I took delivery on my second Tesla Model S back in February. I bought it used from Tesla so it didn’t break the bank, though it is still the most expensive car (to purchase) that I have owned.

The Tesla has completely changed my driving experience.

It’s a huge contrast with my 2008 Honda Civic Hybrid, which Matthew is now driving. The Honda was the fanciest car I had ever owned (excepting a brief, disastrous flirtation with a Lotus Esprit back in the 1970’s). Much of the “that’s amazing!” feeling I get from driving the Tesla is from features that are now commonly available in many other cars, but driving the Tesla really is… amazing.

performance

I have to admit that I didn’t do as much homework as I should have before making the purchase.  Basically, I wanted an electric vehicle. I was used to driving a Civic Hybrid, so I didn’t give much thought to performance. I loved the idea that I could order the car online—I hate car shopping. I was influenced by some good friends who had Teslas and graciously allowed me to test-drive, but I didn’t fully appreciate until after I owned it that the Model S is a performance car.  The moment you press the accelerator, the full torque is delivered to all four wheels, carefully balanced so you don’t burn rubber, you just move, and you move quickly and silently. My 0-60 speed is under 4 seconds with no special preparation.

My testosterone-poisoned teenage years are blissfully in the past, but I still find that instant, quiet, contained power to be thrilling when road conditions call for rapid acceleration.

autopilot

A lot of folks have criticized Tesla for using the term “autopilot,” since the Tesla is not a fully self-driving car. I find the term apt. I flew a bit when I was a teenager. At least at that time, autopilots maintained your heading, airspeed, and altitude. They didn’t take off or land. They didn’t dodge out of the way of other aircraft. They didn’t even correct course drift due to crosswinds. Any pilot who quit paying attention because the autopilot was on should be grounded.

My Model S has older Autopilot hardware, so it will never be fully self-driving but it does do far more than the autopilots I flew with. It maintains a set speed and distance from traffic (even slowing down when the speed limit changes: when entering a school zone, for example). It keeps you in your lane or navigates safe lane changes on request. It will brake for some unexpected events: a motorized bicycle rider shot out between parked cars from an alley when I was traveling 35 MPH on a suburban street. Autopilot hit the brake a fraction of a second ahead of me. No harm either way, but if I had been mid-sneeze or glancing in the rear-view mirror then Autopilot would have averted a tragedy.

The end result is a product that doesn’t add much to an urban or residential drive. Autopilot shines in two places, however. The first is on long highway trips. I find it gives me more freedom to look around and maintain situational awareness. I’ve made regular trips to Southern California to visit my mother and some friends who still live there. The long trip down Interstate 5 feels both safer and less demanding with Autopilot providing some help.

I expected that. What surprised me, though, is the second place that Autopilot shines. At the end of any trip to the OC is the drive through Los Angeles, which can be many miles of stop-and-crawl traffic at almost any time of day.  I am generally tense the whole time, even though I learned to drive in those conditions. It is so incredibly tiring. With Autopilot, I can sit back and focus on being ready for the inevitable traffic anomalies, while the car takes care of appropriate braking, accelerating, and staying in the lane.

It’s hard to separate the advantages of Autopilot from the fact that the Model S is simply a quieter, more comfortable car than others I have driven, but I now find the trip to and from SoCal far less tiring than I did in my other vehicles.

fill up at home

The motivation for going electric was the feeling that getting in my car to drive to work or the grocery store was was an environmental horror story. Even in my hybrid, I wanted a way to burn less fossil fuel by charging at home. Like most people, the vast majority of car trips I take are short and local. I had a standard 220 volt receptacle(NEMA 14-50, similar to an outlet for an electric clothes dryer) installed in my garage. I just plug in the Tesla after I pull into the garage, and it charges overnight. I never have to worry about getting in the car and realizing that I forgot to get gas the day before, and now I’ll have to stop to fill up and be late for an appointment.

Both economically and environmentally, it makes a lot of sense. The US EPA estimates that the environmental impact of a Model S is about the same as a gasoline-powered vehicle that gets 100 miles per gallon. That estimate, though, assumes standard sources of electricity. I have been buying my grid power from carbon-neutral sources (assuming that the local utility is being honest). Even better, I now have sufficient solar generating capacity to completely power the Tesla from sunlight; I’m simply waiting on the county to do an inspection and I will be independently carbon free.

Even without the solar capacity, my fuel costs are very low. In real-world conditions, I am using about 280 watt-hours per mile. The utility gives me a reduced rate of 8¢/kilowatt-hour if I charge in the middle of the night. My cost of fuel, then is either “free” (when I’m running on solar or using Tesla Superchargers, which are free to me for the life of my car) or 2.25¢/mile if I’m using grid power. Contrast that with the otherwise very efficient Honda Civic Hybrid, which gave me 40 MPG on a good day. At $3.00/gal for fuel (I haven’t bought gas in quite a while, but I’m sure that’s still ballpark) the fuel costs for the Honda were 7.5¢/mile.

My garage doesn’t stink of petroleum products. There are no oil stains on the floor. The car has a tiny fraction of the number of moving parts of the Honda so maintenance and repair costs should be much lower. But mostly, the joy is that the car is ready to go every day.

range

So what happens when I want to take a trip that’s farther than a home charge will take me? There is a lot of buzz about electric vehicle owners having “range anxiety” — the fear (I assume) that they will run out of charge before they get to their destination, and will be unable to find a charging station. I find that I have less anxiety than I had in gasoline powered cars. Here’s why:

a map showing the location of Supercharger stations in California

Superchargers in California, from A Better Route Planner

When you plan a trip in the Tesla, the navigation software calculates an optimum route. It takes into consideration elevation changes, traffic, and weather conditions. If you are going to run low on charge, it locates Tesla Superchargers along your route and adds them to your route plan. It often has you stop for charging more frequently but for shorter periods to minimize total trip time (EV batteries charge faster the more discharged they are). The large display in the car shows the status of the Superchargers, including a real-time count of available charging stalls.

My car will go about 300 miles on a full charge which, frankly, is more than can go. So on a trip to Los Angeles, I will take a couple of short breaks at one of several Supercharger stations. I plug in, I eat, I pee, the car charges, and I’m on my way.

I never have to play the game of “should I stop here, or try to make it to the next time I see a gas station sign?” I know in advance when I will stop and for how long. I know what to expect. I don’t have to worry about price.

There are no shortage of Superchargers in the US. But even if you are in a really out-of-the-way place, you can charge at non-Tesla charging stations, RV parks with electrical hookups, or (if you’re patient) anyplace with a regular old 110 volt power outlet.

climate

I like the heat, but even my bad heat-loving self doesn’t like getting into a hot, stuffy car that’s been sitting in the sun and reached 120° inside. With the Tesla, I don’t have to. First (unless the battery is really low), it will turn on its air conditioning when necessary to keep the interior below 104° when the car is parked. If I’m making a quick stop (less than two hours), I just keep the aircon running at whatever temperature suits my mood. Failing that, I can turn on the aircon remotely from my phone and the car will be comfortably cool in about five minutes. There car even has a “Dog Mode” where it keeps the car at a pre-set temperature and displays a helpful message in large type on the main screen to assure passersby that Pooch is comfortably cool.

(Wondering about charge? I left the aircon on the other day for two hours in direct sun on a 100° afternoon. It kept the interior at 74° the entire time, and used about 1% of the battery’s charge.)

field repairs

My charging cable started intermittently throwing errors. I made a service appointment using the app. At the appointed time, a friendly and efficient Tesla service representative showed up at my house, verified the problem, and replaced my cable under warranty with a new one. I understand that they do most repairs in the field, and that when a repair requires that you leave the vehicle at a service center, they loan you a new Tesla until yours is fixed.

updates

The Honda came with a navigation system. I didn’t want it, but I had no choice. It seemed silly to buy a car you expect to keep for 15-20 years, and include bolted-in electronics that were obsolete before the car even left the factory. There you have it, though, and the Honda still has a navigation system with maps from 2008. (Yes, you can buy a DVD for $275 to update the maps, and they still won’t be as good as a free app on your smartphone. And what is this “DVD” of which you speak?)

The Tesla is always internet connected via WiFi (when in my garage) or cellular (when on the road). One advantage of that connectedness is that you get the same kind of real-time, traffic-aware mapping and routing that you get on your phone, but displayed on the Tesla’s 17″ screen. Another is that Tesla periodically pushes out updates to the car’s software, improving performance, adding features, and just generally keeping the car up to date. Even though my car is four years old, it has feature parity (hardware permitting) with brand-new models.

shortcomings

The big one: like all internet-connected products with licensed software, there is a way in which you don’t fully own a Tesla. Musk and Company can modify or disconnect you at any time. Just as Apple ultimately controls your iPhone experience, Tesla has the last word on what happens to your Tesla. Of course, some judicious hacking can bypass these controls, but I’m not so sure I want to trust my jailbreak hacks to control a 1,500 kg powerhouse traveling at 110 klicks with my fragile human body inside it.

While the sound system is fabulous, the included streaming service (Slacker Radio) doesn’t do what I want. If I ask it to play a specific song, it usually gets it right (at least as often as, say, Siri), but then it will play “related” music that has never, even one time, been what I want to hear. That’s not so important, though, because I have an extensive music and audiobook collection on my iPhone and it can connect with the the Tesla via bluetooth. Unfortunately, the behavior of the Tesla/iPhone combination is unpredictable. It often will start playing as soon as I open a door, which means (as I’m often hanging a coat in the backseat or putting my briefcase in the trunk) I miss passages of my audiobook. This happens even if I have explicitly paused the audio before I got out of the car. But it doesn’t always happen. Sometimes it will stay paused. Sometimes it will switch to the radio. Sometimes it will switch to playing the first song in my music collection. (I put a 90-minute long silence track called “a a a a a long silence” in my music collection so I wouldn’t get blasted by, say, ABBA when I didn’t want it.) In other words, it simply does something you don’t want most of the time. In a machine that otherwise does a great job of being user friendly, this is just horrible. I can only hope that a future software update will fix it.

Automatic parking and Summon are cool when they work, but they fail to work (for no discernible reason) often enough that I often just don’t bother to try.

There’s no coat hook in the back seat. I had to print one on my 3-D printer (and you have to use PETg or ABS, because PLA will soften and bend even with climate control).

The Model S is a big car. I like little cars; even the Model 3 is bigger than I’d like. Perhaps I’ll win a lottery (hmmm, I’d have to start playing) and trade up to a Tesla Roadster some day.

washing

I used to love washing my car. With two jobs plus being a single parent, the poor Honda ended up being taken to a car wash—and that only intermittently. The Tesla is simply too pretty a vehicle to trust to a mechanical wash, and I have found it is a therapeutic hour of me-time to hand wash it every couple of weeks. (It also gives me the chance to keep Matthew’s Honda looking a bit better.)

This Model S, though, cost considerably more than my first house. It will likely be the last car I buy (for myself, at least). So how to keep it looking great and make sure I don’t scratch or otherwise damage it? I did some reading online, and discovered that opinions vary. Here is how I finally decided it should be done:

First, I bought this Earthwise Premium Electric Pressure Washer. Why this one? I think because it was on sale on Woot for $100. There are certainly better ones, but this does the job. Of course, it couldn’t be a noisy, pollution-spewing gas-powered washer. Not only would the irony be too thick, but you really don’t want too much pressure because too much pressure can damage the paint. Even with the Earthwise, I am very careful to only use the widest spray nozzle (never a turbo nozzle) and keep the nozzle a fair distance away from painted surfaces.

Water is always an issue in California. The pressure washer is so efficient that I can wash the entire car without even enough runoff to reach the end of my pretty-short driveway.

My driveway gets a good amount of shade from trees. It would be suboptimal to do this on a hot summer day in full sun. Putting our hard water on hot paint wouldn’t be a good thing.

I put about 1/3 cup of high-efficiency laundry detergent in the soap reservoir and fill it with water. Using the 40° nozzle, I spray off the car from top to bottom, mostly to get it wet and to remove any big chunks. Then I use the soap nozzle and soap the car from the ground up. I very occasionally have to use a big sponge (which I keep very clean: grit can easily scratch) to remove any stubborn bits of stuck-on schmutz. Then I use the 40° nozzle again to wash the car from the top down; at this point I usually apply some extra attention to the wheels which accumulate road dirt and brake dust.

Next—and this is very new, so I’m not sure yet it’s the ultimate solution—I air dry the car with this blower. (These are not an affiliate links, and I don’t pretend that these are the best products, they’re just what are working for me). Again, I didn’t want a gas-powered dryer for my quiet electric car, and I didn’t want something big and noisy. This is a tiny blower. It won’t dry the car completely like the monster blowers at the car wash will, but with a little patience it will blow off much of the water without making much noise or requiring that you bulk up your upper body to lift it. So I use the blower to get rid of about 80% of the water left after washing.

Prior to having the blower, I just went to the next step. But I’d spend a lot of time squeezing out my cloths.

I then finish the drying process on painted surfaces with a waffle-weave microfiber cloth. Microfiber cloth is reputed to reduce the risk of scratching if there are any tiny bits of grit still on the surface, and the waffle weave increases the chance that grit will be lifted from the surface instead of trying to embed themselves in the shiny paint.

Alas, the waffle-weave cloths will leave too many streaks on glass, and there is a lot of glass on the Model S: the windshield, the entire roof, the hatchback, and the side windows. For the glass, I use a smooth microfiber cloth and polish out the streaks.

That’s it. I can wash the Tesla Model S to a beautiful shine and knock the bigger chunks of dirt off the Honda Civic Hybrid in under an hour, using minimal water and generating only a mildly annoying amount of noise.

The biggest drawback I’ve found thus far is that I love biking to work. The Tesla, though, is so much fun to drive that I’m always tempted to drive instead of riding.