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EV Ownership: Not all Unicorns and Rainbows

by Edward Sanchez | Jun 11, 2019

Two weeks into owning a Tesla Model 3

The day I have awaited literally for the better part of a decade for finally happened just over a week ago when I took delivery of a 2019 Tesla Model 3. I was intrigued and interested in this car when it was still just a figment of Elon Musk’s imagination codenamed “Bluestar.” So now that I’m gripping its fat, sporty steering wheel, does it live up to all my expectations? Mostly. However, the real-life experience of living with an EV puts a harsh spotlight on some current issues with them, primarily in the realm of charging.
Tesla Model 3

However, in fairness to Tesla, this is not a problem on their part in terms of engineering, but rather a lack of preparedness on my part. The biggest issue with EVs historically and still today, is charging. Even in EV-saturated Southern California, publicly accessible Level 2 and 3 charging stations are distributed somewhat randomly, with some areas having a relative abundance, and others an alarming shortage. This has prompted me on several occasions to get up an hour and a half earlier than usual to snag the one spot closest to my house. Coincidentally, this also happens to be right next to a Panera café that opens at 6 a.m. How convenient. This is one of two publicly accessible Level 2 chargers in the entire city of Mission Viejo that I’m aware of. The other is at the mall, and is almost always in use. This turned me into somewhat of a “charging nomad,” checking the apps on an hour-by-hour basis for charger availability, and finding nearby restaurants and coffee shops that don’t mind me lingering for a few hours over a bagel and coffee with my laptop.

You see, I became conditioned, like many others, to take whatever Tesla and Elon Musk said in regard to timelines with a healthy-sized chunk of salt. So when I put in my official order on May 15, with an estimated delivery time of “2 weeks” I figured “at least a month.” A mere 10 days later, I got a call from the regional delivery center stating my configuration was in stock and available for immediate delivery.  At this point, I had not yet had the work done on my home to allow me to easily do Level 2 home charging. My first attempt at home charging on a household 110v outlet resulted in a strong plastic odor in my garage, and a fried extension cord. Lesson learned. Now that I finally have a provision for home charging, my anxiety and frustration level is exponentially lower.

Tesla Model 3 Charging Port

The “full tank every morning” promise of an EV is dependent on reliable and available home charging. The challenge of urban and apartment dwellers with an EV is real, and even in the short period I was without Level 2 home charging, I can see what a significant issue and practical barrier this is to EV adoption. Until publicly accessible Level 2 and 3 charging is truly ubiquitous, the adoption rate for EVs will be constrained.   

Okay, enough spilled pixels on my charging rant. Charging foibles aside, how’s the rest of the experience? Good, but with a few conditions. If you’re not used to the power delivery of an electric motor, the experience is habit-forming. Smooth, silent, instantaneous torque makes getaways from a stoplight a breeze. Even without Ludicrous Mode, the SR+ Model 3 is plenty quick for my needs and desires. 

Tesla’s decision to go with just a single horizontal display in the interior, and a near-absence of any other physical controls brings some challenges with it. Yes, it results in a delightfully Bauhaus, minimalist, Scandinavian-looking interior. However, it also means other functions that are simply one button away on most other cars are often two screens in, on a sub-menu. The Model 3 also does not have an AM radio tuner, nor SiriusXM built-in. There are workarounds to each of these, but come with their own set of issues. The digital FM simulcast of the local AM megastation on an FM HD sub-channel has great audio quality when you can get it. The problem is, the signal cuts in and out intermittently. SiriusXM offers a smartphone streaming app that offers nearly all their regular satellite programming, in addition to some streaming exclusives. Haven’t had that cut out on me yet, but it has cut into my data plan.

Tesla Model 3 Infotainment Display

Unfortunately, the app interface through the vehicle controls is underwhelming, to be charitable. The only functions of the SXM streaming app through the steering wheel or touchscreen controls are volume and song advance (if you’ve paused the stream). If you wish to change the channel selection, as far as I can tell, the only way to do it is by distractedly looking down to your phone, hoping you’re on the SXM app screen, and manually selecting the channel you want. Neither the native voice controls or “Hey Siri” seem to work to change channels in the app. If you’d like a deeper dive on the Model 3’s infotainment and control interface, check out Strategy Analytics’ user experience evaluation of the Model 3 here, available to subscribers to SA’s IVX service.

Since the Model 3 is Tesla’s “budget” model, maybe I should quit my whining, and just enjoy its cutting-edge features and experience. Except for the fact that an embedded SiriusXM receiver is available on nearly every other car sold in the U.S., down to the humble Kia Rio. And Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, also available as an option on the majority of new models sold in the U.S.? Nope. Just Tesla’s “insanely great” interface. Wait…Am I mixing tech tropes here? Anyway…

But so far, the positives far outweigh the negatives: Seamless, smooth, powerful acceleration, quick, responsive steering and handling, advanced ADAS features, handsome mini-Porsche Panamera styling, and a quirky, but supportive and informative online owner and enthusiast community. Do I believe electric cars are the future? Absolutely. Are we “there” yet? Absolutely not. If you don’t have the option or provision of home charging, living with an EV can be an anxiety-inducing existence. Publicly-accessible charging stations need to be at least as common and available as gas stations are now.

And finally, perhaps the most significant and persistent criticism leveled against EVs: Cost. Even my barely-above-base trim rolled out the door (before incentives, which I can’t claim for another 8 months or so) for $45,000. This is not a knock against Tesla specifically, as other EVs with comparable range and specifications are in the same ballpark. Sure, over time, the potential fuel savings may be substantial, and an apples-to-apples comparison with the ostensibly comparable BMW 3 Series comes to around the same price. But the fact of the matter is, EVs are generally 20-30 percent more expensive than their ICE (Internal Combustion Engine, for those of you not versed in EV geek-speak) equivalents. Until that premium can come down to 10 percent or less, and charging becomes as convenient and ubiquitous as the corner gas station is today, a lot of potential buyers will be turned off from an EV purchase.

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