Connecting the Car to the Smart Home

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | May 20, 2019

WESTPORT, CONNECTICUT—I am standing in an ultra-modern home directly on the beach in the fanciest part of the ritzy bedroom community where I grew up. But our house was a split level built in 1951, and if we wanted to change the channel on the TV, we had to get up from the LayZBoy.

Phil Levieff, his Tesla and (behind) a very smart home. (Jim  Motavalli photo)

No such need in the smart house, which uses technology from Tesla and Apple.  There are no less than three Teslas parked outside, and one of them is connected to a Tesla charger. On the side of the house is a Tesla Powerwall, a thin white battery array that takes in power from the $21,000 Tesla Energy six-kilowatt solar array on the roof. The house isn’t off the grid, but resells power to it (a process called net metering) after the batteries are fully charged.

Outside, Tesla rules; inside, it’s Apple. If you have an iPhone, look for the little house icon with an orange background. The My Home app is built into every Apple phone, though most people don’t know it’s there. The phone can be a powerful tool for turning your accessories on or off.

Despite being in ritzy Westport, Connecticut, the smart house is no mini-mansion--it's only 1,400 square feet. (Jim Motavalli photo)

On a table in the smart home’s living room is a $300 Apple HomePod, an Amazon Dot competitor that does a whole lot more than play music. The house has 100 inter-operable smart devices (lighting, HVAC, air quality, shades, TV, outlets, sensors, security, music), which means that nearly every appliance and light in the house is connected. Say, “Hey Siri, turn off all the lights,” and they’re off, just like that. Come home after a hard day and tell Siri you’re home and the blinds go up, lights come on, the music starts, and the pre-warmed or cooled house is ready to welcome you.  

My host was Phil Levieff, who runs a Westport-based company called TecKnow, which specializes in creating smart homes (about 11 to date). I sit on an environmental committee, Sustainable Fairfield, with Phil, and for years I’ve watched him “summon” his Tesla and talk about the wonders of the smart home. Now I was seeing it for myself.

The command post is that $300 Apple HomePod. "Hey Siri," gets her going. (Jim Motavalli photo)

“It’s about leading smarter and more sustainable lives,” said Levieff, whose own house can boast 177 connected devices. He can voice-control his thermostats, TVs, music, locks, home security, solar array, fans, garage doors, battery array and irrigation. His car can do everything but walk the dog.

TecKnow has statistics on the systems in the house. The solar has a 12-year payback, but should last 20 years. The Powerwall cost $10,000 installed, but has a $3,165 rebate attached, costs a third of what a generator would cost to own over 15 years, and has a net present value of $13,393.

The total cost of ownership of his $37,000 Tesla Model Three over 250,000 miles is $49,440 versus $52,015 if he’d bought a Hyundai Elantra at $18,000 (half the price of the Tesla).

A typical Tesla design, the Powerwall battery system is thin and sleek. (Jim Motavalli photo)

In a demonstration, triumphal music poured forth from the HomePod as the house welcomed me, even creating a roaring fire. With voice commands, I could look at how much electricity the solar panels were generating and the Powerwall state of charge, plus make sure (via an app) that the Tesla was getting what it needed.

Tesla's charger will work for other cars, but you'll need an adapter. (Jim Motavalli photo)

One hitch is that the world of the car and that of the house are not fully integrated. Tesla and Apple are more like rivals than collaborators.  But the two companies are clearly thinking along the same lines. Tesla’s app also has home integration features. It introduced the over-the-air update, and owners of the cars frequently wake up to new features, such as a “romantic” mode that dims the lights, puts on soft music and, yes, starts a crackling fire (on the screen). Teslas can now make fart noises when commands are given, if that’s your thing.

The view from the smart house. That's Long Island Sound out there. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The smart home integrates environmental concern with don’t-lift-a-finger luxury living. That’s probably a sweet spot in the high-end marketplace, because I’ve seen plenty of newly built mini-mansions with solar arrays, fuel cells and even geothermal setups. To its owner’s credit, this house—though it was on the beach in millionaire’s row—was actually quite small, only 1,400 square feet, not a “tiny house” but not a mansion either. Here it is on video, showing off:


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