The Tesla paradox: It’s the rocket, you’re ‘Spam in a can’

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Elon Musk started production of the Tesla Model S Plaid performance sedan last night, and as usual his stand-up routine was a torrent of superlatives: the car does 0-to-60 in 1.99 seconds – and is sure to hit the 2 -second will mark beat to the second decimal place. It will cover the quarter mile in 9.23 seconds. It can reach 200 mph. It makes over 1,000 horsepower, with 20 left. Every benchmark is ticked off: it’s the fastest. It’s the safest. It is the best. It is the standard-bearer for a future where electric cars are ‘kick-ass’. The presentation was peak EV and peak Elon.

Musk went beyond the performance aspects and then focused on the car’s ability to read our minds. It lacks checks – because it says “input is wrong.” The car will recognize your approach and let you in. You don’t have to turn it on because, hey, you got in, didn’t you, so you must plan on going somewhere. It no longer has a shift lever or any kind of physical control, because the car determines whether you want to go forward or backward. It will start a navigation route based on your calendar for the day. (God forbid you forget to put something on your calendar.) It will geocache everything you do in its eagerness to anticipate your moves. And it’s set up to provide a “home theater experience” for watching movies and playing video games, so you can lounge in the sleek cabin while your Tesla is driving.

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So here’s what’s wrong with it.

While NASA was developing the Mercury capsule to send the first Americans into space, engineers mocked the craft without controls. The flights would be automated, the spacecraft would be controlled from the ground. There would be no need for a human pilot — let alone a rigorous astronaut selection process choosing the Mercury Seven from experienced test pilots. In a pivotal scene in “The Right Stuff,” the astronauts cry in protest. Under no circumstances would they let themselves be shot into space as “spam in a can.”

When a bow thruster failed on John Glenn’s orbital flight aboard Friendship 7, he took over the manual controls. Then Mission Control discovered a problem with the craft’s heat shield, and guided the ship through the reentry, proving the worth of a skilled pilot rather than a passive passenger. Later on Gemini 8, seconds after he blacked out, Neil Armstrong got the upper hand on a spacecraft that spiraled wildly out of control, solving a deadly problem that no computer had been able to solve. It was probably the moment that made him take command of Apollo 11, where his experience as a pilot averted another disaster with seconds of fuel left on landing.

Not every driver on the road is an astronaut. A lot of drivers definitely don’t have the right stuff. If one day cars will drive themselves, that might be a good idea, and those folks are welcome to sit back and play a video game. But those aren’t the drivers who want, need, or need to be anywhere near a 2-second car. (Yes, I’ll finish.)

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On the other hand, drivers who covet the claimed performance capabilities of the Model S Plaid… well, they want to drive. They don’t want a car without a steering wheel. Or a steering yoke going to tie their arms in knots – break it for 2 seconds or not, it’s safe to assume this will be a three-engine monster on the straight, but drivers want turns. They don’t have time for movies and games. Driving is the game. And many of us are still getting used to the fact that manual transmissions are almost extinct. We have no interest in letting the car decide whether to drive forwards or backwards, and in fact that feature alone should be a deal breaker for anyone who enjoys driving.

If one day a Tesla can drive itself – and just to be clear to anyone who has the illusion of starry sky that it can, right now no Tesla can drive itself – then it will surely drive you at a leisurely pace and all. that performance engineering driving will be meaningless. Or a driver, a real driver, may be annoyed by the controls denied him, shut down Hall 9000 as much as possible and let the car go like crazy. In either case, a lot of claimed opportunities, and the dollars spent on them, will be lost.

So who is this car for? Are you a driver? Or are you spam in a can?

The buyers may be neither – rich people who appreciate it as a party trick, who will sing the performance numbers and pull out the gimmicks, happily ignoring the paradox at the heart of the machine. It’s definitely a halo car. With Model S and Model X sales falling sharply – Tesla shipped just 2,020 Model S/Xs in the first quarter, while Porsche sold 9,072 Taycans in the same period – it’s hard to imagine a car that would thus be in conflict. with himself.

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