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The Tesla Model S shook the industry, but its echo is fading

2024-03-08 10:20:04

A look back at one of the most significant products of the past 20 years.

The consumer electronics industry has changed radically over the past two decades. AR/VR devices have come and gone and come again, smartphones have grown from filling our pockets to dominating our lives, and the tendrils of connected services now touch everything we touch.

Yet, for me, the most exciting to watch has been the development of technology that moves us. I mean that literally: cars and scooters and e-bikes and all the other wild and wonderful modes of transportation that have grown wings or wheels over the past few decades.

A love for all that stuff has always been at my core. Many moons ago, before my time as editor-in-chief of this site, I served as automotive editor. In the late 2000s, that mainly meant pondering what was happening in the world of Ford Sync or writing about flying car concepts that, today, are still very decidedly grounded.

An excellent perk was getting to drive many early EVs, though it didn’t always end well. In 2012, I made an aborted attempt to get from Portland to Seattle for an emissions-free Engadget Show episode. The poor Mitsubishi i-MiEV we’d borrowed wasn’t up to the task.

But then along came the Tesla Model S. At the time, I knew it would be significant. Everyone in the industry knew it would be significant, but it’s only in looking back more than a decade later that we can truly appreciate just how significant it was. In the rear view mirror, we can also see what a shame it is Tesla has barely moved the needle since.

A preview in Fremont

In the (long) lead-up to that car’s eventual late-2012 release, Tesla invited me out to a supposed grand reopening of its Fremont factory. The place was unbelievably massive and virtually empty. Tesla officials were proud to show off the numerous giant presses that would stamp out Model S components.

Other Tesla employees were dutifully feeding into those presses metal sheets, which came out the other end as flat as they went in. The presses were there and they were a-pressing, but the dies that formed the parts were absent. This event, like the many Tesla events to come, was somewhat lacking in substance.

Still, the time I spent chatting with Peter Rawlinson had a huge impact on me. Formerly of Lotus and Jaguar, Rawlinson was the chief engineer at Tesla at the time. He and I talked for ages about the advantages of low-slung battery packs and the torque behavior of electric motors. It’s all standard stuff these days, but back then, it was a fantastic opportunity for me to learn. (You can enjoy some of his insight in a series of videos here.)

Early Tesla EVs had two-speed transmissions. I asked Rawlinson whether there was a third gear for handling reverse.

“No,” he said. “We just spin the motor backward.”

That seems like such a simple concept now, but that moment caused a small-yield explosion between my ears. I spent the remainder of the day pondering the myriad other unforeseen implications of this switch to electrification. Nothing else happening in the industry was nearly as exciting as this.

My review

I got a quick go in a Model S at that Fremont event, a lap or two around Tesla’s test track, but I’d have to wait until early 2013 before I could take one for my first proper review of the Model S. It was a Performance edition, with an 85kWh battery pack and a $101,600 sticker price.

I picked it up in New York City and drove it home to Albany, NY. Along the way, I got a preview of what would become another unfortunate Tesla theme: an uncomfortable relationship with the media.

Before I’d made it far, I got a warning light on the dash. I called Tesla PR to ask what to do.

“Oh, don’t worry, we’re watching you,” they said. “It’s fine.”

I didn’t feel fine. I’ve been reviewing devices for decades, and I always assume some degree of logging is involved, but this seemed a little more ominous.

(Over the years, it only got more so. In a later review of a Model 3, I complained the auto high-beams were terrible on country roads. Tesla PR asked me when this occurred so their engineers could pull up the footage from my drive.)

Warning light extinguished, Big Brother now visible in the back seat, I got back to enjoying the car. After having reviewed the Tesla Roadster two years before, a beautiful mess of a slapped-together machine, the Model S was something entirely different. It was calm, it was composed and it wasn’t nearly so drafty. I made the 165-mile drive home with 23 percent to spare, this in January on a 24-degree day.

That is pretty poor by today’s standards, but remember, the most common EV of the day was the Nissan Leaf. In 2013, the Leaf’s range was EPA rated at 75 miles. The Model S was on another level.

But it wasn’t perfect. I was not a fan of many of the interior materials and design choices in 2013, and I would have been so disappointed to know things really haven’t improved since.

I also found the handling underwhelming, but my biggest complaint was the lack of advanced driver assistance systems. That Model S didn’t even have adaptive cruise. Autopilot was still years away, and the ongoing debacle of Full Self Driving much further afield.

And yet I still gave it a glowing review, and it deserved it. I was suitably impressed, as were plenty of others. I recently spoke with several buyers of these early sedans, and most were totally enamored with their cars, despite many teething issues. (So many broken door handles...)

However, it probably goes without saying that many of the folks I spoke with are less enamored of Tesla’s CEO than they were back then. Between that, the racially abusive work environments, and the constant anti-worker behavior, cheering for Tesla is a lot more complicated than it used to be. That is a true shame.

The evolving landscape

The seismic forces generated when the Model S dropped still echo through the industry. You can feel them in virtually every premium EV on the market today.

And yet it’s in those other EVs that the bulk of EV innovation is happening. If you look at what Peter Rawlinson did with the Lucid Air, a sedan that goes over 500 miles on a charge, it’s easy to imagine what could have been had he not parted ways with Tesla. The on-road performance of the Porsche Taycan, the off-road prowess of the Rivian R1T and the minimalist cool of the Volvo EX30 are raising the bar.

Tesla has been more successful than any other manufacturer at getting more EVs into more driveways and at getting more chargers into more places. Tesla made EVs viable and desirable. You have to respect it for that. Lately, though, the company’s greatest achievements have all focused on cutting costs and minimizing complexity, often at the expense of quality and, indeed, safety.

Look at today’s Model S and you still see the car that was released in 2012. It’s quicker and has more range, sure, but it is the same platform and basic design I reviewed over a decade ago. Pondering the time wasted on vanity projects, like the Model X, and vaporware, like the new Roadster, it’s hard to not feel the ache of missed potential.