Lesson from driving a Tesla Model 3: Trust but verify

AP Photo/David Zalubowski

A line of 2019 Model 3 sedans is shown at a Tesla dealership in Littleton, Colo.

SAN FRANCISCO - My first "A-Ha" moment with the Tesla Model 3 came when I was fiddling with a hard plastic lid in the center console that just wouldn't stay shut. Every time I slammed the cover down it glided back open, almost as if it were mocking me. All of a sudden, a message appeared on screen: "Close console lid gently."

And voilĂ , I managed to secure the cover - an otherwise indiscriminate piece of plastic - into place.

The Tesla Model 3 is not merely a car but a hyper-connected piece of technology that knows what ails you, what hazards your surroundings may pose and tries to predict your every next move. But is this the way we'll all be driving - or letting the car drive us - in the future?

I'm spending two days with a Model 3, the dual-motor, all-wheel-drive version of Tesla's mass-market sport sedan. It's an electric-blue-colored window into one company's vision of the future of driving, if not THE future of driving. It's at least a preview of what's to come when cars go from gas-guzzling rustbuckets powered by explosions to software-driven supercomputers fueled by data. It has a "Fart Mode" to boot.

And more customers may soon be able to try the car themselves. Tesla announced record deliveries on Tuesday, overcoming shipping and logistics problems that plagued it in the first quarter. From April through June, the Associated Press reported, Tesla delivered 95,200 vehicles, more than the 90,700 it delivered in the final quarter of last year. The deliveries record is welcome news after Tesla faced a stock slump through much of June and weathered fears that demand for its vehicles had fallen amid a dwindling federal tax credit.

Oh and in case you're wondering, the Model 3 is a joy to drive. With all its power available instantly thanks to the marvel of its electric motors, a touch of the accelerator pedal makes you feel like you're basically on a glidepath to space. Let go of it and regenerative braking pulls you back to earth, seizing all that power back into the batteries to slow down the car - and extending its range in the process. The entire experience is built around that simple interaction and Tesla seems to have it down.

But, I drained about two-thirds of my Model 3's battery without ever leaving the Bay Area, through a combination of sustained highway cruising and spending way too much time in stop-and-go traffic. Much of the journey took place with Tesla's much-lauded autopilot software suite engaged. It's jarring at first to have the car hurtle through space-time without so much as an accelerator input, but really, this is what cruise control must have felt like to a person in the 1960s.

Autopilot features keep the car within the lane lines and steer it from on-ramp to off-ramp, maintaining speed and safe distance from the cars ahead. The car can make lane changes automatically with input from the turn signal stalk.

The really eye-opening stuff happens once you activate a feature called "Navigate on Autopilot."

Navigate on Autopilot uses destination inputs (think Google Maps) to guide the car from point A to point B. The car decides what lane to use for the fastest trip. Again, the driver confirms any lane changes the car might want through the turn signal stalk. But there's a further layer of automation.

Poke around in the menus enough and you'll find the option to disable lane change confirmation. This is where it gets interesting. In an ideal scenario, the car will navigate from on-ramp to off-ramp without inputs from the driver - who, of course, is supposed to keep their hands on the wheel and remain engaged at all times.

"This does not make your vehicle autonomous," the menus say.

And it shows. In Navigate on Autopilot, the car didn't seem to know when it was about to be cut off by another driver, or anticipate lane changes from cars ahead that were using their turn signal indicators. I sensed it guessing and checking, moving away from a lane and then back into the center when it sensed another car.

At one point in a curve, the car veered unprompted between lanes at a slant, leading me to take over in one spot a few miles from the Bay Bridge. Perhaps there is an explanation such as user error or my own unfamiliarity with the system. But I didn't have enough confidence in what it was doing to keep it active for the entirety of a 30-mile highway trip.

And here lies probably the most important lesson about Tesla's model of automation- on day one or six months in, as I learned from a friendly Tesla owner at a San Francisco supercharging station: Trust but verify. You're in control. It's not self-driving - rather, done right, it's a type of plugged-in hyper-aware driving that eliminates certain hassles that accompany daily driving. Navigate on Autopilot was seamless at one point in traffic, shifting lanes one at a time and putting me into position to exit an off-ramp. It could be tremendously useful for long-haul trips and eliminating the physical fatigue of driving, including the engine noises and pedal pushing and yanking of the steering wheel.

But responsible use of the features should still leave you mentally exhausted after that kind of trip.

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