S P90D—no other will do—with very little chance of making it happen, working as what they used to call an “ink-stained wretch.” With conflict of interest in mind, I didn’t even invest in sure-thing Tesla stock, like my friend and Tesla owner Demetri Spantidos. At the rally, he pointed to Elon Musk’s other company, SpaceX. “If SpaceX can successfully land its rocket on a ship’s deck, then Tesla can fix a few minor problems with its doors,” he said.

The winners! EV Road Rally first-placers Ethan and Jennifer Olmstead. Little Emmett got bonked by the trophy. (Jim Motavalli photo)Also at the rally, I learned that the Connecticut legislature let SB3, the bill that would have allowed Tesla’s direct-selling model, die without action (for the second straight year). “I think the car dealers and others have been very effective in lobbying in their favor,” said Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, who’d sponsored the legislation. GM, which is going to compete head-to-head against Tesla’s upcoming Model 3 with its Chevrolet Bolt, was a principal opponent in the state.

Chris Grimaldi, a GM regional director for governmental relations, said the company “believes that all industry participants should operate under the same rules and requirements on fundamental issues that govern how we sell, service and market our products.” Fine, but people with the means and desire to buy Teslas—particularly in Connecticut, where they’re as common as dirt in affluent communities like Greenwich and Westport—are going to get their cars anyway, online or in neighboring states. And this kind of political maneuvering breeds ill will.

Second place! The only other awards I ever got were for perfect attendance. (Jim Motavalli photo)Becker, whose recent apartment tower development near the state capitol in Hartford boasts 11 EV charging stations (including a DC fast charger), says that the 1,200 Tesla owners in Connecticut—and the estimated 1,200 Model 3 reservation holders—“will remember who voted for or against this bill.”

Finally, Tesla reported this week about another one of its innovations—air filtration. People thought Elon Musk was joking when he introduced “Bioweapon Defense Mode.” But no, the Model X actually has it, and the company just put it to the test.

A Model X was placed in a large bubble contaminated with extreme levels of pollution (1,000 µg/m3 of PM2.5 vs. the EPA's “good” air quality index limit of 12 µg/m3). We then closed the falcon doors and activated Bioweapon Defense Mode.

The company claims that the air in the car remained fresh. And there’s more:

Not only did the vehicle system completely scrub the cabin air, but in the ensuing minutes, it began to vacuum the air outside the car as well, reducing PM2.5 levels by 40 percent. In other words, Bioweapon Defense Mode is not a marketing statement, it is real. You can literally survive a military-grade bio attack by sitting in your car.

OK, so the Tesla Model S P90D offers the chance to accelerate to 60 in less than 3 seconds with up to seven passengers and a full load of luggage front and back, turn on the Autopilot and get some hands-free work done, with zero tailpipe pollution—and all the while the car is cleaning the air? Yes, that’s it.

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