What it’s like to drive a Tesla, part 2: the technology that powers Teslas

A peek under a Tesla hood, or behind the screen, rather

Today's expression: Take care of
Explore more: Lesson #436
January 24, 2022:

There are three things that make Teslas’ technology unique: the user experience, the auto driving features, and over-the-air updates. We took a Tesla out for a test drive, and we’re sharing a peek under the hood, or more like a peek behind the screen. Learn about Tesla voice commands, self-driving mode, and other Tesla tech features, including those that are overly hyped. Plus, learn “take care of.”

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What it’s like to drive a Tesla: Part 2

Lesson summary

Hi there everyone, it’s Jeff, and this is Plain English, where JR and I help you upgrade your English with current events and trending topics. This is lesson number 436, so you know the drill. JR has uploaded the full content of this lesson to PlainEnglish.com/436.

I’ll finish telling you about my Tesla test drive on today’s lesson. Last week, I told you all about how Tesla is a luxury car and an electric car. But it’s full of technology, and that’s what we’ll focus on today. The expression we’ll review today is “take care of.” If you think you know what that means… maybe you do, maybe you don’t. You’re going to have to listen because the way I used it today is not the most common way to use “take care of.” Are you ready? Here we go.

All the tech in a Tesla

Three things make Teslas’ technology unique: the user experience, the auto driving features, and over-the-air updates.

Let’s start with the user experience. When you first climb into the driver’s seat, you notice there are no controls, no instrument panel, and no buttons. There is only a large, 15-inch touchscreen on the console to the right of the steering wheel. There are just a few physical controls. A lever to the left of the steering wheel controls the turn signals, while a lever to the right of the wheel moves the car from park to reverse to drive. There are two scroll wheels on the steering wheel: one controls the volume of the audio, while the other controls the positioning of the mirrors or the steering wheel itself.

Other than that, everything is controlled from the touch screen: the temperature, the music, the navigation, even the operation of headlights and windshield wipers. Drivers or passengers access the features in much the same way you use a smartphone, through a series of options nested within menus. The menus are intuitive and easy to follow. Navigation works just like the mapping apps you probably use on your phone.

It’s an adjustment to look down and to the right for things like speed; my eyes naturally wanted to look straight ahead. But the tablet display is arranged so that the critical information is on the left, closest to the driver. Still, I found the text to be small while driving. I found it challenging to tap precisely on the right menu items while also concentrating on the road, but it was just my first day.

All the options are available with voice commands, too. So, if it suddenly starts raining, you can simply say, “Turn on the windshield wipers.” You don’t have to tell the car to turn on the heat if you’re cold. You can just say, “I’m cold,” and the vehicle will know what to do.

From a user’s point of view, operating a Tesla is like using a smartphone to control everything other than the movement of a car. But what about Tesla’s hyped self-driving feature? The self-driving feature comes in three levels. First, you can use Tesla’s adaptive speed control on any road. This will maintain a consistent distance between you and the car in front of you; it slows the car down and even comes to a complete stop if necessary. However, the driver needs to manually stop for stop signs and steer in this mode. This feature is increasingly common in luxury vehicles.

The autopilot feature is where Tesla’s software operates the steering and the speed based on roadway conditions. The car will stop at stop signs and red lights; it will only proceed when it’s safe. Then, the car will steer as the road curves, and it will stay in the correct lane on multi-lane roadways. In this mode, the driver should remain alert, but the car is doing the steering and the car is controlling the speed.

This feature is available only when the car’s cameras can see the roadway markers, such as the painted lines that divide the lanes or mark the edges of the roadway. The car will tell you whether or not this mode is available. I found it was effective when it worked. Even though we were on main roads for most of our test drive, this wasn’t always available. The car did hug the inside of the lane a little closer than I would have liked, but that’s probably my personal preference. I kept finding myself pulling the car away from the centerline, but that could have been just because I was so nervous about hitting an oncoming vehicle.

That brings us to self-driving mode. Tesla debuted this feature in July last year, and it costs $199 per month or $10,000 forever. According to the salesperson, self-driving mode takes you from your origin to your destination, and you don’t have to do a thing other than tell the car your destination. Under intense questioning, the salesperson repeatedly told me the car would do everything to take me from origin to destination. I simply didn’t believe it, and, it turns out , I was right not to believe it.

In this mode, according to Tesla, the car stops, starts, and makes full turns to take you to your destination. This mode wasn’t enabled in the car I drove, but my experience using autopilot tells me that the name “self-driving mode” is an exaggeration. Multiple YouTube video demonstrations confirmed what I suspected. Yes, self-driving mode takes care of a lot of steering and speed control, but there are many instances where the driver needs to take over . It doesn’t do all the driving, no matter what the salesperson says.

There’s one more aspect of a Tesla that’s worth mentioning, and that is “over-the-air” updates. A Tesla can get software updates automatically in the same way that your phone does. Everything that’s controlled by software can be updated as Tesla improves. I told you earlier that I was frustrated that the text on the tablet was too small for my taste, especially since I was a new user. In an over-the-air update, Tesla gave users the ability to change the text size.

Over-the-air updates are handy because Tesla is continuously updating its self-driving software. When in autopilot or self-driving mode, the car uses cameras and experience to make decisions. As Tesla engineers improve the decision-making software, they will push out updates to all existing Tesla owners. That way, Tesla drivers don’t have to buy a whole new car just to get the latest technology updates. The only limitation is the hardware, like the cameras and the touch screen.

A few other things to note… when you’re on the road, even if you’re doing all the driving, the car shows you everything its cameras see. They look like blocks in a sketch of the road: you can see all the cars around you, the lanes on the road, and other prominent features.

The cameras can be used for safety, too. Tesla’s “Sentry” feature allows you to record what they see around the car while it’s parked. Drivers can download recordings of activity to a USB drive. And finally, when the vehicle is parked, you can stream Netflix; that’s good for those long re-charging sessions. A recent over-the-air update disabled Netflix while the car is in motion.

‘Safe now’ in the showroom

The biggest frustration was when I was driving on a big, main road with clear lane markings, and the autopilot wasn’t available. I kept wanting to try it out, but it just wouldn’t engage even on main roads. Apparently, it just didn’t have enough information to fully engage self-driving mode.

The scariest moment came when I was on the road with autopilot engaged. In the middle of an intersection, the Tesla decided that it couldn’t see the road clearly enough to continue in autopilot, so it just shut off. Everything started flashing red, and the car stopped in the middle of an intersection. I got nervous because I didn’t know what was going on.

Once we were safely back in the showroom, I asked JR what he thought. And he looked at me and said, “I feel safe now.” I think that says it all!

But JR and I both enjoyed the car. It was comfortable. JR especially liked the full glass roof. As a passenger, he liked how roomy even the smallest Tesla was. I thought it was comfortable and responsive. Before this test drive, I would not have been excited about driving an electric car, but I have to say, this experience opened my mind.

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Expression: Take care of