Sometimes, you get surprising questions from automakers, where you need more time to reflect on them. Normally, I am pretty well prepared for them, which tend to be more of the ‘negative’ kind. Questions such as “From where should all the electricity come from?” (a pretty loaded question, which we have solved 130 years ago) or “How shall an autonomous car decide, whether to kill the baby or the grandmother?” (here a treatise demonstrating how irrelevant this question. is).
But this time after giving a talk to executives from one German car maker, I heard a much more interesting question that I couldn’t answer right away in the completeness that I wanted to. For the question and the response you have to know that I own a Tesla Model 3 and showed the executives snippets of my life with that California-made vehicle. The question was:
What would our electric vehicle have to have that you would give up your Tesla?
A great question, I think. One that is thought provoking and will be answered different by different people. But here is my response, which I as a Tesla-owner consider as relevant.
And I want to clarify from the beginning that I have tested electric vehicles from other makers. BMW i3, Renault Zoe, Jaguar iPace, Chevrolet Bolt. Those vehicles are all valid in their own rights and great cars – when you are coming from a baseline of internal combustion engine cars in the same category. Silent, quick acceleration, digital, even though with less range than the comparable combustion cars. But more fuel efficient and cheaper. If you came from a Tesla, those cars are a step down.
The Car Itself
The very base is that automakers have an electric car in their portfolio that achieves the performance measures (range, acceleration, space, safety, quality, or price) of a Tesla. Too many of today’s electric vehicles that were announced as ‘Tesla-killers’ have not lived up to the hype. The only electric car so far that has beaten or equaled some of Tesla’s measures is the Porsche Taycan.
The head start that Tesla has can be explained with battery capacity, battery design and cooling, the performance of the electric motors, and the digital management of all those components. And Tesla has done a phenomenal job. Not to mention that the Giga Factories have brought down the prices thanks to the scaling effects, and offer profit margins that other makers cannot compete with.
But also the automakers’ thinking has to change. The Mercedes B-class was equipped with Tesla’s electric drive train, and would have given the car a much better performance than expected for that vehicle category. And it can’t be that such a vehicles trumps more expensively priced cars, so the car was purposely limited in its performance. The same effect has been seen with the Jaguar iPace. This car could perform so much better, but then it would beat the higher priced and sporty Jaguar F-Type. As long as traditional makers don’t offer the full performance, independent from the vehicle class, and without considering the performance of their internal combustion engine cars, they will always give customers a vehicles that is restricted by design.
We have to let this sink in: they actively dumb down their own electric cars, because it would be way better than their comparable combustion cars, which they are trying hard to increase their performance.
Peace of Mind
It gives me some peace of mind to know that I have access to 14,000 Tesla Superchargers worldwide and that I am able to quickly and cheaply (or even for free) charge my car, no matter where I am heading. And that my Tesla plans charging stops automatically, based on my travel plan and displays available slots, is comforting. No fear that everything will be occupied, or not working, or parked full.
And that all in addition to the tens of thousands of other charging stations by other providers such as ChargePoint. Electric owner forums are full of reports of problems with payment systems, wrong charging cars, defects, or ‘operating hours’ of charging stations, which make traveling with an electric vehicle an unnecessary adventure.
We can compare that with Apple. iPhone/iPad/MacBook users stay within the ecosystem and get the same user experience across devices, which seem seamless and integrated. Other electric cars are experience more the wild jungle of offers, similar to Android. There you have to understand which version and fork of the Android operation system runs on your phone, know my device maker, which app store I have to connect, and still I can’t be sure to have done everything in the correct way.
Part of the Peace of Mind is also vehicle safety. Tesla vehicles are the safest vehicles in their categories. They were designed as electric vehicles from scratch, and without the engine the crumble zones are larger and make the car safer. Not like you see it with cars from other automakers. Their cars are merely quick redesigns of existing combustion cars, where the structural integrity in case of a crash can only be guaranteed by putting in massive steel frames, and still don’t offer the same safety.
This week, the California utility PG&E announced possible power outages. The reason was a certain combination of weather conditions and an outdated infrastructure that require the utility to turn off the power to avoid fire hazards.
My Tesla app and my vehicle touchscreen displayed notifications coming from Tesla, which told me about the power outages and recommended to charge the car to 100% instead of. the usual 80%. At the same time Tesla CEO Elon Musk said he will take care that the affected superchargers will get backup batteries from their Powerwalls so that even in the case of power outages Tesla owners can charge their cars.
We’ve heard in the past about Tesla temporarily unlocking additional battery capacity for Tesla owners to be able to escape from hazard zones (Florida and their hurricanes, California and its wild fires), without having to worry about range.
As an owner you feel actively taken care by Tesla, and not left out to fight for yourself. A good feeling to know that Tesla cares for its customers.
A small software update a few months ago allowed to use the car’s cameras to monitor the environment around the car. And in some cases of vandalism and collisions they already helped to catch the culprits. And this is an element as well, that gives me peace of mind when I parked my car, knowing that parking damages, running drivers, and vandalism are becoming traceable.
Not just the quality of the car and the stitching of leather seats are part of my satisfaction with the car – though for sure expect a certain standard – but something that I’d call ‘digital luxury‘. I had talked about some experience with navigation system vendors in other cars, where I couldn’t get the address right over several minutes, just to end up using Google Maps on my iPhone.
Tesla’s navigation system works like I expect from Google Maps: with one search field it finds the the address or the restaurant name and brings me there, displaying the route on the big touchscreen.
The system gives me the feeling to master it, and not telling me what an idiot I am. Five minutes with a TomTom and I am in such rage that I want to stab it.
And that’s just one of the examples. Sure, not everyone has a friction-less interaction with Tesla’s touchscreen. 130 years of physical levers and controls are for the older ones among us easier to operate than a touchscreen. But overloading the car, focused on a driver, with a range of controls and elements are disappearing thanks to the touchscreen. Compare that with a steam engine and a modern high speed train. That’s how those cars look like compared with a Tesla Model 3 Cockpit. And if you look closely, you will notice that the touchscreen is not tilted towards the driver, but parallel to the front, so that both passenger and driver can view and operate it.
It’s not just done to simple. move analog displays to a digital touchscreen. Traditional automakers try to copy their analog display onto a digital one. They follow skeuomorpism to make it easier for users to switch, but miss that their customers are ahead of them thanks to iPad & Co. Digital means also a change in the mindset of how to design user interfaces. The switch from a. phone to a. smartphone didn’t mean putting the rotary dial on the touchscreen.
Autonomous Driving & Machine Learning
550,000 times! That was how often Smart Summon – the feature that allows to call your car from the parking lot dozens of feet away from you come to you – was used in the first days of its release. And that works because all Teslas have the Autopilot Hardware Kit 2 installed since October 2016.
Those are 600,000 vehicles with that Hardware Kit. And with that Tesla can use and download the data, put that in their machine learning system, improve the feature and upload that to all Tesla vehicles with the next software update.
And if Tesla wants to improve – let’s say – tunnel drives and consider the reflection of the radar signal on the tunnel walls, which changes the signal in comparison to a drive outside the tunnel, Tesla can simply call 600,000 vehicles, ask for one million tunnel drives, and receives the data. All vehicles in the fleet benefit from this functionality. A traditional automaker would approach this differently. They’d use some test vehicles, drive them a hundred times to some tunnels and try to improve their driving assist system with that poor data. And much less efficient method and one that won’t bring the expected level of improvement.
Simply the fact that 600,000 Tesla cars come equipped with this Autopilot Hardware Kit 2, which allows to do things like that, and which other carmakers have not, demonstrate the gap between Tesla and the rest. At least 3 years of hardware head start with the corresponding amount of miles driven and data collected that give a rich sample, makes Tesla so superior.
And this is also possible, because Tesla is approaching it differently. The probably one thousand dollar hardware kit is just simply in the cars, even though many customers don’t pay for it. While every other automaker tries to save a dollar here and some cents there, this way they ruin their data collection efforts. Tesla on the other hand builds it exactly for that purpose without dying from anxiety thinking of the GDPR.
I am feeling good knowing that my car and my driving contribute to the improvement of the Autopilot and autonomous driving functions, thus benefiting all cars and all other traffic participants.
Vision & Inspiration
Tesla’s Mission is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.
This mission statement, which you can see entering the Tesla offices, says it all. Tesla is not just an automaker, but more, and a company on a mission. In times of climate change and Fridays 4 Future, one can only support this. No bad taste because of an automaker with cars that were involved in the Diesel emission scandals. Trust, that has been damaged when they were trying to prevent stricter emission laws. No fears for me that I cannot drive my Diesel car in certain areas of the city, because my car maker has cheated and leaves me alone with the hardware replacements, the costs, and the loss of value of my tainted car.
The brand image of traditional makers involved in that, and of which many have still not gotten the message, is damaged. It will take time and honest work to earn back my trust.
Elon Musk thinks that one has to inspire. There are many problems on the planet, all of which have find a solution. but there has to be space for inspiration. And that is what Tesla cars are doing. They inspire and show new possibilities.
Fart-App, dog mode, video games, Spotify, karaoke, Netflix, romance mode, Easter eggs, Mars Rover, Santa-Claus-sleigh. A small and whimsical selection of more or less useful applications that are full of humor and irrelevance. But they are exactly the ones that you use to entertain your friends and family, and exactly those get them interested in the car.
Every monthly software update gives Tesla owners a new opportunity to discover new things and try new stuff. Not only bugs are corrected and improvements to the car are uploaded, but it feels like once a month you get a small gift box with precious surprises. It’s a monthly recurring kid’s birthday, that’s how I think about Tesla’s software updates. I almost can’t wait for being connected to a WIFI and get my new update.
Many of these updates are not needed, but they solicit delight, and this feeling can’t be achieved with commercials. Traditional automakers, who gave themselves a certain image, have a hard time competing with that. Their brand is not easily connected to lightness. Can you imagine a Mercedes with a fart app? Or a BMW with Monty Python Easter eggs? Or a VW Passat that start playing Christmas music with a light show and opens the Falcon Wing doors like angel wings?
Not only the cars but also the changes and approach make Tesla unique. Useful corrections or changes suggest by customers simply by tweeting at Elon Musk are often so quickly put into production, that one is speechless.
I hear from suppliers that they had to build up their own teams for Tesla, because the changes and demands require such a quick turnover that they were not able to manage that with their traditional structures.
How I See Myself
I did my PhD in chemical engineering, have an MBA, worked for years as software developer and development manager, have been living for over 18 years in Silicon Valley, research technology trends, and write books about that, which are aiming to show the chances and possibilities the responsible application of technology and business models can have. I see myself as somebody open to new things and moves as a modern man in modern industries. And one who takes life with humor (not for naught I once won a standup comedy contest)
As much as I like steam engines – being a train worker’s child – and love the design of classic cars, in my daily life I surround myself with things and people that I consider inspiring. And that is not a dinosaur juice operated car, but the modern automotive equivalent of an iPhone.
The car shall reflect my mindset of being interested in new stuff and believing that a better future is possible.
To come back to the question from the beginning of this treatise, what an electric vehicles has to be capable of to have me give up my Tesla, here is a list of the minimum features:
- Similar or better performance
- functioning and dense Supercharger network
- high-qualitative digital user experience
- Autonomous Driving and Machine Learning
- Modern vision and inspiration in sync with the world
Looking at that, not a single traditional carmaker surpasses or reaches Tesla in any of these items. The only exception from the rule is the Porsche Taycan, which fulfill some. parts of the first item, and where Porsche has to do a lot more things now.
If you want to surpass Tesla. and demonstrate what you can accomplish, here are some more items. And I have to add that I think that my current Model 3 will be the last car I own. and drive myself.
- Autonomous driving
- App-Store for in-car use
There is some heavy and consistent lifting required over a period of years and with high speed to accomplish something that would convince me to give up my Tesla and choose another vendor’s car. Or Tesla would have to flunk so miserably multiple times that I can’t see myself supporting them. But currently there is no alternative.
Others, and especially those that just jump ship from combustion engine cars and expect different car prices, may think and decide differently. But I was asked the question and this is how I answer it.
This article was also published in German.