The Tesla Model 3 is supposed to represent the future of the automobile, and I hope it does — even if I found the future to be a somewhat bewildering place to be.
Tesla lent me a Model 3 for a weekend to drive to upstate New York, where my extremely pregnant wife and I were headed for a baby shower thrown by her relatives outside of Syracuse. We’re having our first child, a daughter, and feeling her kick and move around has done a number on my own worldview, bringing what once felt incredibly distant into the immediate foreground.
Barring Peter Thiel–ian transfusions of youthful blood, I will not live to see the year 2100. My daughter, on the other hand, has a very decent shot at seeing that. If she should have children, they will almost certainly see the 22nd century. Stories about a world where the equator is uninhabitable, Miami is underwater, and the Corn Belt resembles the Kalahari Desert suddenly feel less like hearing news about an earthquake in a country I never planned to visit and more like a buzzing alert on my phone about oncoming flash floods. Abstract notions I held about carbon emissions and climate change (both are, like, bad) have taken on a new urgency, and the idea of driving up for a party celebrating the oncoming arrival of our daughter in a car that, in its own small way, promises to help reduce carbon emissions was tremendously appealing.
Kind of a heavy way to start a car review! (Or a weekend trip upstate for a baby shower.) But it was on my mind as I picked up the Model 3 from Tesla’s glassy showroom in the Meatpacking District. If the world is going to move from using fossil-fueled vehicles to electric vehicles, it’ll be partly because of cars like the Model 3. You can’t get the majority of the car-buying public to consider an EV until the price is somewhere in the neighborhood of reasonable. (The Model 3 starts at $35,000, though the model Tesla lent me had enough add-ons to drive the price to $57,000 — the big-ticket additions being a long-range battery and Enhanced Autopilot.) You also need EVs that have the range and infrastructure that allow for freedom of long-distance travel that Americans have come to associate with car ownership.
Except for a short test drive in February, I’d never driven a Tesla before. The first time you take a seat behind the wheel of the Model 3, it’s an odd experience, mainly because of what’s missing. Behind the steering wheel there’s nothing — no instrument panel, no speedometer, no tachometer, no odometer, and of course, no fuel gauge — just the smooth expanse of the single piece of wood that makes up the dashboard. Instead, everything is shifted to a 15-inch touchscreen display that sits in the center dash. There’s no key fob to stick on a ring of keys — the car instead pairs with your smartphone (you also get two backup hotel-key type things in case your phone dies), and unlocks itself automatically when you get near it. And once you start the car, there’s no noise — the sound of a Tesla completely powered down and the sound of one ready to drive (at least from inside the cabin) are identical.
The immediate experience of driving a Model 3 is that it is fun. The Model 3’s high-torque motor means that you can jet forward smoothly and almost silently, without shifting gears. The first few times you do it, it feels uncanny, like you’re floating slightly above the road. A tight and responsive suspension means the car stays glued to the road even during sharp cornering, and allows for quick and easy lane changes. The car’s navigation system is, at first blush, the best I’ve used — you can press a button on the steering wheel to turn on voice control, spit out an address, and the car will automatically route you to where you’re going, automatically figuring in stops you may need to make along the way to charge the batteries. (And to its great credit, it never stumbled on some of the harder upstate and capital-region city names — whether it was taking us to Schenectady, Herkimer, or Marcellus, the car got it right the first time.)
And if you’ve never driven an electric vehicle before, there are all of these small things about combustion engines you’ve never noticed until they aren’t there. The most obvious, of course, is the lack of engine noise. On city streets, that means you’re suddenly much more aware of the sound of all of the traffic around you. On highways, that means the loudest noise will be the wind hitting the car, or the whoosh of semi as you pass it.
Tesla’s high-torque electric motor also doesn’t require the gears a standard combustion engine needs. In practice, this means that what I’ve spent the last two decades experiencing — the slight hitch of deceleration from shifting gears as a car gets up to speed — is completely absent. Step on the accelerator and there’s just a smooth, linear progression of speed, instead of spiky upward jerks.
That said, I spent most of my trip not even touching the accelerator. The car Tesla lent me had Enhanced Autopilot. Tap down once on the right stalk on the steering column and you engage adaptive cruise control — you set your maximum speed, and radar and sensors on the car will attempt to get as close to that speed as possible while also keeping a set amount of distance between you and the car in front of you. This is nice on a highway with free-flowing traffic, and a godsend for slow-moving or stop-start highway traffic jams endemic to any major metro area. If the Tesla’s sensors can detect the lane you’re in, you tap down twice on the right-side stalk, and Autopilot will take over steering for you — the car stays in the center of the lane and moves you gracefully through turns. In general, I found Autopilot remarkably reliable — the one time I had any real issue was when a separate lane was merging in from the right and someone cut in a little close to our car. It certainly made the drive much more relaxing — the constant slight negotiations of speed that I’m used to making with the dumb cruise control in our Mazda were gone. If anything, the more dangerous part of Autopilot happened not when it was engaged, but when I would forget to turn it back on, and wonder why the car wasn’t turning itself as we slowly veered toward the rumble strip on the highway shoulder.
About 75 percent of the issues I had with the Model 3 during the weekend I chalk up to me being dumb. I didn’t know how to turn the car off the first time I parked it in my driveway, so I had to sheepishly text a Tesla rep (set it in park and walk away — the car shuts itself off and locks itself up once your phone is far enough away). At a supercharger station in Kingston, I couldn’t figure out how to get the charger out of the car until a very nice guy with the flyaway hair of a STEM professor, who was charging his own Model S, came over to admire the Model 3, and helped me out. (“Dad, you are obsessed with the Model 3,” complained his teenage son. “I am!” he happily replied.) The morning after the baby shower — after packing the car up with our luggage, boxes of baby clothes, swaddling blankets, and an absurd number of baby shoes — I stepped out to get one more picture of the Model 3 against the hills of my wife’s grandfather’s farm when my phone died. My wallet (with the backup key card) was inside the Tesla, meaning we were suddenly locked out of the car. I ended up bumming a ride and some money from my father-in-law to pick up a charging cable in order to get back into the car.
But if there are plenty of problems I brought on myself, there are still some parts of the Model 3 that baffle me. Touchscreens are fantastic when I’m holding one in my hand or lap, but shunting so much of the basic functionality in a car to a touchscreen feels dicey. For example, adjusting the max speed on the cruise control currently requires tapping small plus or minus signs on the left side of the touchscreen. But without any tactile or physical buttons, you have to take your eyes away from the road to make sure you’re hitting the right spot.
Adjusting side-view mirrors requires a few taps on the touchscreen and is a few too many menus deep. Windshield wipers are supposed to kick in automatically in the rain, but they didn’t kick in during light snow, meaning I needed to swipe on the touchscreen and then tap to start them up. Ask the Tesla’s in-car music-streaming service Slacker to play a band or podcast it’s never heard of, and it pops up a massive search window that hides your navigation completely. All new cars come with a learning curve, and a lot of what I’m describing are things I’d figure out after a week with the car, but it all felt much more dangerous during the first hour of driving. Hunting for a tiny X button to get rid of a massive pop-up screen while another car does a Jersey sweep in front of you is not ideal.
There’s also the fact that Autopilot and adaptive cruise control rely on front radar sensors. Twice during our trip, we drove through light patches of snow — nothing heavy enough to begin to stick to roads, but enough to stick to the front bumper. The front radar sensors went offline, meaning cruise control was completely off. I don’t want Autopilot or adaptive cruise control to attempt to work if the sensors are on the fritz, but if I’m driving on dry roads, I’d like the option of at least engaging the same sort of dumb cruise control I had on my 1992 Volvo station wagon, which just keeps me at a constant speed; it was when I was driving without cruise control that I really noticed how that hitchless acceleration that made the Tesla so fun to drive also meant that even a feathery touch on the accelerator could send an unwary driver like me smoothly and silently into “reckless-driving ticket” territory.
As it was, I found myself pulling over at rest stops twice during our trip to wipe down the front of the Model 3 with a scarf to get cruise control back. Tesla says that it doesn’t include a nonadaptive cruise control out of fear that drivers would get confused by too many options — they’d be so used to using adaptive cruise control, they might end up hitting someone because they expect the car to handle braking as they approach someone going slower than them on the highway. It’s a valid concern, but scrubbing the front of the car at a rest stop wasn’t fun either.
And then there are the issues of lithium-ion batteries and cold weather. We stopped overnight at my in-law’s house in Schenectady, where the temperatures dropped below freezing. When we set out in the morning, the car showed a range of 109 miles. We told the onboard computer where we were headed, and the car recommended stopping at a supercharging station outside of Utica, about 77 miles away, where the car estimated that we’d have about 10 percent battery left. As we drove, that estimate of how much battery life we’d have left kept dropping. Finally, we started getting warnings from the car itself — we needed to travel at 70 miles per hour in order to reach the charging station, and then 65 miles per hour. By the time we pulled into the charging station, we had (per the Tesla) about five miles of range left on the car, and 2 percent battery. Tesla’s trip-planning software uses a combination of information about past driving behavior, internal and external temperature, and topography (to determine if you’re driving uphill or downhill) to make its estimates, but the company also says that many other factors — headwinds, tire condition, whether you have a window open or not — can come into play. Regardless, shaving it so close wasn’t fun — a case of what Tesla owners (and Tesla itself) calls “range anxiety.”
More time with a Tesla would likely teach me that freezing temperatures meant that I should be more conservative than its navigation software. There was a supercharging station much closer that we could have stopped at earlier in the trip. But in the absence of more information, I trusted what the car told me.
A lot of what I’m bitching about here are UX and software problems — and Tesla promises that over-the-air updates will take care of some of these issues. It’s well aware that the windshield-wiper control needs some work, and plans to move some of those controls over to the left-hand stalk on the steering column. Setting maximum speed on cruise control will eventually move to a dial on the right side of the steering wheel. All of these will be handled by over-the-air updates — your Tesla Model 3 will update itself overnight, the same way your laptop or phone does.
It’s at these points where the daylight between Tesla and a more traditional car company becomes clearest. The Tesla Model 3 I drove this weekend would not be the Tesla Model 3 you’d get in 12 months if you ordered today, in the same way that your iPhone can suddenly be very different thanks to software updates — even while the hardware remains the same.
The difference is that changing how I adjust screen brightness on my smartphone may throw me off for a couple of seconds on the subway or while I’m walking. An abstruse UX that adds two seconds to a task while I’m driving at 65 mph means that I travel about two-thirds of a football field figuring out how to adjust my side-view mirrors.
A quick glance around at other drivers on the highway shows that there are plenty of people tapping away at the touchscreen on their phone while they drive. But only in the Model 3 are you virtually guaranteed to futz around with a touchscreen while driving at some point. Maybe this is something that software updates will fix. Maybe this is something that more time driving a Model 3 will fix — plenty of people wrote off the touchscreen keyboard on the iPhone as unusable as well.
Then again, I don’t drive my smartphone. My smartphone won’t carry my family around. A few moments of inattention while trying to figure out how to take a screenshot on my smartphone won’t send me and the people I love most flying through a guardrail.
The bigger reality is that the Tesla Model 3 — and electric vehicles in general — will only play a small factor in how hot and inhospitable the world my daughter grows up in turns out to be. For better or worse (almost certainly worse), what needs to happen to halt or at least slow down climate change are changes at the societal and governmental level. Electric cars are cool and fun to drive, but to really reduce carbon emissions action has to happen on much more basic things like refrigerant management, wind power, family planning, educating girls, and more plant-based diets. Per one well-regarded list of the 100 most effective climate solutions, more of the population using electric vehicles ranks 26th. It’s not nothing, but a lot of people buying (or not buying) a Model 3 isn’t really enough. It’s fun that Elon Musk wants to colonize another planet, but his cars probably aren’t going to be the deciding factor in how easily humanity continues to live on this on. (Also, it’s hard to design a flashy, ambitious product that garners a ton of media attention around, say, better refrigerant management — I don’t think the internet would go nuts if you flung a fancy new A/C unit that doesn’t use hydrofluorocarbons toward Mars.)
Still, I was sad when it was time to return the Model 3 to Tesla. My Mazda 3 hatchback, which I previously considered a somewhat sporty ride, feels poky in acceleration and somewhat sluggish in its steering. Filling it up with gasoline now feels like littering or not separating out my recycling — a choice I’m making in my own small way to make the world worse rather than better. If I had a bit more money and could wait the 12 months it would take for a Model 3 to actually make its way to me, I would seriously consider buying one. The Model 3 doesn’t do everything perfectly, but manages to bring a lot of the future to me now. When we end up buying our next car in six or seven years, I hope that there are a lot more options like the Model 3 to choose from. It won’t be the thing that stops the slow-moving disaster of climate change, but I’d like to drive my daughter around in something that isn’t urging it on even faster.
Correction: An earlier version of this story cited that “using more hybrid and electric cars ranks 49th” on a list of potential solutions to climate change. While that is true, fully switching from hybrids to electric vehicles ranks 26th on the same list. The story has been updated to reflect that.