New Zealand Law Society - Tesla Model S P100D

Tesla Model S P100D

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Tesla S P100D
Photo: Jakob Härter

You may well know a few things already about Tesla vehicles: battery powered; semi-autonomous; rumours of a Ludicrous mode; made by a company founded by a guy who founded a company that can simultaneously land multiple used space rockets; made by a company founded by a guy with a bit of a Twitter problem.

Given that the rocket company gives its products names like Falcon Heavy, Dragon, and BFR, it’s a bit disappointing that the car company comes up with names that are, at best, prosaic. The S. The X. The 3 (one day).

On the other hand, there’s something to be said for names that contain information, and the S P100D contains a lot of information. “P” is for performance. More performance than you’ve ever seen. Zero to 100km/h in 2.7 seconds. That’s a lot of performance. “100” means a 100kW battery. That’s a huge battery, folks. A beautiful battery. I was told it’s good for 613km per charge. That’s a suspiciously accurate figure, but real-world driving suggests that it can actually go that far. “D” is for dual – two electric motors – one powering each axle – i.e. all wheel drive. And “S” because it’s always cool to have an S in a car name. Or an R.

That 2.7 seconds won’t happen by accident. You need to (a) engage Ludicrous (it does exist), (b) mash the right-hand pedal, and (c) don’t flinch. 2.7 seconds is such a small number that I found myself going through NZ Autocar magazine’s handy dandy new car data to see how small the numbers are for other fast cars. I made a list (doing the hard work so you don’t have to). I think the results bear publishing. Note how many S and Rs there are.

Car 0-100 time Price in comparison to a P100D
Aston Martin Vanquish S Coupe 3.5 A lot more
Audi R8 V10 Plus 3.08 A lot more
BMW M6 Coupe 4.2 A fair bit more
Ferrari 488 spider 3.0 A lot more
Ford Focus RS 4.72 Way less than almost anything else on this list. Bonus points for having both an S and an R in its name.
Jaguar F-Type SVR Coupe AWD 3.7 A fair bit more
Lamborghini Aventador LP 750-4 Superveloce Coupe 2.9 Ouch. About four P100Ds. Tied with the Maserati for best name.
Lexus LC500 V8 5.0 Same price. But dead slow in this company.
Lotus Exige S 4.0 Bargain. About two Focus RSs
Maserati Granturismo MC Stradale 4.5 A lot more. Another excellent name.
McLaren 650 S 3.0 A lot more
Mercedes AMG E 63 S 4Matic+ 3.4 A lot more. Worst name.
Nissan GT-R Coupe 3.0 Less than a P100D. Zowsers.
Porsche 911 Turbo S 2.9 A lot more
Subaru WRX STi 4.9 About one Focus RS
Volkswagen Golf R 4.93 Bit more than the Subaru
Volvo S90 T8 AWD R-Design 4.7 Less than a P100D, but it’s no Nissan GT-R.

You get the idea. If you want a fast car, buy a Ford Focus RS.

Driving a Tesla is different to driving other cars. Everyone else has been adding more and more computing power to their cars. Tesla has taken a computer and added wheels.

The lesson

One is not allowed out of a Tesla dealership without a lesson in how the thing works. There are two ways a salesperson will hand over a new car to a member of the motoring press. Either a salesman (this doesn’t seem to happen with saleswomen) will take you through Cars 101, which might include how the remote door locks work, how to adjust the seats and the mirrors, what the transmission lever does, how to operate the automatic lights, and so on. This is tedious. The non-tedious option is to hand over a key and wave in the general direction of the car, perhaps with a clue as to its colour, to help in identification of the right vehicle. The rest is your problem.

The drive

Turns out the P100D is an exception to the general rule. Pointers as to operation are quite useful. But even after a briefing, neither too comprehensive nor too concise, by a young female Tesla vendor, it was a slightly nervous correspondent who ventured out onto Auckland’s Great North Road.

The nanny in the car

I made it to the Harbour Bridge before first offending the computer on wheels. I had managed to engage autopilot and was happily cruising within my lane and the speed limit when I started receiving hints that something was amiss. Apparently still in information overload mode, I was unable to understand what was now being increasingly strongly hinted at, until the brakes were applied without my consent, and I was informed in definite terms by an autopilot nanny that I was to hold the wheel at all times, and that autopilot was now disabled for the rest of my trip, so that I could think about what I had done.

I should acknowledge here that said Tesla vendor had made me promise, not 10 minutes earlier, not to drive without hands. But she hadn’t also told me that the steering wheel would know if I didn’t. The steering wheel knew.

The safety bit

People have died in Teslas which were piloting themselves, so it can be reasonably assumed that autopilot isn’t foolproof, and it is carefully not described as an autonomous system. But it’s the kind of technology that begs for attention. Or inattention. If you were inclined to have a coffee in one hand and a phone in the other while crawling through stop-start traffic, you would find it excellent. It’s pretty useful on a motorway. It will even negotiate winding country roads – going around corners, slowing where necessary, speeding up again, staying clear of traffic ahead. And you don’t really have to keep your hands on the wheel at all times: the autopilot nanny can be kept happy by just giving the wheel a reassuring squeeze every now and then. But it still falls short of a human’s ability to predict and react smoothly to what’s happening ahead, and consequently an autopilot journey can be a bit braky.

The window to the P100D’s soul is a huge central touch screen. So big that you don’t need to work your way through layer upon layer of menus to find what you want, because it can display so much information at once. If you do want to go delving into menus, you will find some unusual stuff: Easter Eggs, in technical parlance. Google it.

The off switch

Despite the driving lesson, I wondered for some time whether I was turning the thing off properly. Too embarrassed to call the driving instructor, I Googled it. I was, in fact, doing it properly. “Off” involves (a) pushing the “park” button on the transmission, and then (b) doing nothing. Get out and walk away. No off switch. No handbrake. Doesn’t matter what kind of slope you’re on: Teslas stay where you put them.

Step (a) is, however, optional. The park button is possibly only there to make you feel useful. You can just get out and walk away. The car knows you’ve left, it engages park, retracts the mirrors and door handles, powers down the screen, and locks itself. I’m not even convinced that “park” is a real thing. When you stop, all four wheels are held stationary by their respective electric motors, so quite what else there is for “park” to achieve I don’t know.

When you return with your coffee and sticky bun, provided the key (coolest key on the market btw) is about your person, the flush door handles extend again in a digitally welcoming way. Climb in, touch the brake pedal, press the accelerator (the term “throttle”, I fear, is facing extinction, given its quaint mechanical origin) and away you waft.

But enough about the tech. What’s it like to drive? Very good. If you are looking at spending 200k (ish) on a car, and you don’t finish up with one of these, you’ve made a mistake.

William McCartney is an Auckland barrister.

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