Sunday, July 24, 2016

Test-driving the Tesla Rocket-Ship

I'm buckled into the rear seat of a sleek black sedan with 3 of my fellow-travellers from the Expat Club as our host presses a virtual button to engage "Ludicrous Mode" on the massive, 17-inch touch screen on the centre console. Ready, he screams over the soundtrack - ACDC's Highway to Hell blasts through the car's entertainment system, also controlled through the ipad-on-the-centre-console. I take a deep breath as the rocket-ship - excuse me - car takes off. Standing still to 100 kmph in a Ferrari-beating 3.2 seconds. My heart has exited my chest cavity, bulletted through the rear of the car, and is lying on the scorched asphalt, still beating. Ludicrous!
Tesla factory in Tilburg, Netherlands
I got a chance this last week, to visit Tesla's only European factory in Tilburg, the Netherlands, and test-drive their P90D, the most powerful car in their S-series line-up. The factory is highly automated - the cars arrive in three pieces from California and move around the factory floor on robotic vehicles. There, the chassis of the car is mated to the battery - a platform of Li-ion cells in a thin, flat package that makes up the car's floor, and the rear-axle, that contains the motor and the gearbox. The 800 kg slab of batteries so low down in the car's centre of gravity gives it superb handling characteristics (no under or over steer through corners), and the absence of an engine block means that the whole front of the car is a crumple zone - making it the safest car ever built. A battery of tests are performed on the car, including driving it at highway speeds in the largest indoor test track in the world.
Tesla model S sedans on the factory floor
As impressive as the factory is, with all its automation, even more impressive is Tesla's Master plan of ridding the world of polluting and green-house-gas-emitting vehicles with internal-combustion engines. Tesla superchargers, capable of giving the car a 400-something km range in 40 minutes (for free) are available throughout North America and Europe and the car's navigation system allows you to plot a route through those two continents so that you're always within spitting distance of a supercharger. Tesla also sells solar panels and a battery pack for home, that allow you to get off the grid completely - and, as Elon likes to joke - survive the next zombie apocalypse. The car I drove was also equipped with an auto-pilot. I took my hands off the wheel as the car steered, braked, accelerated and changed lanes (when asked to, by a gentle press on the indicator stalk) using its computer brain and a combination of radar, sonar and visual sensing. When not on auto-pilot, I was able to pedal-to-the-metal standing still to 130 in a flash, leaving other cars on the road behind till they were mere specks in the rear-view mirror. I know now what it feels like to drive a McLaren F1, and save the world at the same time.
Post heart-attack-inducing test-drive in the Tesla rocket-ship (Model S P90D).
The Model 3, which comes out in 2018, will offer all this for an affordable price of about $35k US. But, I don't think I will be buying, because I buy into Elon's vision of a world with a completely changed model of car-ownership, or lack thereof. Non-polluting, autonomous electric vehicles that no individual will have to own, available round-the-clock, summoned with an app on your phone. Till then, I'm content with my trusty bicycle - pedal power is still the most sustainable mode of transport there is.

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