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Alternating Currents: Tesla doesn’t build machines to love but it still has the electric car game on lock

Brad’s Model Y loaner. Photo credit: Bradley Brownell / EV Pulse

I’ve never loved my iPhone. I don’t even feel particularly loyal to Apple, despite having bought three of them. The user interface is okay, but nothing spectacular. It’s an ergonomic nightmare. The iPhone keeps control of the smartphone market because it’s competent. It does everything pretty well, and there isn’t a lot of learning curve to figuring it out. The phone is the device that brings you to things you want, things you need, or things you enjoy. It’s a delivery method, not the enjoyment itself. In that way, driving a Tesla feels very similar.

I have really good friends. One of them recently offered to trade daily drivers for the month of December. He didn’t really want to drive my car particularly badly, as it’s a three year old Buick Regal TourX wagon, but he did want me to experience his basically brand new 2020 Tesla Model Y dual motor long range. Obviously I wasn’t going to turn down that experience. I’ll drive pretty much anything on four wheels, but when it’s an incredibly popular new car like the Y, I’ll jump at the opportunity. After a month and 1500-ish miles at the wheel, the Tesla has earned my respect, if not my love. 

Photo credit: Bradley Brownell / EV Pulse

Driving the Tesla Model Y doesn’t feel like driving a car. There is very little here that is recognizable as being part of a car. Sure it has seats and a steering wheel, but even those don’t exactly feel like belonging to a car in reality. I would argue that a Tesla is perhaps the most expensive cell phone app you can buy. That isn’t to say it isn’t worth the money, but you don’t exactly fall in love with cell phone apps, do you? 

If you view driving as something you do simply to arrive at point b after departing from point a, a Tesla will be a panacea in a world of flawed mechanical experiences. The integration between the car, the maps, and the charging stations is next level. The integration with your phone, using that as the key, the ability to turn on the HVAC to warm up the car in the cold mornings, the ability to communicate with the car from afar, all of that proves Tesla built a very competent app. Sure, many of those features are available from other EVs, or from legacy ICE automobiles, but in my experience, nobody else makes it that easy.

Photo credit: Bradley Brownell / EV Pulse

There is joy to be had in owning a Tesla, for the everyperson. Most of that joy is in the car’s effortlessness. Much like iPhones do, they just do pretty much whatever you ask of them. The rudimentary inputs from a pair of pedals and a steering wheel conspire to get you where you need to go, or you can have the car do a lot of that work for you with a complex suite of cameras and sensors. 

As a lifelong automotive enthusiast, however, much of what I have traditionally found joyful in driving is effort. I want to be connected and involved in pointing the car where it needs to go and urging it forward. I want quirks. I want a little bit of discomfort. I want connectivity to the road. These are things that a Tesla cannot provide. Sure, it’s quick, but quick isn’t everything. At the end of the month, when I had to give the car back to my friend, I didn’t feel anything walking away from it. 

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There are many things to be disappointed with in Tesla. Elon is a megalomaniacal weirdo who tweets too much. There are quality control problems. Autopilot is still sketchy as hell. I’m most disappointed that I couldn’t find a reason, any reason at all, to become endeared to the machine. It’s a tool, an implement, a device, a gadget, a gizmo. And yet, it’s still probably the best gizmo you can buy today. 

Despite all of this Tesla still has the upper hand in the electric car game. There’s a reason Tesla shifted half a million units (or almost did anyway) in 2020. Not only does Tesla have the brand identity to deliver an electric experience to hundreds of thousands of customers all over the world without any appreciable advertising or marketing efforts, but for most of the people taking delivery of a new Tesla, they’re probably blown away by things like the Supercharger network, the ease of use, and the party tricks. Tesla doesn’t really appeal to enthusiasts like me, but that doesn’t matter because enthusiasts like me are a tiny percentage of the market. 

Apple sells a lot of iPhones for many of the same reasons Tesla sells a lot of Model Ys. They don’t do anything impossible, but they still manage to make every day feel like the future. Here’s to the next 499,550 deliveries. I hope every one of them makes it to a satisfied customer. For now, I’ll keep my cheap-ass Leaf.

Written by Bradley Brownell
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