Sunday, December 30, 2012

Driving my Tesla Model S

Now that I've had my Model S for a couple of weeks, I think its time to talk about how it feels to drive.

After sitting in the driver's seat, you press the brake pedal to ready the car to drive. You can then use a steering column mounted lever (which is actually a Mercedes-Benz part) to put the car in drive. After putting the car in drive, the first thing I noticed after being in a gas car for so long is the silence. The loudest noise you hear is the A/C if you have it running or the sound system if you have it on. Turning both OFF creates total silence. As you pull forward, you'll then hear some road noise. I think this is probably the same or less road noise you hear in a gas car but it's likely drown out by the engine of a gas car.

Punch it


Accelerating is when you immediately notice the next big thing about the Model S. In short, accelerating is exhilarating. Acceleration is beautifully smooth with no hesitation. If you punch it, it feels like you're in a rocket. The Tesla Model S has a single speed gearbox which means that there is no shifting of gears as in a car with a typical automatic transmission.  The difference is very noticeable. As you rocket forward, the lack of any pause for shifting of gears results in a perfectly smooth acceleration. Because of the torque applied, the power is equivalent to about 400 hp. You're pressed back into the seat and you push forward fast. With no engine noise and no shifting of gears, you're left with a feeling of effortless speed. "Effortless" is a good word for this because you have no feeling that the car is strained in any way. It is truly a rocket ship on wheels without the noise.

Decelerating with Regen


The next thing that is different has to do with decelerating.  The Model S has a "regenerative braking" system. This means when the car is in motion and you want to slow down, it can use the motion of the car to turn the electic motor into a generator and generate electricity which is then fed back into the batteries. So the electric motor can be used to convert electricity into kinetic energy or vice versa. What I've found is that this transition occurs very smoothly. When you reduce pressure on the pedal with your foot, the regen starts. The more you let up, the more regen occurs. And the more regen, the greater the deceleration of the car.  The result is that you almost entirely control the car using one pedal. You press to go and you learn to let up in a controlled way to slow the car. As you approach a stop light, you may let up entirely on the pedal which may kick in the maximum regen. That turns out to be a fairly smooth deceleration at a good rate that you get used to. You can control that maximum rate in the car's settings by the way, but I've found that the standard setting is great. You still have normal disc brakes and a brake pedal and can stop immediately with the anti-lock brakes if you must - but I suspect that you'll tend to wear out your brakes a lot less because of regenerative braking which is another interesting advantage.

One more note on regenerative braking. If you are slowing the car by simply letting up on the pedal without actually hitting the brakes, the car is smart enough to turn on the brake lights if your deceleration crosses some threshhold. That way, when the car is slowing down even when you're not hitting the brake, drivers behind you know that you're slowing. I was nervous about how much the car would slow down without me hitting the brake pedal until I drove the car at night and realized the brake lights were indeed coming on when slowing using regen only.



This is what the speedometer looks like when accelerating. Notice the orange bar on the right. It's indicating the kW of power being applied.
 

This is what the speedometer looks like when decelerating and regenerative braking is occurring. The green bar on the lower right shows how much power is being generated which can be up to 60 kW if you take your foot completely off the accelerator pedal. This slows the car while recharging the battery.
 

Handling


The Tesla Model S also takes corners and handles very well too. One of the original objectives of the Model S was to build it from the ground up as a modern car. In other words, take advantage of modern technology and the EV drive train to build a better car. One of the results of that was a decision to put the batteries along the bottom of the car. The bottom is flat and batteries are slung low - the batteries contribute to a lot of the weight of the car. The final result is a low center of gravity. This shows up as you take corners because, even though it is a large, heavy car, it doesn't "roll" as much as a traditional "top heavy" car when you take a turn. Remember that in a gas car, the engine is very heavy and most of that weight sits above the axle. This raises another interesting advantage. Because the batteries are "spread out" from front to back of the car, the weight of the car is more evenly distributed than a traditional car too. To sum up, the weight of the car is lower and distributed more evenly than in a traditional gas engine car which improves how the car feels to drive and likely improves safety too.

Summary


Overall, it is a fast, quiet, effortless acceleration and smooth deceleration with smooth transition between. You have a low center of gravity for excellent cornering - especially for a large sedan - remember this is no compact car.

Driving this car has made me think that an electric drivetrain truly is the future of cars. It feels so much better to drive. It's like having a modern smart phone (iPhone or Android) vs. an older cell phone from 10 years ago. Who would want to go back? Though the price is still high, I think the technology is compelling and eventually will be what everyone wants even if they are paying more. The proposition goes beyond simply the cost of gas vs. electricity or initial cost vs. TCO. It is simply a better experience overall to drive.

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