What makes a Tesla so unique?
As every EV owner knows, driving on electrons has a number of perks that fossil cars can’t offer—leaping instant acceleration, one-pedal driving, and the convenience of charging at home and never visiting a gas station (and seldom visiting a repair shop).
Above: Tesla Model 3 (Photo by Charlie Deets)
Driving a Tesla offers all of the above, plus an additional menu of features—some of these are important innovations, and some are just for fun. Some are mentioned often in news headlines, and some aren’t familiar to the general public.
The feature that tends to grab peoples’ attention when they see the interior of a Tesla for the first time is the huge touchscreen that dominates the dashboard (at least it used to be, until every other carmaker copied it). Almost every vehicle function is controlled via the tablet-like user interface. However, the screen is just the visible manifestation of a truly revolutionary concept—unlike other vehicles, which are controlled by a hodgepodge of different computer hardware and software, a Tesla has one CPU and one operating system that controls everything from the batteries and motors to the AC and the navigation system.
As Tesla co-founder Ian Wright explained to me in a 2014 interview, this means “fewer black boxes, a simpler wiring harness, more integrated software, fewer surprises when something goes wrong and other things don’t work properly, or something weird starts happening.” The major reliability problem with most modern cars is the electronics and software, Wright told me. Unlike other automakers, which have become used to sourcing computer systems from suppliers all over the world, Tesla took a Silicon Valley systems architecture approach from the beginning.
One of the many important things that Tesla’s unified operating system enables is over-the-air updates. Cell phones, software and other products had already been updating themselves online for years when Tesla introduced the feature, but legacy automakers are just beginning to implement it—The Ford Mustang Mach-E and Porsche Taycan now offer some OTA updates, and some other auto brands are planning to offer the feature on upcoming models.
This is an extremely important feature that can extend the useful life of each vehicle, and even address problems without a visit to the shop—when Consumer Reports identified a braking problem in 2018, Tesla diagnosed and fixed the issue within a few days. OTA updates are also fun—many Tesla owners have reported their delight at getting into their car in the morning to find that they’ve acquired a little more range, or perhaps a highly useful new feature overnight.
Above: Software updates have included new capabilities like the opportunity to watch Netflix while the car is parked (Photo by Malte Helmhold)
Another unique Tesla feature that relies on the unified operating system is Autopilot. As with the touchscreen, Tesla has led and other auto brands have followed. Every upscale model now comes with a suite of driver-assistance features, but other brands are taking an incremental approach, introducing new capabilities one by one. Tesla sees Autopilot in a more comprehensive light, as something that will lead to Full Self-Driving mode, and eventually, to self-driving Robotaxis that could make owning any other vehicle like owning a horse, as Elon Musk famously quipped.
Tesla was the first automaker to widely deploy a network of fast chargers to enable highway travel, and while public fast charging networks such as Electrify America and Europe’s Ionity are expanding rapidly, the Supercharger network remains the gold standard. Once again, other automakers have followed the path Tesla has blazed. Tesla has recently indicated that it will soon begin opening up the Supercharger network to other EV brands.
Sasha Lekach, writing in Mashable, recently compiled a list of some of the functional and/or fun features that make a Tesla a Tesla. Sentry Mode, which makes a video recording of suspicious activity near a parked vehicle, has foiled many a would-be thief or vandal. Dog Mode makes running errands more convenient for drivers with canine companions (or feline—it works for cats too). Despite its scary name, Bioweapon Defense Mode, available on Models S and X, is designed to protect drivers from air pollution, which is a serious health hazard—some studies have found that the air inside a car can be dirtier than the air outside by the road.
The features designed so far are designed to make Teslas safer, more capable, more convenient and more cost-effective than legacy vehicles. However, what really sells cars is fun, and Tesla has cornered that market too. Tesla’s Insane, Ludicrous and Plaid Modes make other automakers, with unimaginatively-named driving modes like Eco and Sport, look like the stodgy old squares that they are. And Model S was surely the first vehicle that revealed its own puckish sense of humor. For maximum acceleration, you must invoke Launch Mode, but doing so too often can cause excessive battery wear, so the car warns you before you turn it on. You have two options: “Yes, bring it on!” or “No, I want my mommy!”
Above: A look at the new 'Plaid' mode with the new Model S (YouTube: Tesla)
The fun and games go on and on: video and audio streaming, classic arcade games and other diversions are available to help you while away at a Supercharging session. And if you (or your kids) are sitting around bored, having finally exhausted all the fun of Caraoke and Fart Mode, you can always go on a hunt for easter eggs.