Cars have become expensive, rolling gadgets that are full of screens, speakers, and sensors — but are they actually good gadgets? In our new series, ScreenDrive, we'll review cars just like any other device, starting with the basics of what they’re like to use.
The Tesla Model S embodies the whole “rolling tablet” concept more than any other car I’ve driven. That’s because the Model S dashboard is literally built around a giant, 17-inch tablet, one that communicates the core functions of the car and will feel intuitive to a generation of tablet users who are used to taps, swipes, and pinches. Unlike Ford and Honda and BMW and every other legacy carmaker, Tesla came into existence at a time when this kind of in-car technology was foundational, not evolving. So from the perspective of ScreenDrive, Tesla has had that distinct advantage in its tech underpinnings.
When I first saw a Tesla Model S in a mall showroom back in 2012, my initial thought was that such a massive interactive display would inevitably be a distraction while driving. After now having driven a Model S on multiple occasions, I still think there are elements of it that could be smarter or more intuitive. But overall I’ve enjoyed the in-car Tesla experience much more than I expected to — and I think it’s less distracting than a lot of other modern car interfaces. Its size ends up being beneficial in a lot of ways: maps are highly visible, apps are easy to swipe through, and the rear camera view is ginormous.
For the purpose of this review Tesla loaned me a late-2016 Model S P100D. This is the top-of-the-line, best-of-the-best, impress-your-friends Model S you can get right now. (At one point I described it ineloquently to a co-worker as a “beast.”) It’s a sleek, all-electric sedan with a range of 315 miles per charge. But its looks are deceptive: it’s torque-y as hell, and ridiculously fun to drive (again with the eloquence). Its base price is $134,500, and it creeps up to $167,500 for a model with rear-facing seats.
For that kind of price tag, I’d expect little things like a nicer rearview mirror, better cup holders, and better fit and finish on the front hood. But you’re clearly paying for the power and the autonomous driving features, not the accents.
The instrumentation inside the car isn’t relegated to the giant touchscreen. There are a few physical buttons as well, predominantly on the steering wheel. These are intuitive and easy to use.
On the left-hand side of the steering wheel there’s a scroll wheel for volume control, along with forward and back buttons for media. On the right-hand side, there’s another scroll button that controls a list of menu items on the behind-the-wheel display, including your contacts, recent calls, display brightness, fan speed, temperature, and more. Above that is the all-important voice command button, which I cover in more detail below.
The information shown on the display directly behind the wheel is easy to interpret; there are no complicated dials or gauges. The speedometer is in big, bold numerals. Below that is a digital representation of your own car, and, as you’re passing other cars on the road, shadowy replicas of the other vehicles around you. If you’re listening to music, that info will show on the left side of the speedometer; if you’re using maps, your next upcoming turn will be displayed instead. The right side of the display corresponds with the right scroll button on the steering wheel, showing you contacts and recent phone calls and so on. And on the lower left there’s a small battery icon.
Then there’s the main event, the nucleus of the multimedia system: the 17-inch tablet, with a behemoth 1920 x 1200 resolution LCD display. It runs on Linux, with Tesla custom software and apps built on top of it, and it’s powered by a Nvidia Tegra 3 quad-core processor. It’s a touchscreen display, and in my experience it was very responsive, with no notable lags or latency.
This is where you can find everything from media to maps to calendars to a web browser. For this review, I’m focusing mostly on media, maps, and voice command. The web browser is useful in theory, but video streaming is disabled and I didn’t use it for much more than to look up restaurants (which also meant pulling over, due to the attention it requires). There’s a host of other fun stuff you can dive into on the tablet — including advanced driving settings and your driving efficiency, which is expressed in watt hours per mile —but I imagine a lot of this will only appeal to true driving enthusiasts.
One quick note: all of these applications can be viewed in either full-screen or dual-view, with a virtual button that lets you switch the positioning of the two apps you’ve selected. This “swap” button is small — a little too small for me. The best workaround is to tap another icon at the top of the screen and drag it to the position you want.
Tesla has created its own maps software for its cars, but it’s built on top of Google Maps data. It loaded directions quickly, was easy to see, and gave real-time traffic updates and suggestions based on available time-saving routes. You can search easily for points of interest, and get a list of nearby Tesla battery-charging stations just by tapping on a red bolt icon.
Overall I was impressed with the maps, but it’s worth noting that the maps experience will be slightly limited without access to Wi-Fi or an LTE signal. If the Tesla loses access to a data connection, you can search for a new address and load static maps for destinations you’ve previously visited, but you can’t search for points of interest or get real-time traffic updates. On the upside: the Model S receives software updates over the air, which means the built-in maps are updated that way, too — unlike other vehicles that might require you to load new maps on the car via DVD, USB, or an SD card. These software updates appear as release notes in the car’s “About” page, just like a computer or smartphone.
The media options were okay, but not quite as impressive as the maps. The Model S comes with a complimentary four-year Slacker music subscription, which is the equivalent of the Slacker Plus subscription. This is fine for passive listening, even if you’re not a big Slacker user. The same goes for TuneIn internet radio, which also runs natively on the display. But this tier of Slacker seems to have its limitations: you can’t, for example, play a Slacker song on demand more than once, or use the back button to go back in a playlist.
Most people will want to pair their smartphone to the car via Bluetooth, which is a fine enough solution. But, like the last car I reviewed, you won’t be able to see your app-specific playlists in the media section of the display, only whatever song or podcast you’re playing at the moment. I experienced a small issue that has been noted by others before: when playing certain media, like a Recode podcast, the image that appeared as the album art didn’t match what I was actually listening to. Tesla says that this inconsistent album art is caused by a “Bluetooth limitation.”
The best part of the media experience in the Model S is really just how fast everything happens: how quickly your phone or a new phone pairs to the car, or how fast a song or artist comes up when you use voice command. And because of the giant display, I had no problem seeing whatever media was playing at the time (plus there’s the redundancy of the media in the display behind the wheel), even if I couldn’t see or control full playlists that were streaming from my smartphone.
Voice command was probably the least advanced aspect of the car’s multimedia system. Despite how fallible they can be, I think Android Auto and Apple’s CarPlay do a better job, thanks to access to an internet-connected assistant and the ability to interpret questions asked in natural language. The Model S responded quickly to my voice commands, but I had to use very specific terms, like “Play Chris Cornell,” or “Navigate to 100 Main Street.” I sometimes slipped up and said “Directions to,” which only showed a question mark in response.
You can’t use voice command to respond to text messages. And you can’t ask questions like, “Are the San Francisco Giants playing today?” or “Who is Elon Musk?” You can, for what it’s worth, access Siri over Bluetooth by saying “Hey Siri” to your phone, and the other audio functions in the car will mute while you communicate with Siri. But there’s no direct integration in the car’s voice button. There is a web browser on the 17-inch tablet that you will likely never use, and yet the voice control in the car is not connected to the internet. It’s an interesting paradox.
ADDITIONAL SOFTWARE FEATURES
Maybe the best expression of Tesla Model S as a car for tech geeks is the fact that there are Easter eggs buried in the software. These are little surprises that you can dig up if you’re willing to experiment with the interface (or really, at this point, if you just Google them).
For example, if you pull back on the control stalk for Autopilot mode four times in quick succession, the virtual road in front of you takes on the look of Rainbow Road from Mario Kart and Christopher Walken’s voice fills the Model S, along with the sound of cowbells. I am not kidding. At the risk of undermining my credibility as a car reviewer: no, I didn’t drive it in “Ludicrous” mode, another Easter egg that shoots the car to 60 mph in around two and a half seconds. I was more focused on the multimedia inside the car. But I regret not trying this Easter egg, and I promise to try it sometime. For our readers, you know.
There’s a mobile app for Teslas, too. And since both the car and the app are connected to the cloud, the mobile app gives real-time updates regardless of proximity to the vehicle itself. This is not uncommon in cars now: every auto brand from Chevy to Ford to BMW to Mercedes-Benz to Hyundai has some type of application you can check outside of the car.
But the Tesla app gives you a mobile window into one of the more (most) critical aspects of the car: the battery life. You can see how depleted the battery is, know when it’s charging, and get alerts when it’s done charging. The mobile app also has a remote unlock feature. Also, in a nod to the luxury lifestyle Tesla represents, there’s a “valet” feature in both the car and the mobile app that limits the speed of the car, locks the glove box, and prevents temporary drivers from seeing your home and work locations in maps.
I never experienced battery range anxiety with the Model S, but I also happen to live within 15 miles of two Tesla Supercharging stations, so I was able to plan accordingly. When I tapped on the red bolt icon, a list of local charging stations appeared immediately.
My first Supercharging experience was in the parking lot of the Computer History Museum, not far from Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California. The whole charging process took less than an hour — so brief that I didn’t plan my time well and began to incur “idling” fees, which I was informed of on my iPhone. It was one of those futuristic, convergent moments of tech on tech on tech that’s totally worthy of parody on HBO’s Silicon Valley. I felt mildly ridiculous. But it was also indicative of where cars are going. In a lot ways, Tesla is already there.
That’s not to say that a 17-inch tablet is the way of the future and that all carmakers should adopt this as their in-car infotainment system. The future may hold a whole host of other innovations that radically change our in-car experiences, whether it’s super intelligent voice command, gesture-based controls, or even fully autonomous cars outfitted like living rooms. But Tesla’s approach is the most realized vision of the future we have right now.
Photography by David Bush for The Verge