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Here’s what happens when your Tesla is smarter than you

Here’s what happens when your Tesla is smarter than you


Software that keeps us from being stupid, or needing to be smart

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Dragging your feet through the parched gravel along the side of Nevada's Route 93, relentless sun burning your face, empty gas canister in hand. It's every driver's nightmare: getting stranded somewhere. On electric vehicles, that fear is amplified by the fact that you are no longer reliant on gas stations, which are just about everywhere, but on charging stations. And there just aren't as many of those — at least not yet. Electric car owners knew this was the deal when they signed up. They also knew that driving the kinds of distances they were used to with multiple tanks of gas would require a little more work on something with batteries.

Tesla had an ambitious plan to solve this problem on its cars by swapping depleted batteries from its Model S sedan out with charged ones in just one minute. That's a good idea, but one that's still being tested. A tweet from Tesla co-founder Elon Musk last month also suggested that the feature might be more for commercial drivers than civilians:

So in the meantime the company has attempted to combat the range anxiety problem with software that both keeps you from being stupid, and — more importantly — does not require you to be smart.

A new update that started going out to Model S owners at the end of March has two features designed to figure out how far you can go before your battery is drained. The first is a simple warning that will let you know when you're headed outside the range of known charging stations. The other is a trip planner that will strategically route you through Tesla's network of Superchargers. I came away impressed with how well the trip planner worked, but I also got an interesting lesson in how much extra driving can be involved if you want to stay inside Tesla's charger network. (I couldn't test the range warning because I was working with a full battery in the heart of San Francisco, a place rich with charging stations.)

Tesla trip planner

For fun, I plugged in a route to Walt Disney World in Florida, a multi-day trip from my starting point in Northern California. The Model S's navigation system took a few seconds to churn through the trip before serving up a route that would have had me driving through 27 different charging stations and venturing as far north as Wisconsin (more than 1,000 miles north of my destination). Plotting the same course into Google Maps (which Tesla uses), the same trip in a gasoline vehicle would normally take me through the Texas panhandle. Assume I planned to follow the Supercharger route, and stop for about half an hour to top up at each of those stations, and we're talking an extra 1,500 or so miles, which easily adds up to an extra full day of driving.

This isn't just for worst-case scenarios

But that same route and others like it are destined to change as time goes on. In the US, Tesla has 200 Supercharging stations, with plans to open up more both domestically and abroad in the next two years. This year alone may change the California to Florida scenario with charging stations set to open in New Mexico, Texas, and Mississippi. You can already see the difference just a few more stations make when plotting a journey from San Francisco to New York, which resembles less of a wild tour of America, and more of what you'd do in a car running off gasoline.

Tesla range warning

This new tool isn't just for my worst-case scenario road trip, though; it's also for shorter weekend trips and basic commuting with a car that may not be fully charged. Meanwhile, the range assurance feature has you covered when you haven't set a destination in the navigation system, which is more likely on shorter, impromptu trips. It alerts you when you're about to go too far from a known charging location, which helps you decide whether to keep pushing ahead (if you're going to a house where you can plug in, for instance) or turn around.

There's also the inevitability that these types of features — the ones that keep humans from making mistakes — could end up as nothing more than a brief footnote along the path to autonomous cars, which Tesla is feverishly working on. Taking the thinking out of driving in return for safety and convenience is the main goal of that project, and Tesla has already promised the first taste of that in an update coming to its vehicles this summer that will effectively self-park in selected spots and drive for you on highways. The step beyond that — the one where you can take a nap on your way to work or enjoy a movie with your kids — is Tesla's future, as long as Elon Musk gets his way. In the meantime, the company may have already turned dead batteries into a thing of the past.

Update April 16th, 4:47PM: Added up to date Supercharger numbers and a new screenshot of the range warning.