Tesla.

Earlier this year, I wrote an article for one of the local papers about Tesla owners in town. Here it is.

The most difficult thing about writing this? Making it short enough to fit the newspaper format! I could have gone on and on about all the interesting things I learned along the way. The owners I talked to were such smart, funny guys and SO enthusiastic about their cars — I only scraped the surface of how fun our conversations were. As I track down more freelancing projects, I’ve been thinking about how the Tesla article perfectly brought together all the things I love about a great writing project:

  1. researching something cool
  2. connecting with other people over something about which they are passionate
  3. mulling it all over, blending it together and sharing my enthusiasm about what I learned with anyone out there who will “listen”

Plus this project had the added bonuses of:

  • related to environmental issues (my old stomping grounds)
  • a bit of celebrity glam (e.g. CEO Elon Musk, all the celebrities who drive Teslas — even the owners are kind of celebrities around here with anyone who knows anything about cars)
  • and, I got to ride around in really fast cars (and even got to drive one)

Just a whole big bag of fun!

That said, here’s the longer version of the article — it reflects more of the guys’ personalities (and my own, I guess) than the reportive piece. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

What IS That Car? : Teslas Around Town by Beth Behrendt, January 2015

Don’t expect to get anywhere quickly if you’re driving a Tesla. Not because the Tesla is slow. It decidedly is not. It’s just a fact of Tesla ownership that curious people will have no qualms about stopping you anywhere and everywhere to ask you about your car. In fact, the Tesla Motors sales staff suggest new owners just go ahead and add 5-10 minutes to any around town drive-time estimate due of this phenomenon. One local Tesla owner went so far as to have his windows tinted so he could avoid making eye contact with other drivers. Seemingly every time he stopped at a red light another driver was making the universal sign for “roll down your window!” so he could ask “Is that a Tesla?!”.

Fortunately, if their schedule allows, Tesla owners love to talk about their cars. “Evangelize” even, as one owner describes it. Trying to persuade conversion on those of us still living in the Dark Ages of automotive technology. Enlightened Tesla owners are more than happy to oblige the curious with raving reviews and detailed answers to every question; even offer complete strangers the chance to climb in and have a look around.

What is a Tesla?

If you aren’t already familiar with this American designed and built car, the simple answer is: it’s a car that runs purely on electricity.  No combustible engine. No gas needed. Just plug it in.

But there’s way more to a Tesla than that.

Teslas are firmly planted in the luxury class category of vehicles, with the price tags to match (see sidebar). The cars’ aesthetics — a sleek exterior design and beautifully appointed interiors — get rave reviews from all of the well-known car enthusiast publications. The cars’ technological features are cutting edge, exemplified in the striking 17 inch touchscreen on the center console. It offers hyper-user-friendly access to all of the vehicle’s data and more control features that you can imagine. And don’t overlook that professional car reviewers have described the dynamics of driving a Tesla as everything from “excellent”, “sexy” and “staggering”, to “a lot like a Lamborghini”.

Tesla Motors is headquartered in Palo Alto, California. The cars are manufactured at the company’s nearby plant in Fremont. The company is run by uber-cool CEO Elon Musk, who took the capital he made from creating PayPal to fund his other dreams: sustainable transportation and space exploration. Besides Tesla Motors, he also runs SpaceX which, according to its website “designs, manufacturers, and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft…. with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets”. NASA recently hired SpaceX to from now on take over the responsibility of getting American astronauts up to the International Space Station.

And, yeah, that was Elon making a cameo appearance in Iron Man 2; pressing the flesh with Gwyneth Paltrow while pitching an electric jet idea to Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. He’s that kind of cool.

The company itself is flourishing, recently surpassing the mark of 50,000 cars sold worldwide. Not surprisingly the majority of US sales have occurred on the Coasts where (a) population is denser, (b) charging stations (more on that below) are more accessible and (c ) the prestige of owning one — whether to promote your trend-setter, tree-hugger or “I have a lot of money” image — carries more weight perhaps than here in the down-to-earth Midwest.

However, Tesla sightings are on the rise all over the US. Which raises the questions: Who are these people driving around Fort Wayne in Teslas? And why?

The owners interviewed for this piece may not speak for every Tesla owner, but they offered some insight. They are hardly, if at all, motivated by a sustainable-fuel-will-save-us-from-climate-change argument. And certainly not influenced — even “a bit embarrassed” mentioned one owner — by the cache of owning a car that costs what a Tesla costs (see sidebar).  Each, however, cited a life-long fascination with new technology. Off the bat describing themselves as “tech guys”  who were always the “early adopter” of every new technology they found geeky-cool enough for consideration — possessing an Elon Musk-ian conviction that awesome technology just makes the world a better place.

And these guys undeniably think Teslas are awesome. So awesome that a couple of them repeatedly shared their fantasy of quitting their day jobs and spending the rest of their lives happily selling Teslas (apologies, wives, if this is the first you are hearing of this). A doctor, a sales rep and a local business owner/musician, they each drive their Teslas every single day. They each drive them on different types of roads and for widely varying amount of miles. But they all agree on most of the features that they love about their cars:

Design

It’s a good looking machine. Low and sleek. There’s a pleasing visceral reaction to how the flush chrome door handles pop out to greet you as you approach the car with key fob in hand. (Well, it’s nice to see you, too, Handsome.)

Dr. Ashok Kadambi, an endocrinologist in town, describes the intuitive design of the car, including its enormous 17 inch touchscreen control panel, “like an iPhone” — one you can climb into and then drive around.

Travis Mayer, a sales rep for Biomet, pointed out the more practical aspects of the Tesla design. He needs a spacious vehicle to carry around product samples to the hospitals and doctors he works with all over northeastern Indiana. Open the tailgate and there is a large storage space rivaling any full-size sedan’s trunk. And, where the engine would be in the front of the car? That’s storage, too. The interior space itself is surprisingly roomy. The flat floor (there’s no driveshaft bump down the middle) makes it easy for three full-sized adults to fit in the middle row.

Travis also has two young children. He got the option of the two rear-facing child seats that fold up in the back tailgate space. “I told my wife, ‘See? It’s a family car, too!'”. The kids do get a kick out of riding back there; getting an entirely different perspective on any trip. But curious strangers more than once have stopped the Mayers in parking lots to inquire why are they “putting their children in the trunk?”

Chuck Surack, owner of Sweetwater Sound and a “car guy” (that’s an understatement), isn’t quite as enthusiastic on the design. As much as he loves the Tesla — “It’s definitely in my top 3 favorites of the performance vehicles I own. I drive it every day.” — did comment that the exterior design leaves him a bit luke-warm. “That Porsche Panamera there. Now that’s a sharp looking car.” OK. Fair enough.

Chuck did express, however, how impressed he is with the Tesla’s audio system. Coming from the founder of Sweetwater Sound, that’s saying something. He explained that Tesla didn’t just take a great audio system and put it in the car. They hired sound recording engineers to sit in the vehicle and design a sound system that worked perfectly for that particular space. He, too, raved about the user-friendly interface of the touchscreen monitor for controlling all aspects of audio entertainment.

Some other cool features include the Tesla’s strong regenerative braking system (meaning it sends power back to the battery when the car slows down). Take your foot off the gas and the car immediately begins to slow without you moving your foot to the brake pedal. This sounds odd but, at least in the thrilling 10 minutes I was offered the chance to drive a Tesla, it immediately seems completely intuitive. Travis commented, “But now I have to consciously remind myself to use the brake pedal when I drive our other car.”

Also, after your ride the car just turns itself off as you walk away. A bit of a problem, Chuck remarked, because he’s beginning to expect all of his cars to turn themselves off when he walks away from them.

Performance

The Model S goes zero to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds. As Ashok pointed out at my reaction to his car’s acceleration on I-69, “And that’s what they call ‘the Tesla smile’! You are right. It’s hard not to get all giggly every time you accelerate!”

But similarities to other performance cars end when it comes to engine noise. There is hardly any at all — a soft whine from the electric motor and bit of friction noise from the road. As Chuck joked, “Of all my performance vehicles, this is the one I most worry about getting a ticket in.” The realization of how fast you are going isn’t triggered by the roar of an engine.

No Gas

Travis, who daily puts a lot of miles on his vehicle, says that the cost savings made it easy for him to justify the initial car price. The previous vehicle he drove for work cost him about $1000 per month in gas. Even though his home electric bill has gone up about $120 per month, the monthly savings compared to buying gas are adding up quickly.  Plus, he adds, there were some unexpected cost savings and bonus weight loss. No more temptations to grab a soda or candy bar every time he stops at a gas station. Because he doesn’t.

“I think it’s been over a year since I’ve even been to a gas station,” Chuck concurs.

The Buying Experience

It’s unusual. But none of these guys balked at an untraditional approach. Each of them designed their Model S — customizable features include battery size, exterior color, interior finishes, and features like sunroofs and those fold up rear child seats. Travis did go so far as to test drive one first at the showroom in Indianapolis. Ashok was already confident about the Tesla product because he had previously owned the now out-of-production Tesla Roadster that he bought used in California. (Previously owned by Leonardo DiCaprio. Talk about cache.)  Chuck was already well-read on the car so it was enough to have a good friend, Tesla-owner and fellow car-fanatic simply say, “just get one!”

Orders can take a few weeks to a couple of month to be completed. Then the car will be delivered right to your house, if you’d like. Like a beautiful high-tech $95,000 pizza!

When asked if there were any surprises once the car arrived, all the guys concurred “only good ones!” Though Travis did point out that, while not a big issue for him, some owners apparently get pretty worked up that a car of this caliber doesn’t have cup holders for the rear seats.

FAQs

How far can you go?

The Model S generally has about a 260 mile range between charges. New owners tend to initially overplan for frequent charging stops. Tesla attempts to calm this  “range anxiety” with the comforting reminder that “after just a few weeks you’ll find that range becomes predictable based on your routine and driving style. Model S tracks your efficiency as you drive and displays it on the Touchscreen so you’ll always know how far you can go.”

Travis puts a lot of miles on the car everyday. He plugs it in every evening when he gets home so he has the charge he needs to get through the next day’s driving. Ashok and Chuck think they charge their cars “probably once a week?”.

How do you charge it?

You can just plug it into a wall outlet. Seriously. But that’s a very slow way to do it. A 240 volt  outlet along with the Mobile Connector provided by Tesla is the preferred method of charging for most Tesla owners. Tesla suggests, “If you have a long commute, we recommend configuring your Model S with Dual Chargers and ordering the Wall Connector. This pairing will allow you to recharge quickly overnight.”

While Travis uses the Wall Connector for his daily charging, he says that when he and the family have travelled to Chicago they get there on the charge from home. Once at the hotel he plugs the car into a standard outlet in the hotel parking garage. They spend a couple of days walking the city and the car is fully charged by the time they are ready to drive home.

There is an ever-increasing network of 125 Tesla Supercharging stations building up across the county. The Superchargers will charge the battery with 100 or so miles in about 35 minutes — not far off from the typical road-trip pit stop, especially if you want to grab some food or have kids with you. The density of Superchargers isn’t quite in place in the middle of the US to allow Midwesterners to set out on a spontaneous trip across the country, but the company is adding more stations all the time. The closest Superchargers to Fort Wayne are in Angola and Mishewaka. The other Indiana locations are in West Lafayette and just south of Indianapolis. Tesla, of course, offers an easy to use and constantly updating map on its website of charging options all over the US.

Where do you get it serviced?

Servicing is a rare occurrence claims Tesla (and owners agree). As per Tesla Motors, “Forget oil changes, smog checks, and spark plugs. Model S requires just one routine check up each year or every 12,500 miles. We make service super easy by sending a Tesla Service Ranger to your home or inviting you to visit one of our clean, welcoming Service Centers.”

There is no service center in Indiana at this point. Each owner interviewed has experienced a “Service Ranger” visit and couldn’t be happier.  “Tesla is a customer service company, first and foremost,” raves Chuck. Sorry for repeating myself: but coming from the owner of Sweetwater, that is saying something.

And if the car needs a software upgrade? Make sure you have a Wi-Fi signal and you easily update it yourself, just like on your phone.

The factors that already attract Tesla owners to the car just keep getting better. The newest version of the  Model S, available this February, will have all-wheel drive and offer an “autopilot” package: visual and aural warnings of an impending collision as the car automatically takes evasive actions, a radar to “see” through snow and fog, and an ultrasonic sonar that can detect even a child or dog in danger of being struck by the car. Last but not least, the new model goes from zero to 60 miles an hour in a smidge over 3 second.

No big surprise, two of the three guys have already placed their orders for the new model. They can’t wait to show it off to friends, family and lots of curious total strangers.

You could speculate that a Tesla owner enjoys the thrill of the high-tech fast-lane of life. Or maybe, just maybe, the real appeal in driving a Tesla is that it actually forces you to slow down, connect with other people, and have some time to talk about something you love. In this day and age, that’s a rare occurrence of immeasurable worth.

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