Here’s what happened. Lee came across what looked like a tiny, yellowing IOU at the bottom of some ancient records. It was from the Tooth Fairy, and she said she was a little short of cash and would pay me a dime the next night. It was dated May 8, 1954. I was seven! She’s still in business, you know, the Tooth Fairy, so Lee tracked her down and demanded payment. The old biddy was not eager to pay me back, since with compounded interest and adjusted for inflation it came to … well, enough to buy a Tesla!
Okay, I can tell, you’re not buying that story. I don’t blame you. Our being able to buy a Tesla is about as probable as me leaving my dentures under my pillow and finding a check for $100,000 in Bitcoin the next morning. Let’s start over.
Bought Rented a Tesla!
Our old reliable aught-five PT Cruiser needed some work to bring it up to snuff as it began its second 100,000 miles. We knew we would need a rental for a few days. And I had heard they could be scarce. During the height of the first surge of the pandemic nobody was flying anywhere and needing a car when they got there. All the agencies had too many cars sitting on their lots not earning any money. So they sold off a percentage of their fleets. Then people started traveling again and they were caught short. I went to the Enterprise website on Friday to reserve a car for Monday and they didn’t have any, except a few super high-end ones for $400/day and up. Same with Avis, Hertz, Alamo, Budget, and everybody else. Travelocity found some cars at $300/day, and said they could get me a “compact” for $150/day. That was a lot more than I had planned on.
I was about to swallow hard and rent one when I recalled something. Last time we rented from Enterprise I jokingly asked the agent if it was possible to rent a Tesla. He said yes, that right next door there was something called Clark Exotics, which was affiliated with Enterprise in some way, where you could rent expensive, sporty cars. He even looked it up for me. I could have a Tesla for $175/day. Back then, before the shortage and price explosion, that sounded like a lot of money. We were getting a very nice, big Impala for something like $70/day. I decided to check Clark Exotics, just in case. To my surprise, they were still renting Teslas for $175, and they had one available on Monday.
So here was the question. Did I want a Mazda Miniscule or a Plymouth Peanut or a Subaru Skeeter for $150, or a Tesla for $25 more? Math was never my strong suit, but that was not a hard problem to solve.
One small worry. The rental agreement said “Tesla Model S or similar.” (My italics.) What did that mean? A Chevy Volt? A Nissan Leaf? A Hyundai Ioniq? I was hoping, worst case, a Model 3, Tesla’s cheapest vehicle.
(Side note: Tesla started out with the Model X, followed by the S. Then came the 3, and now they are producing large numbers of the Model Y. Why 3? Well, because E was taken back in 1961 by the Jaguar E-Type. Now, if you put together the four Tesla models they spell S3XY.
(This is a big thing I like about the company. They can be playful. When they first came out, there was a button you could push called “ludicrous” mode. It gave you some sort of supercharge—I don’t know just how—to make the car very fast. Then recently they brought out a souped-up Model-S Plaid. I didn’t understand where that came from, then learned that both are from Spaceballs, the Mel Brooks parody of Star Wars:
(Second side note: I want to state strongly that I am not an Elon Musk fanboy. I deplore many of the things he does and opinions he has expressed. He pooh-poohed the pandemic, wanted the assembly lines to keep moving. His labor practices are better than Jeff Bezos, but not by a lot. He’s moving all his operations out of California to Texas in a fit of pique. His mouth often makes promises that his ass can’t keep.
(However, the things that he does accomplish are often mind-blowing, though he may be late on his promises. The Tesla automobile has revolutionized the electric car field. SpaceX is making NASA look like an arthritic, hidebound, massively overpriced boondoggle. Which it is, except in scientific exploration.
(So I don’t love him. I probably wouldn’t have loved Henry Ford, either.)
Back to our adventure.
Lee was hoping for one of the dark blue ones we have seen. I was kind of wishing for the bright red one. What we got was black, which was a strong second choice for both of us, so that was fine. And it was a Model S. The difference? Sticker price for the basic 3 is around $45,000, but more like $80,000 for the S. This was the high-end model!
(One more side note: because in many states Tesla is legally forbidden to open dealerships, buying one can be a challenge … and yet often much, much easier than the traditional way. These laws were well-intentioned, but are now obsolete and need to be repealed. It means that, to buy one in Texas, where it is made, you have to go to New Mexico to pick it up.
(But you buy it online, just like a DVD from Amazon. Tesla doesn’t advertise. Not one cent wasted on highly overproduced commercials showing your car driving through places you will never go and doing things you will never do. They recently disbanded their small public relations department. They didn’t need it. Tesla doesn’t haggle, doesn’t have BIG SALES! The price you see on the screen is the price you pay. Of course you have to get on a waiting list … but buying one can be done in about twenty minutes without ever seeing a salesman. Compare that to the hours of paperwork for your typical dealership transaction.)
Okay, I think I’m through with wandering away from our story.
Driving a Tesla is very different from an internal combustion car. You need a short tutorial. The difference begins before you even touch it. There is no keyhole, and no key. (Some of the features I describe here may be present on other vehicles; I am not an authority.) You are given a little gadget to put in your pocket or purse. Now, when you approach the driver’s side, the door handles (flush with the body) pop out. No, actually they roll out, smoothly. There is a tiny motor behind each one. And here we encounter my one personal complaint, before I ever sit down. The Model S is a bit low for me. I’m 6’5”, and the titanium knees don’t bend like they used to, not to mention the spine and ankles. But once inside, it is luxurious and comfortable.
And alien. Off to your right is a big screen, maybe the size of a yellow legal tablet, 8 by 14. Everything is operated from there. Everything. Where the dashboard used to be is another screen.
No key, thus no ignition keyhole. You really want to start it up! But there is no need. It is ready at all times to move. There is a small stick on the right of the steering column. It says D, R, and P. Up for Drive, down for Reverse, and in for Park. I pulled the stick down and a message appeared on the dash in front of me: PUT YOUR FOOT ON THE BRAKE, DUMMY! (Not in those words.) I put my foot on the brake and pulled down, and nothing happened except the car seemed to be happy with me. Oh, wait, now the big screen was showing a back-up camera’s view of the parking lot behind me, complete with lines on the pavement that twisted as I turned the wheel to show exactly what real estate I was about to occupy. I hesitantly touched the “gas” pedal … okay, the “go” pedal … and the car silently moved backward. Stopped when I was where I needed to be. Car just sat there, silently waiting. Okay, ticked the stick to D (PUT YOUR FOOT ON THE BRAKE, MORON!), put my foot on the brake and ticked the stick to D (MAYBE YOU’RE GETTING THE HANG OF THIS) and hit the go pedal. And we were off. Quietly. The car is not silent, there is the sound of the tires on the pavement, and I thought I could hear a very low whine as the motors turned. But it is very, very quiet.
It drives like a dream. And soon you encounter another oddity. I got my driving license at the age of 14. You could do that in Texas in 1962. So I’ve been driving for 60 years now, and I’m sure I’ve racked up well over a million miles behind the wheel. So, you come to a red light and what do you do? You keep your foot on the brake, since the car is still running and will creep forward if you don’t. Not in a Tesla. Take your foot off the brake and it just sits there. You can be on even ground or on a slope, and it just sits, no forward or backward creep. Totally silent. Then when you hit the go pedal, it goes.
And how does it go? Like a bat out of friggin’ hell.
There is a whole genre of YouTube videos that show Tesla Model-S or Model-X owners taking friends out for a spin, coming to a stop on a long and deserted stretch of road, and then flooring it. They universally laugh, cry out, or plead with the driver to stop it!
Note that this guy is using a Model-3, the cheapest Tesla.
One measure of the hotness of a car is 0-60mph. How long does it take?
There is a ride at Disney’s California Adventure, the Incredicoaster, formerly called California Screamin’, that uses the same technology that the Navy employs to hurl FA-18s from a standing start on a flat carrier deck and into the wild blue yonder. That is the only time in my life that I have experienced acceleration like I felt when I floored the Model-S. (If you do this, you should warn passengers to lean back against the headrest.) Within a second Lee was telling me to slow down. Our friend Roger was stunned. My sister Kerry was laughing and asking me to do it again. I don’t have a stopwatch, but I am confident that I was under three seconds. Teslas have been beating $250,000 cars at drag races. They top out at around 150 mph.
Bear in mind that this is not a sports car, but a 5-passenger family sedan. Now, does a family need 0-60 in 2.9 seconds, and 150 mph? Of course not. But you know what? It feels good to know it’s there, whether you ever need it or not. It was a good feeling to look around at all those rumbling, smoking IC-engine cars around me and know I was the fastest thing on the road, that I could leave any Corvette or Mustang … or Ferrari, for that matter, if there is such a thing as a Ferrari in Vancouver, Washington, and do it almost silently.
The real genius behind the Tesla automobile, aside from the ground-breaking engineering, and one of the things I most like about it, is that they have made the electric car S3XY. It has great styling. A few years ago if you thought of electric cars, you thought Prius, a toy that rivaled the Yugo in appearance. Now Tesla is the best-selling EV in the world, and Tesla is the most valuable automaker. While Ford, GM, Volkswagen, Toyota, and all the others were half-heartedly stuffing electric engines in the models they were already producing, Tesla re-thought the automobile from the hubcaps to the deeply tinted glass roof. I read that Toyota bigwigs bought one a few years ago, gave it to their engineers, and asked them how long before they could produce a car like that. The engineers tore it down and wrote their report: five years, three if we work real hard and are real lucky.
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There’s a guy in our neighborhood who owns one of those huge pickups, quad cab, long bed, honkin’ big engine. The truck bears this bumper sticker: ONE LESS PRIUS.
IC cars parking in electric charging stations is a big problem. Some people don’t seem to understand the spots are reserved, some just don’t give a shit. Then there are those in their honkin’ big pickups and Hummers who get together for something called ICEing. Six or ten or twelve or however many it takes get together and park in all the Tesla supercharger spots. Then they squat there and snicker as Tesla owners arrive and can’t charge.
Last but not least is something called Rolling Coal. Believe it or not, owners of huge diesel pickups, etc., modify their engines (I don’t know how, and I don’t care) so that at the flick of a switch on the dash the morons pour out clouds of thick, black, toxic smoke. They do this for fun, and get a particular kick out of doing it in front of a Prius or Tesla.
I think of these jokers as typifying what I call Bubba Trump Culture. They are angry, they are worried … they are flat-out frightened by EVs. They sense their control of the American way of life slipping away, and they lash out, just like their hero does at the slightest provocation. EVs totally mystify them. They know, deep down, that the days of smoke belching, gas-guzzling vehicles are numbered, and they hate it.
Well, fuck all of you, Bubbas! You will lose!
Now, don’t think I believe that EVs will solve all our problems. As of now, they are still a small fraction of all vehicles on the road. I would not pick an EV for a cross-country trip. There are still too few charging stations. However, as of now, there are enough Tesla superchargers such that you can drive almost every mile of the Interstate Highway System. I read that there is still a stretch of 300 or so miles somewhere in Utah, or Idaho, or Montana, I forget which, but it’s someplace you probably don’t want to go, anyway, and soon there will be a supercharger there, too.
But charging is a limiting factor still. Our Model S was not one of the long-range ones. It was good for about 200 miles. It told us when it needed more juice, and where to go to get it. We charged it twice, and it took 20-25 minutes each time. (The charging was free, included in the unlimited mileage of the rental.) We listened to the radio, but if you’re in a hurry, it’s a problem.
The EV is not the perfect solution to all our problems. The electricity has to be generated somewhere, and that often means burning coal or natural gas. There is a carbon footprint from simply producing the parts and assembling the autos. Disposing of or recycling the batteries is a big and growing problem. Mining the lithium for the batteries is rough on the environment. But overall they are miles and miles ahead of IC cars in terms of less damage to the planet.
As for safety … if one catches fire it takes huge amounts of water to extinguish it, and it is apt to start up again when you think it’s out. But the US tests cars for safety, and the highest scores ever recorded for any vehicles, ever, are in this order: The Tesla Model X, Tesla Model S, and Tesla Model 3. (The Model Y was not available yet, but would certainly be #4.) It is almost impossible to roll them, because the center of gravity is so low.
My only real beef with the car is what Tesla persists in calling the “autopilot.” It is no such thing, and the word has prompted some stupid people to sleep while rolling, or disable the pressure sensor in the driver’s seat and sit in the passenger seat, or even the back seat.
What they are actually giving you is a “driver assist” mode. And it looks pretty good, though I didn’t use it. What our car had was a dashboard display that, believe me, was more aware of its surroundings than you could ever be. There are six cameras, front and back and two each on the sides, plus some other kinds of radar sensors than I don’t know anything about. It shows you icons of what’s around you. It can distinguish between a regular car, a pickup, a panel truck, a box truck, and a semi. It won’t let you run into anything, it will apply the brakes if you are about hit something. I can see using it on the freeway, but driving on city streets, with all the bikes and pedestrians all around you? Forget it. Self-driving cars are coming, no question about it (sorry, Bubba) but they are still far away. I’m guessing about five years.
So, to sum up, would I buy a Tesla if I had $80,000 lying around doing nothing? In an electric heartbeat.
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P.S. During the recent Superbowl the established automakers spent about $350,000,000 on ads, mostly touting vehicles that you can’t even buy yet! They aren’t producing them. And that’s just for the Superbowl. I don’t even want to guess how much they spend the rest of the year. Tesla’s ad budget for the Superbowl: $0. Add that to what they spend in a typical year, and you get … $0.