More than six years ago, in September 2014, I took delivery of my first electric vehicle – a Tesla Model S. Around that same time, I bought Tesla stock. Both decisions proved fortuitous, if not downright prescient, in light of the current excitement about Tesla in particular and electric vehicles in general. The Tesla model S was, at the time I purchased it, the best car I had ever owned. I kept it for five years, then in September 2019 I purchased a Tesla Model 3. That car is even better. My decision to buy a Tesla was not driven by a desire to have the latest “boomer” status symbol, and my purchase of Tesla stock wasn’t driven by a desire for short-term financial gain. I wanted to play a part, however small, in helping Tesla realize its mission – to move the entire auto industry and the world toward sustainable energy. Six years after my initial investment, Tesla has demonstrated to the world the benefits of electric automobiles. In the process, the company has redirected the entire automotive industry toward electrification. Tesla has changed my perception of cars and personal transport. Somewhat sadly, my love affair with internal combustion engine (ICE) automobiles is fading. I’ve been electrified.
Make no mistake about it – I am a “car guy.” How could I not be? I grew up in Flint, Michigan during the 1960s heyday of the American automobile industry. I spent my first two years of college at General Motors Institute (GMI, now Kettering University). And I love to drive. In recent years, I have driven from my home near Detroit, Michigan to California, to Key West, Florida, and to Vancouver, British Columbia. I drive to New York/New Jersey a few times every year. Cars and driving have been in my blood since childhood, well before I could imagine driving on city streets. In 1960s Flint, we had a place called Safetyville where youngsters drove scaled-down versions of General Motors cars around a scaled-down city. The mere anticipation of a visit to Safetyville was almost unbearable, and driving the cars there fueled my and my friends’ desire to hit the real road.
Despite growing up in the birthplace of General Motors, my automotive tastes were influenced in an unlikely direction by my brother Fred. In the summer of 1965 he dragged me all over Flint as he shopped for his first car. Fred was bound for college and I was headed for eighth grade. He test-drove a wide range of vehicles – including a Chevy Corvair, Volkswagen Kharmann Ghia, and a boxy thing called a Simca – before settling on a little red sports car – a Triumph TR4. Fred’s move was downright revolutionary, because his peers were driving or lusting after the Pontiac Bonneville, the Grand Prix, the Chevy Impala, the Buick Electra 225, the Oldsmobile Cutlass. They wanted big cars with big V-8 engines and big back seats. The girls they wanted to date wanted boys who had access to such big, sexy cars. Very few people, especially BLACK people, were excited by a tiny British sports car with two “bucket seats” up front and a barely inhabitable “jump seat” in the rear. The TR4 had a puny four-cylinder engine and a four-speed manual (“stick”) transmission. But Fred always seemed to “Think Different,” decades before Steve Jobs made that grammatical construct famous. He wanted a car that handled well, was fun to drive, and easy on gas. Fred wasn’t dismissive of female desires – I think he believed his automotive choice would self-select girls who were like him, i.e., sophisticated. Despite being mocked by some of his Flint buddies, Fred drove that car throughout his collegiate career at Ferris State, and his unorthodox vehicle choice did not preclude him from wooing the belle of the Ferris campus, one Patricia Walker (now Patricia Tarver). When Fred went off to serve in the Vietnam War era U.S. Army in 1970, he bequeathed the TR4 to me. I was a junior at Flint Central High School, and I had a grand time tooling around town in that car. Any former Triumph owners out there will immediately recognize my summary opinion of the TR4: it was a great car when it was running.
All my car choices since those days have been influenced by my brother’s automotive ethos of fun and frugality. I purchased my first car before senior year – an Austin America. It was in some ways similar to my brother’s first car (well, it was British), but lacked the cool factor. The Austin America was the stateside version of the original Mini Cooper, and while bigger and more reliable than the TR4, it didn’t attract muscle-car seeking girls or girls who sought sophistication. In other words, it was the worst of both worlds. It was, however, fun and frugal, or as the British say, cheap and cheerful. At least to me.
Since those days in Flint, I’ve owned a lot of cars (literally – they could fill a used car lot!). My tally includes five Porsches, five Volkswagens, four Saabs, four Audis, two BMWs, one Honda, one Mercedes, a Chevy Camaro, a Pontiac 6000 wagon, and one Lexus. Those last three seem like aberrations, and they are. I ditched the Austin and bought the Camaro when I started at GMI – I wanted to look like a company man. I bought the Pontiac wagon in 1984 after starting my company, mainly to haul equipment around. The 1995 Lexus SC400 was a midlife crisis brain fart – I sold it after only six months. With those notable exceptions, I have eschewed large and/or fancy cars (well, except for two Audi A8s). I have tended toward medium-to-small size, fun, efficient vehicles. The template my brother Fred established has remained pretty much intact.
Fred’s template plus a few wrinkles of my own help to explain my reaction when I first saw the Tesla Model S. My wife Kishna and I were strolling the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica during a July 2012 visit to LA. We noticed a lot of excitement and a velvet rope in front of one of the storefronts, so we were naturally curious. When we got closer, I saw a sleek, sporty sedan inside and immediately recognized it as the new Tesla. I asked an attendant out front what was going on, and he said it was an invitation-only introduction party. I was intrigued, but alas, not invited.
I had known about Tesla the company for a few years. I first took notice in 2008 when the Tesla Roadster was introduced but was only mildly interested. It was a small two-seater based on the tiny Lotus Elise, a British sports car I could hardly fit into. The Tesla Roadster garnered significant interest from the press, movie stars, and a few executives, but seemed too much like a toy and a “science project” for my taste. My sports car at the time was a Porsche 911 Turbo, and I wasn’t about to trade it for a hacked-up electric Lotus.
The Tesla Model S seemed different. It was a beautifully crafted four door sedan, elegant in its simplicity. A little bigger than ideal for me but definitely acceptable. Still, I had a lot of questions. Where and how will I charge it? How far will it travel on a charge? How reliable is it? Can it withstand a Michigan winter? What’s up with that enormous central display screen?
In the end, I wasn’t ready to buy the Model S in 2012, but I definitely bought into the story of Tesla and its entrepreneur co-founder, Elon Musk. The company’s mission seemed like a noble one – to move the entire transportation industry away from fossil fuels and toward sustainable energy; to drastically reduce the emissions of climate-altering carbon dioxide; in short, to save the planet. I didn’t know if the mission was achievable, but I admired the fact that Musk, a billionaire who certainly didn’t need to do so, was willing to risk his wealth and esteem to try.
In 2014 I decided to look seriously at buying a Tesla Model S. What convinced me? Aside from positive reviews in the automotive and general press, it was the car’s chassis. That’s right, the chassis! Tesla’s booth at the Detroit Auto Show that year included a Model S with the body removed. That view of the car revealed its simplicity: no engine, no transmission, no radiator. No alternator, no fuel pump, no oil filter. No mufflers, no catalytic converters, no tail pipes. The car’s infrastructure was dead simple – basically a battery and a motor. Ultimately, seeing that simplicity on display convinced me to give the Tesla a try.
The nearest Tesla showroom was in Ohio because Tesla was precluded from conducting business in Michigan. I was engaged to speak at the Black Enterprise Conference in Columbus in May, so on the way to that gig I stopped at the nearby Easton Town Center Tesla showroom to see and drive the car. After ten minutes behind the wheel, I was convinced. The Model S was so smooth, so quiet, so doggone fast – it was like nothing I had driven before. As soon as I returned home to Michigan, I went on the Tesla web site and ordered a dark green Model S 85. The “85” denoted the energy capacity of the car’s battery – 85 kilowatt-hours. It was still early days for Tesla, and in the months leading up to my purchase there had been news stories about motor failures and battery fires in the Model S. Buying a Tesla at that time felt like a risk, but it was one I was willing to take. I believed that buying a Tesla was one small thing I could do to help advance the cause of sustainable transportation. If the car turned out to be a dud, or if the company went bankrupt, at least I’d have some good stories to tell. My car might even turn out to be a rare collector’s item, like a DeLorean. Risky or not, Tesla was starting to catch on and orders were backlogged. My car, ordered in May, would not arrive until September. I could hardly wait.
My delivery was scheduled for September 14, 2014, exactly four months after my test drive. Due to the reasons stated above, I couldn’t take delivery of the car in Michigan – my delivery location was Villa Park, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. The day prior, I boarded a discount Megabus in Detroit for the trip to Chicago. I had a nice dinner at the Bandera restaurant on Michigan Avenue, then caught an Uber to the home of my friends Steve and Grace Chen in Wheaton. I hadn’t seen the Chens since my AT&T Bell Labs days (the 1980s), but we had stayed in touch. I spent a nice evening catching up with them, and the next morning Steve drove me over to Villa Park.
The Tesla delivery process was short and sweet. I handed over a personal check and signed a few papers. The sales agent made sure I knew how to operate the car and gave me a few Tesla swag items – a jacket, a travel mug, a hat – and I was on the road back to Michigan. I figured the car wouldn’t make it back to Detroit without a charge, so I planned to stop at the only Tesla Supercharger between Chicago and Detroit to “fill ‘er up.” The Supercharger, which refills the car’s battery at a much faster rate than a residential electrical outlet, was near a little shopping center in St. Joseph, Michigan. Having never charged an electric vehicle before, I was unsure of the process, but did manage after some fumbling to plug in and initiate the charge. I took a picture of my new car at the charging station and got a bit of food at the little Mexican chain restaurant (was it Qdoba or Moe’s?) near the Supercharger. Forty-five minutes or so after arriving in St. Joseph, I resumed the trip home.
My inexperience with the Tesla Supercharger exposed itself on the drive from St. Joseph to Detroit. I somehow failed to give the car a sufficient charge (I had the maximum charge limit set too low), so I had barely enough juice to make it home. That led to some nervous moments on the final leg of the journey, but I drove like a grandmother to save energy and made it home without incident. I parked my new Tesla in the garage, proud to have become an “early adopter” in the age of electric vehicles.
The Tesla Model S far exceeded my expectations. The car’s best features fell into five general categories: convenience, performance, efficiency, reliability, and innovation. A bonus in those days was the car’s rarity – hardly anyone in our area had even heard of Tesla, much less seen one. People were constantly pulling up to me at a light or in a parking lot and asking: “what is that?!” I enjoyed seeing the look on people’s faces when I told them I was driving an electric vehicle, and that no, it required absolutely no gasoline.
What did I like about the Model S? I hardly know where to begin. The car was insanely fast – it could out-accelerate any gas vehicle from a stop light, including most Ferraris and Porsches. It handled well too, for a car of its size and weight. The audio system was simply outstanding. Passenger and cargo space were tremendous. The navigation system was like nothing I had seen before – clean and simple, and presented via Google Maps on the car’s beautiful 17-inch central display. A smartphone app allowed easy remote control of the car’s functions. Rather than blather on about the car’s many advantages, I’ll include a pros and cons list in a sidebar. Suffice it to say that owning and driving the Model S was an entirely new experience. A quote from billionaire investor Chamath Palihapitiya perfectly represents my feelings about Tesla: “Your definition of what is expected is altered forever.” After owning a Tesla, all gasoline engine cars start to feel like relics of a bygone era. And they are.
I kept the Model S for five years, during which time I spent exactly zero dollars on maintenance. I never came close to that kind of reliability with any other automobile. In 2019, I sold the Model S and bought a white Model 3. It was smaller and sportier – closer to the Fred Tarver template. I picked that car up at the Tesla delivery center near Cleveland Ohio, and when I drove home and pulled into the garage, the Tarver motor pool consisted of, besides the Tesla, a white 2017 Porsche 718 Boxster, a white 2017 Volkswagen Golf R, and a midnight blue 2014 Audi Q5. All great cars, but the Tesla was already starting to make the others seem pointless. A few months after buying the Model 3, I sold the Porsche. A year later, we sold the Audi Q5, which was Kishna’s daily driver, and bought the Tesla Model Y – a small electric “crossover” SUV. I couldn’t bear to part with my Volkswagen Golf R, though. To me, that vehicle represents the best of 20th century automotive design, and it was a steady and reliable companion on my 2018 road trip to Vancouver. Its basic layout derives from my very first car, the neanderthal Austin America. The Golf R epitomizes the Fred Tarver automotive template that was seared into my brain in the summer of 1965. I may never sell it.
Automotive nostalgia notwithstanding, if you haven’t yet driven a Tesla, you should do so. It will change the way you think about cars. You too might become electrified.
Here, in no particular order, are the things I like about Tesla:
- Easy, online ordering process
- Great performance
- Over-the-air feature updates
- Tesla smartphone app
- Great storage options: front trunk (frunk), trunk, under trunk floor
- Cargo space
- Set climate controls remotely from the app
- ALL seats are heated
- Terrific audio system
- Outstanding user interface with large touch screen
- High reliability
- Very low maintenance cost
- Google maps integration for navigation
- Smartphone calendar integration
- Vegan interior – no murdered cows
- High energy efficiency – four to five times as efficient as internal combustion engine vehicles
- No tailpipe emissions – hell, no tailpipe!
- Crazy acceleration
- Excellent range between charges
- Refuel at home – no gas station visits!
- Potential for at-home solar charging
- Built in dashcam and “sentry mode” on Model 3 and Y
- “Autopilot” driver assist feature
- Absolute best crash test performance
- Great infotainment features: Spotify, Netflix, YouTube, other streaming services
- Huge and growing Supercharger network (needed for long road trips)
- Wireless phone charging in Model 3 and Y
- Cool, functional yet understated “minimalist” styling
- “Dog mode” creates comfortable, safe environment for pets left in car
- “Camp mode” allows climate controls and infotainment while “camping” in the car
And here are some of my greatest Tesla concerns:
- Lacks the engagement and excitement of some internal combustion engine cars
- Significantly reduced range in cold weather
- Hackers could conceivably take control of your vehicle
- Tesla knows where your car is and everywhere it has been
- Interior camera could give Tesla or hackers the ability to spy on you
- Long advertised “full self-driving” features not ready for prime time