Tesla S - the iPhone of cars?

Posted by Rob Enderle

One of the most interesting comments I heard from an attendee of the big Tesla S event last weekend was that the long-awaited car launch reminded him of an Apple event.

Indeed, one of the coolest features in the car is the massive central display that could be considered the best non-iPhone/iPad in the market because it will drive you to work. Granted, it’s somewhat more expensive - but a tablet or smartphone you can drive? Now that’s innovation!  

Tesla S - the iPhone of Cars?But what makes an Apple event fun is the mystery, the focus on the benefits of the technology, rather than the technology itself.

Of course, there is also the sense of  the impressive status you acquire from buying a product that, while expensive, a large number of folks can actually afford.  

This last point may be a bridge too far for the Tesla S, but it does showcase not only where Tesla is going, but where the automotive industry might eventually follow.   

Electric Cars

For most of us, electric cars really don’t make much sense - for now. This is largely because the ecosystem needed to support the cars isn’t deployed yet, and you can’t charge the cars up as quickly as you can fill a car with gas. Plus, the accrued gas savings typically doesn't pay for the higher price over the life of comparable vehicles. 

However, assuming investment continues and gas steadily increases in price, such problems will eventually become advantages. Remember, electric cars can be fueled by solar panel arrays (free fuel), they are very quiet, and they are (assuming clean energy generation) very clean.  Some folks have compelling arguments that this line, as many may have already been crossed (Popular Mechanics/Myth Busters).

They are also pretty damn cool and from a standing start, boast a rather impressive 0-30 performance - which is about as fast as you want to race unless you love spending time in traffic school, paying tickets, and high insurance premiums.

The Tesla Roadster in particular is one of the most fun cars I’ve ever driven (here compared to a 320 HP Porsche Boxster Spyder) but even with its advertised 250+ range you don’t go on long trips. The Roadster is over $100K, has no insulation (for weight) so was really noisy inside, and felt kind of like a kit car.

Funny thing is without the engine sound you hear every rattle which I found somewhat disconcerting. Still, from 0-30 that Tesla Roadster is the most fun on the road - watch the end of the video above where they do the drag race. W00t! 

In any case, the Tesla S is vastly different, and while not as fast or as fun, is eminently more practical. 

Tesla S

One of the things Tesla seems to understand is the very real concern around charging the vehicle. So you can fast charge the battery pack in about 45 minutes, which is still way longer than it would take to fill up your tank, but obviously much better than the more typical 4 to 6+ hours or overnight for older vehicles.

It also has different prices depending on the range you want 160, 230, or 300 miles , hough I would take off about a third of this if you want to make sure you aren’t running around with an extension cord begging for juice. So, think around 100, 150, or 200 miles - that is driven by someone other than your grandmother. 

That being said, the car is insulated, quiet and actually looks like a vehicle for adults. The interior features a massive 17" tablet as a central focal point for its AV system, along with integrated network connectivity for apps like Google Maps and Slacker music. But it is the display which turns the car into more of a tablet with four wheels than just a car with some outdated AV gear.   

The Tesla Smartphone/Tablet Car

I believe other manufacturers will be forced to copy the massive display. You see, the biggest problem with vehicle technology is that car companies operate on a 3-5 year development cycle followed by a 3 year production cycle. This means there is as much as 8 years between when technology for a car is defined and when they stop manufacturing it for new cars.  

To be sure, tech is currently changing on a 6 month cycle, which effectively makes virtually all car tech practically obsolete on the day it is first announced and incredibly outdated by the last year. Of course, if you use a screen interface you can update the car as easily as you can flash the core software, and you don’t have to do a hardware swap for much of the system.  

Tesla Model SIn essence, this is what allows PCs, tablets, and smartphones to last longer in market after they are launched: they are more easily updated.

In addition, by approaching the market with a more generic device like this, Tesla can anticipate changes and use the scale of the tablet market to integrate capacity for these changes early on - or upgrade simply by installing newer processors and faster memory, much like Apple updates the iPad and iPhone with newer versions.   

And similar to a smartphone, the Tesla S is 3G connected, so many of the updates will execute automatically in the cloud. In short, while this won’t close the gap completely, it does indicate considerable progress. In short, the Tesla 2 is really the first car to approach this interface/technology problem like Apple. If successful, the vehicle could herald the beginning of a revolution.  

Wrapping Up:  No Electric Car for Me

Nevertheless, I still think the approach of Fisker, which built an advanced electric/gas hybrid called the Fisker Karma, is a better one - unless charging can be reduced to minutes, with gas stations featuring rapid chargers along the way.

I think the Fisker looks cooler too, but it is far less affordable.  However I’m building a house in Belize and there I might consider an electric because I’d rarely drive over 60 miles round trip which is likely the ideal range for an electric car. 

In the end, it isn’t the Tesla S that I find the most interesting part of this launch - but the wonderful 17" screen inside. This is where I think the future of cars is going, and Tesla is heralding that future with the S.  Much like the iPhone changed cell phones from flip to screen phones, the Tesla S could potentially transform future cars into tablets with 4 wheels. I think I can live with that.