Talking Tesla with TechnoBuffalo

Guest Blog Post: Charles Morris is the Senior Editor of Charged, the magazine of electric vehicles, for which he writes a daily blog and regular print articles. He's also written five books including Tesla Motors: How Elon Musk and Company Made Electric Cars Cool, and Sparked the Next Tech Revolution.

Jon Rettinger is a longtime Tesla owner and fan. His TechnoBuffalo remains one of the most respected reviewers of consumer electronics and software - the website gets 15 million pageviews per month, and the YouTube channel has 1.3 million subscribers. So he would seem to be the perfect person to ask about Tesla’s unique user interface. Tesla is of course an innovator in several areas of automotive tech, not just in electrification. Its user interface is light-years ahead of anything else you can buy in a vehicle today.

Above: Jon Rettinger with his first Tesla, a 2013 Model S (Source: TechnoBuffalo)

Cars have been evolving into computers for a decade, but even compared to a humble smartphone, most are still quite primitive. As Tesla founder Ian Wright once told me, ordinary vehicles tend to have a dozen computers that can’t talk to each other, whereas Tesla’s cars run on a unified OS that can be updated in real time. Jon has been delighted by this since he first bought his 2013 Model S.


Above: Jon's Tesla Model S (Image: TechnoBuffalo)

“My car got more software updates than my phone did. It seemed like every month or so there was a new software update with new features. For a car to get better than when I bought it was astounding... It was beyond astounding to see it happen so fast, and to see a company being proactive, instead of reactive, was even cooler.” If the cars had the ability to run third-party apps, they would be “just like a phone.” In fact, Tesla said long ago that it planned to have an app store that would offer third-party apps, but although there are some apps that enable things like AC adjustments or smart watch functionality, a true third-party ecosystem with apps that actually control the car has not yet come to fruition.

Above: Tesla's 17" touchscreen display (Image: TechnoBuffalo)

Tesla’s user interface may represent the biggest way in which the innovative company is directly influencing the majors. “You look at the screens now in Volvos - the X90 and the S90 - they’re large, portrait-oriented touchscreens. The new Porsche Panamera, the new Mercedes, they’re all moving in that direction, and I think that’s definitely a response to Tesla. Tesla is shifting [the definition of] what a luxury buyer is expecting.”


Above: Jon notes the copycat look of the Volvo X90 portrait-style touchscreen display (Image: Stillman Volvo)

Jon recently retired his Model S in favor of a new X. “The S was perfect, I had no issues with it, it was an incredibly reliable car,” but with 2 children to be driven to school, the family needed more space. With the X he can add a captain’s chair in the back, or up to 4 car seats for carpool days. What about any early issues? Jon has only had his car for a week, but so far he’s found it flawless - and he gave the fit and finish a very thorough examination when he took delivery. As one can see on the forums, people are still having some issues, but that’s becoming less frequent, and Jon believes the majority of the problems have been solved. 


Above: Jon gives first impressions of his new Tesla Model X (Youtube: TechnoBuffalo)

Jon also has a side gig as a talking head on CNBC, commenting on the frequent gyrations of TSLA stock. He calls it a "cult stock" and expects that TSLA shares’ recent resurgence is due to signs that Tesla will hit its delivery targets for this quarter. Some say that today’s EV scene parallels the wild and crazy internet days of the 1990s, or the handheld revolution of the 2000s. Could Tesla and its followers someday truly disrupt the auto industry the way internet innovators (including Mr Musk with PayPal) disrupted so many realms, and bring down the Big Three?


Above: Jon's also a frequent guest on CNBC discussing TSLA stock (Image: CNBC)

Jon doesn’t think Detroit has anything to fear - for now. “I don’t see Tesla even coming close to disrupting what the big automakers are doing right now. Tesla might be leading in luxury sedan sales, but that only competes against [a few models]. People are still buying gas-powered cars in record numbers... but the Model 3 could change that.” Yet the majors certainly aren’t showing any dread of disruption. “The reticence to accept EVs is still very strong - even GM has said that the Bolt project is still essentially a compliance car.” (Trevor Page and Kenneth Bokor of the Model 3 Owners Club made a similar point last week).


Above: Jon taking delivery of his new Tesla Model X (Twitter: @jon4lakers)

Jon points out that it’s very difficult for a giant company such as Toyota or BMW to shift into EV mode - all their expertise has to do with ICEs, so they will continue to be slow to respond to Tesla’s electric example. The first true competition for the Californians, Jon believes, will materialize in a couple of years, when the Porsche Mission E comes on the market. The media throws around terms like “Tesla killer” all the time, but the Mission E represents “the first direct response to Tesla” from the incumbents. “If BMW ends up launching an i5, then you’ll start to see a lot more competition.”