Handing Over the Keys II

A critical part of the sales, marketing, and service function at Tesla Motors is to help inform product development and engineering decisions based on a customer perspective, a part of what we call “product marketing.” When validation prototype 10 (VP10) was built, one of the things we planned to use it for was to put a lot of miles on the car and provide marketing feedback to engineering teams for final refinements or validation. We recently scheduled rides with some of our customers to expand the feedback loop and asked them to share their driving experiences publicly on this blog. The write-ups are unedited, save for my commentary in [brackets]. The first three can be found here. Read on for two new perspectives.

Rich Chen: My E-Ticket Ride

When Zak sent the email offering an opportunity to drive the Roadster VP10 (validation prototype 10), I jumped at the opportunity. When I learned that drivers were being encouraged to share their experiences on the Tesla blog, though, I felt a bit ambivalent: I was about to have my name circulated on the Internet, as one of the blind-faith leapers who plunked down full cash payment on a product that, at the time, had existed only as a prototype described in a Wired Magazine article. What if the car didn't live up to its promise? Will I be laughed at and mocked? I wondered, glancing nervously over at my Apple Newton.

Well folks, the drive confirms the following: I am a brilliant visionary! Wile E. Coyote, Genius! I'm going to see about that futurist job position, after all.

The car is absolutely fantastic. A terrific canyon carver and a road rocket that's perfectly capable of serving as a daily commuter, all in a gorgeous package. All the energy-efficient goodness of the car, the way I see it, is all gravy.

You've noticed that the Roadster attracts lots of different kinds of people, so to share a brief profile: I consider myself a car enthusiast first, a technology enthusiast after that, and an aspiring green consumer still after that. There's a Toyota Prius in my garage, but the space is shared with a chipped Audi Allroad and a gaggle of smog-exempt sports cars including a '66 E-Type, a '73 240Z, and an early 911. I recently sold a 996 Porsche Carrera 4 to make room for the Roadster. I've never driven an EV prior to the Roadster, nor have I found previous EVs all that interesting. I do have a sweet spot for Corvairs and my wife generally thinks I'm insane.

Rich Chen, no longer ambivalent, posed with VP10

Upon entering the car, I find most of the switchgear in their natural locations. The power window switches end up beneath my left arm, but I can get used to that. The Momo steering wheel has a nice heft to it, and feels very well-positioned. The wide sidesill means a snug footwell, which is bad news only if you drive in the Lotus (India, not Hethel) position. Overall, the ergonomics are not perfect but work fine – certainly closer to a Porsche than to a Citroen.

I turn the key and am greeted by an audible chime, which tells me that the car has booted up. Parking lot maneuvers are totally easy – the unassisted steering is not at all a workout thanks to the rear-biased weight distribution, and the forward creep they've built in means that I'm smoother with the Roadster than with my last golf cart.

With Tesla's Aaron (Aaron Platshon, product marketing) riding shotgun, I pull the car onto Skyline Blvd. and after a gingerly moment or two, give it a full throttle in second gear (the only one available to us today, bummer) to launch us up into the hills. Yee-hah! In just a couple of breaths we're at, ahem, quite extralegal speeds.

There is always torque available, along with more torque, and with extra torque available for later. This utter abundance of linear torque makes for a strange sensation – I'm used to thinking about finding the right rhythm for braking, shifting, and accelerating in a 5-speed car. In the Roadster today there's none of that, since I'm driving the car in second gear only, and there's also none of the frustrating gear hunting that automatic transmissions exhibit. It's just that whirring motor, at varying speeds, putting gobs of power down through the tires with no transmission middleman. It's an incredibly easy car to hustle around the corners, because the torque curve is so tall and flat, with power available at *all* times. My mind is free to wonder about other important things, like what the car would be like climbing all the way to redline – I'm only halfway up a gauge that "goes to eleven" – a whopping 13,500 rpm. [Editor's note: Redline will be closer to 13,000 rpm in production cars.]

The throttle control felt really easy to moderate, and I didn't feel any jerks going into regen braking. I'd keep the settings we had on the car today.

The suspension and steering feel really nicely dialed in. The road textures are communicated nicely to the steering wheel, without any jarring sensations. The feel is neither plush nor harsh – but as expected the car grips the road and carves around with no body roll. There's some understeer but being tied to the taller gear, I didn't get to see how it would behave with really heavy power applied coming out of the turn. Also, I unfortunately didn't encounter any mid-corner bumps or really rough pavement segments – a somewhat less heavenly driving environment would've been nice to experience. I hereby volunteer to host a drive event around some seriously rutted streets around the Port of Oakland.

I would also have liked to see how the car behaves in really high speed environments – I felt the front end feel considerably lighter at freeway speeds, but couldn't sustain the speed to confirm my suspicions. Throughout the drive today the car generally felt confident and solid, but I wouldn't want to live with any squirreliness at high speed.

I'm really impressed at the noise/vibration/harshness characteristics of the interior – being a prototype I'd expected a lot more rattling inside the cabin, but there were none. And this is all without the roaring exhaust sounds to cover up the little sounds. Brakes are solid; no complaints whatsoever.

My drive took me from Alice's Restaurant and headed down south on Skyline Blvd, to the intersection with Hwy 9. I didn't use a timer but am pretty sure that was a record-breaking run for me! Between the quiet drivetrain and the competent chassis I'm struck how little drama there was to drive this car – I'd arrived feeling happy, relaxed, and convinced that I can drive this car all day, every day.

I hope those of you waiting for delivery enjoy meeting new people – even during our brief drive, people were constantly walking up to the car wanting to learn more about it.

The drive back in Zak's (Zak Edson, member services) SRT-8 chase car had me convinced the Roadster is a driver's car built by a company full of car enthusiasts. We had a great drive talking about the Monterey Historics, Aaron's BMW 2002s, other Tesla customers' rides, and how great it was to be working for an automotive *startup* at this time in history, all the while trying to keep up with the Roadster – no easy task, even if being piloted by Josh "I got passed by a Subaru but it was being driven in anger" Hannah.

Thanks to Zak and Aaron for the wonderful opportunity – I can't wait to call this my daily driver.

Josh Hannah: Left Seat, at Long Last

I’ve certainly faced some raised eyebrows at my decision to write a check for $100,000 to purchase a car I’ve never driven, so if nothing else my thrilling test drive of VP10 was worth it just to explain that I have been behind the wheel, and come away impressed.

What I’ve hoped for from the Tesla Roadster is a car that provides a thrilling driving experience in the Bay Area, and at the same time replaces my Prius as a daily driver. Based on the drive today, I’m pretty confident the Roadster will fit the bill.

Thrilling Driving Experience

Josh Hannah cruises down Skyline Blvd. in VP10

The first requirement has an important caveat: “In the Bay Area.” A few years I owned a wonderful and landmark car – a 2003 BMW M5 – that in theory should have provided that, or so I hoped… but in practice, it did not. The M5 had loads of torque, and conquered every freeway onramp in sight. But beyond that, what do you need if you live here? It turns out (for me at least), a small, light, open-top roadster. The thrill of driving around here is on Skyline Blvd. (in Sky Londa, like today, or in Oakland, where I live) and roads of that ilk: 30-60 mph drives with lots of blind curves and modest straights.

Where the BMW didn’t fit, the Roadster is perfect. Plentiful torque, open top, light weight, great handling. And the experience live was most of what I had hoped for. The car was fast in second gear, no question. But I need that first gear, and can’t wait to feel that acceleration. [Editor's note: customer drives were conducted in second gear exclusively.] The handling seemed surefooted with a tendency to understeer a bit when pushed. It was hard to test the true limits on the cornering: I hate to inflict that on a passenger, plus it’s not my car! It seemed like the limits were pretty high, though. And, when I misjudged a corner on this unfamiliar road and came in too fast, the car (and its mid-engine design) tolerated my mid-corner lift on the throttle much more elegantly than a 911 would! The feel for the road with the unassisted steering is great.

The team is clearly trying to find the balance in the product on the driving performance/comfort/EV efficient matrix that suits their customers best, and I don’t envy their task. For the drive today, I might have liked a slightly stiffer ride giving even less roll in the corner (there is little, but there is some). But would the average customer (or would I, even) want to trade that for less daily drivability? Overall it seems like the balance they are making on these decisions is a pretty good fit for my use for the car.

Daily Driver

I want this car as my daily driver, a tall order for a high performance sports car. What are the important elements for the daily driver, to me?

  • Driving Comfort
  • Drivability
  • Reliability

Comfort has always been a concern. At 6’3", would I fit comfortably? (I can barely sit in an Elise, I once owned a Miata, which was fine for about an hour of driving, tops.) The answer continues to be: Yes. Getting in and out is not super easy, and might get old if you’re running errands. This is with the top off – with the top on, it would surely get old! Once in, I found the seat comfortable, the driving position excellent and the visibility excellent. The seat angle may not be adjustable, but it’s a great position for me.

The open roof was great on this gorgeous day, and the wind (with windows up) was a non-factor. You could feel the breeze but my baseball cap stayed comfortably in place.

For drivability, I think it’s an A+. The ride was very comfortable (across the admittedly excellent road – let’s see what it does on I-880 freeway). Surprising, to me, given the level of performance. Steering was heavier than usual at low speeds since there’s no power assist, but nothing that would be annoying to me.

Reliability: I didn’t really learn anything new, but I’m optimistic about the inherent reliability benefits of an EV.

Not Tesla’s fault, but the biggest impediment to daily driver may be the number of people who want to talk to you about the car every time you leave the dry cleaner. In a basically uninhabited parking lot in the mountains, Zak constantly encountered people coming up to pick his brain about the car. In a place with no foot traffic! What will be fun at first could become tiring quickly, but I suppose I can just think of poor George Clooney, who will get distraction squared as people approach him about his car and his celebrity. Wait, does George Clooney pick up his own dry cleaning?

Other Notes, Nits, Etc.

Josh Hannah takes the high road as a Subaru passes by

I may as well get this out of the way, since Rich will no doubt bring it up in his blog: Yes, I did get passed by a Subaru Outback while test driving the Roadster. I have no real justification. I wasn’t even testing the brakes at that point. Just a little cautious driving super fast with a passenger and a prototype I guess, but that’s a lame excuse.

Nits: The Nav system, as it stands, is beyond cheesy. It’s a 4-inch screen with a 1+ inch bezel around it! I mean seriously, there’s almost as much bezel surface area as there is screen. I hope Blaupunkt saved a few bucks in getting displays from 1995. I love satnav and use it all the time in my other cars, but if this stays in production I’d delete it. Word from the guys is there are great aftermarket alternatives (single-din units where 7-inch screens slide out and flip up, I’ve seen these at CES and they’re great)... they just don’t pass the government crash test. So I may be opting for radio delete and an aftermarket install on that. [Editor's note:We are looking at options for the NAV unit. Part of the consideration is how it integrates with the rest of the system, and the one that we currently have on VP10 fits the bill. We are always looking to improve, so we may have more on this subject later.]

For me, the (otherwise comfy) seats would benefit from more lateral support. I’m pretty thin and they have to choose seats that fit everybody, I guess. It’s not terrible, but I do slide around a bit in the corners. Otherwise the seats are great.

Parked at Alice’s Restaurant when we arrived was the Wrightspeed electric Ariel Atom. I felt like we were in the center of the EV universe!


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