The Toyota Prius Prime Dashboard – A Study in Bad UX

The Toyota Prius Prime. In so many ways, a remarkable piece of engineering. Efficient, comfortable, and not so bad in the cargo territory. In it’s plugin form, it can run 20-25 miles on pure EV power, and after that, it still chugs along at 40mpg. For people wanting to dip their toes into the electric vehicle world, it’s not a bad place to start, assuming you’re okay with the styling.

With all that, what the HELL went wrong when they ‘designed’ the dashboard and the information systems?

I’m rarely speechless when it comes to engineering projects, particularly ones backed by such a well respected and successful company as Toyota. But jumpin jehosephat. Who the heck designed the dashboard? It’s… it’s… nnnnng…. well… let me show you.

The Dashboard – An Introduction

First, lets take a look at the interior. This is the 2019 Prius Prime dashboard, directly from Toyota’s brochure…

Now before I go straight to the jugular, lets note a few positive aspects here.

  • A large, centrally located touchscreen. I like that. It’s easy to reach, everyone in the car can see it, it’s bright and visible.
  • The steering wheel has easy to reach controls, right under the thumbs. Nice.
  • The upper display (directly in front of the window) has 3 smaller screens that can show a variety of information panels. The most obvious one is a speedometer, but the other options are battery usage, mileage, map directions, etc. As compared to the Tesla, which puts everything on one display in the middle of the car, these secondary displays that ALWAYS display certain information is a nice touch.

Well, that’s nice, but what’s your beef?

Sounds all peachy so far, right? I mean, it looks all shiny and clean, so what’s wrong?

Turns out, plenty.

Lets start at the meta level. That big central display? It only controls a small subset of the car systems. It’s a bad design to have to go hunting for an external button or switch or toggle or display to get a basic function that the display should have on it.

Another problem with the central display are the buttons on the glass on either side. Those are flush contacts. You have to look at them to determine if you’re pushing them, and there’s no feedback when you do. Talk about distracted driver problems. No feedback contact buttons should be used VERY CAREFULLY in motor vehicles. Why some of these buttons are glass and others in the car are standard switches, I have no idea.

Okay, but lets hear the real fails.

Okay, you asked for it, lets start running down some absolutely batshit decisions made on this car.

  1. Lets start simple. Seat heaters. Everyone loves ’em, right? Took us literally googling and watching youtube videos to figure out how to turn them on. The controls for the seat heaters are tucked under the dash, on either side of the central console. Once I scrunched down in the seat, bent my head to one side, I was able to see them. My wife, who is a foot and a half shorter than I am, never saw them either. Who thought this was the appropriate placement for these switches?
  2. Remember those little screens under the front windshield? Nice, aren’t they? Well, they are configurable. You can change what each one shows. At some point, my wife brought up “Hey, that middle display used to show how much battery time I had left, now it doesn’t. How do you change that?” – I, a systems engineer, could absolutely not figure out how to change those displays. The answer? Tap the right arrow on the steering wheel right control pad. No other feedback that this is how to do this – no menus, no prompts, no information – I had to google this one too. There’s nothing on that nice big central display that lets you configure these smaller displays. They are completely separate.
  3. At one point we were driving around at night, and I was wondering why the central screen was so bright. Most cars switch into ‘night mode’ when it gets dark, but this screen was blazing white. Going through all the menus, I found a screen setting for ‘DAY MODE’ ON/OFF – what exactly that means is sort of a mystery. There was no NIGHT MODE ON/OFF. Just that one toggle. Turns out, you need to use the OTHER screen control. The one on the left side of the steering column around knee height. There’s a dial there that on older cars would set the brightness of the dashboard instruments. Some bright engineer at Toyota decided that if that little knob was spun to a certain point, the central console would always be in day mode. the DAY MODE apparently can override this setting? Who knows – but having to go off-screen to some random control when the option should have been RIGHT THERE on the screen is definitely a fail.
  4. Backup beeper. Did you know the Prius has a backup beeper? Going by Wikipedia :

    A back-up beeper, also known as back-up alarm or vehicle motion alarm, is a device intended to warn passers-by of a vehicle moving in reverse. They typically produce 1000 Hz pure tone beeps at 97-112 decibels.[1] Matsusaburo Yamaguchi of Yamaguchi Electric Company, Japan, invented the back-up beeper. It was first manufactured as model BA1 in 1963.[2] ISO 6165 describes “audible travel alarms”, and ISO 9533 describes how to measure the performance of the alarms

    Great idea, right? Except the Prius backup beeper SOUNDS INSIDE THE CAR. Not externally. You can’t hear it outside. Who exactly is this supposed to be warning?
  5. The mapping software sucks. I mean, you just can’t get around it. It’s cumbersome, it’s painful to use, the search functions are absolute shit, and it’s just a nightmare to try and use productively. Took us another zillion years to figure out how to turn off the turn by turn navigation (you can’t except via a buried setting – makes listening to music really terrifying – why can’t you just say ‘turn off turn by turn for now, I’m listening to something cool, I don’t need the interruptions telling me that I’ll be on this interstate until the heat death of the universe.’
  6. Most functions are disabled while in motion. This seems to carry over from day 0 of cars getting anything more complicated than an FM stereo head unit. Someone somewhere said “We should disable any function that may be a distraction to the driver, with no option to get around it”, and so it was. But, what if you’re traveling in a modern vehicle that thoughtfully placed the navigation system between the driver and passenger seat, where the passenger has the same access as the driver, wouldn’t it make sense to allow the passe… NOPE! Locked out! You can’t modify your route or destination or settings while in motion. DENIED.


I’m sure I’ll be adding to this list as more things come up. What’s bothersome about all this is so much of this can be fixed in software. But as far as I can tell, Toyota is following the auto manufacturer trend of assuming once a model year of a car is complete, so is the software, and it doesn’t need to change. They may do minor tweaks and fixes, but they do not actually revise the systems with major improvements (unlike Tesla, who put out major software updates pretty much constantly, frequently adding new features or overhauling others).

It may sound like I’m bashing Toyota and ignoring flaws in other manufacturers. That’s not the case at all. I’ve written in the past about my issues with the Tesla Model 3, and while I didn’t have a lot of complaints about my Chevy Volt, there were some frustrations with GM. (In fact, I had some UX problems with the Volt as well, but the Volt didnt’ have the big touchscreen that SHOULD have made those problems easy to fix.)

Modern car manufacturers absolutely need to get on board, and stop thinking of the dashboard with a touchscreen as just a ‘shiny’ version of the old knobs and dials dashboards. It’s a fully functioning digital information and control system, and should be treated as such, with regular updates, and some put into UX design. Tesla is the only company that is doing this right. What the heck is everyone else thinking?

Road Tripping with a Tesla Model 3 – Thoughts and Ruminations

This past weekend I finally got to let TARS, my Tesla Model 3 Performance, stretch its legs a big and go for some long distance driving. Over 3 days, we covered almost 700 miles, from Boston, MA to Rochester, NY.

This drive is almost entirely interstate, with the absolutely mind numbing stretch of the NY Thruway between Syracuse and Rochester coming to mind as the most tedious part of the trip. I was looking forward to using Autopilot for that bit in particular, and I wasn’t disappointed.


Fully charged, oh, and have a software update.

My Model 3 is normally set to charge to 90%, which gets me about 270 miles of range.  According to Tesla, this helps preserve the lifetime of the battery.  But for short term trips, it’s okay to go into ‘trip mode’ – charge the battery to 100%.  That brought my range up to about 307 miles.  Golden!

The next step was to plan the trip a bit.  With my battery topped up, the trip analyzer said that I could make it to the Utica, NY supercharger in one go.  That’s about 270 miles, and I in theory would have 35 miles left when I get there.  Now, I treat these estimators with a heavy dose of skepticism.  There’s a lot of factors that impact battery consumption – a static analysis would have resulted in a lot of ‘Yeah, but what about…’ questions.  However, this estimation was being done by the car, while I was driving it, with active traffic reports being reported in in realtime.  It should be pretty accurate, we’ll see!


We rolled out around 2pm on Friday and immediately ran into unexpected traffic (later we learned from some friends that it wasn’t just us – all the routes headed west were problematic).  TARS kept updating the route onto more and more secondary roads, to the point where I was expecting us to be routed through someone’s garage and down their garden paths.  Hopefully I could avoid any empty swimming pools.

Finally, we got past the traffic and on the open road.  The car settled into the traffic fine, and I was able to enable autopilot for a large part of the rest of the trip.  


There’s an awful lot of jawing going on about the Tesla Autopilot.  It’s not full self driving (FSD), no.  It’s also not ‘just adaptive cruise control’ (as I’ve heard others yammer).  It’s somewhere in between.  On an open highway, without much traffic, it’s dreamy.  Lane changes, slowing down / speeding up according to traffic changes, dealing with people merging in or passing, it works well. The car software is updated often – anywhere from once a week to every few weeks. And each time a new version comes down, the autopilot gets better, smoother, and less janky. 

Here’s a good example.  When I received my car in May, it was just after the ‘automatically change lanes’ function was enabled.  And it was sketchy AF.  Yes, it would signal, change lanes, and continue.  But the signal ranges were all goofy, and if there was someone anywhere near your blindspot, the car would sort of ‘stall’ – leaving the blinker on, waiting for the other car to move.  If they backed off to let you in (like all nice New England drivers do, right?), the autopilot wouldn’t pick up on the situation change fast enough, so would just sit there with the blinker on.  Naturally, the other driver would speed up thinking I wasn’t changing lanes, and then Autopilot would decide there was a threat, and ‘phantom brake’ or jog back into lane.  it was unnerving.

With the current version (v32.12.1 – one patch level beyond the v10 release), this process is FAR smoother.  I was comfortable letting the car decide when to change lanes to get around slower traffic, or move over to let other cars by.

Interstate changes and ramps were still a little off.  When the car does not have clear lines on the road on ramps (which tend to be wider than normal highway lanes), it tends to disconcertingly head toward the outside of the ramp until it’s close to a line, then sort of jog back.  It’s jarring and uncomfortable, but it will do it.  I let TARS make 2-3 highway changes for me, keeping my hands and brake-foot ready for a sudden takeover.

First Recharging Stop

Eventually we made it to Utica, and pulled into the charging station.  At this point, the display was showing we had about 20 miles of battery range left.  I had been watching the numbers the entire drive, and even with the traffic, rain, etc, the numbers really didn’t change much.  The computer had the advantage of having access to traffic, weather, temperature, and route information, as well as how my batteries were behaving.  It didn’t get it wrong.

We jacked into the supercharger and got the message “20 minutes until you can continue your trip” – Huh!  4+ hours of driving, and a recharge in 20 minutes?  I’m good with that.  Lets grab dinner.

So we walked to the local food joint and had a quick meal while the car recharged.  

Getting back in, we were at something like 240 miles of range, plenty of electrons to get us the last 2 hours to Rochester.  

We ended up going to our friends house first, then to the hotel, which left us with about 90 miles of range.  Plenty for the next day, but we should top it up at some point.

On Saturday, we topped up the car with a very fast stop at the local supercharger (20m on the charger), which got us back up to about 200 miles.  This is where I start having some questions.

It looks like not all superchargers are the same.  Some have very good high speed charging (500+ miles per hour charging speed), others are lower.  It’s not because there’s more cars at the charging station or anything, the level of power coming from each station just seems to vary.  This is disconcerting, because when you’re trip planning, some stations may be able to charge your car up to full trip-level charge in 40 minutes, others may take an hour and change.  Now, the charging ‘curve’ for a Tesla isn’t flat.  To go from 0-75% charge can take as long as it takes to go from 75% to 100%.  If you’re doing long distance driving, the time it takes to top up gets important.  The station near the hotel was not charging as fast as the one in Utica.  That was concerning, because we should be able to fill up before we drove home on Sunday.  Timing would be important.


At the end of weekend, we did the happy party trick of showing off Enhanced Summon in a crowded private parking lot (there were half a dozen cars in our friends driveway, and rock walls all around.  I walked a hundred feet away and did a “HOLD MY BEER” by summoning TARS to me.  It did it BEAUTIFULLY.  The summon feature has improved greatly in two or three weeks it’s been out.  Very smooth, and doing exactly what a human would have done to back up, move the car forward and back 2-3 times to line it up with the exit, then roll over to where I stood. 

It’s a great trick to impress your friends with.  I asked our host “So, getting a Tesla now?” and he, a normally very conservative skeptical person, answered “I hadn’t thought about it before, but now I’m seriously considering it.  I’m very impressed.”


We headed out to the charging station I had used on Saturday, and had the same rate problem I saw before.  So it wasn’t load or anything, it was just that this station sucked.  We went for a walk in the local mall, and decided to head out.  The mapping system set our next recharge in Lee, MA, about 270 miles away.  We should arrive with 20-30 miles of charge left.  So off we went.

The drive back was uneventful, with autopilot doing it’s thing for most of the drive.  Oddly, my biggest issue was I rest my hand on the steering wheel giving it a little ‘tension’ to let the car know I’m there.  After 20 minutes of leaving my hand in one spot, it would get tired and sweaty, and I had to switch hands.  Talk about first world problems!  

Charging in Lee

We got to Lee and plugged in, and YAY!  Plenty of high speed charging!  What a relief.  We were able to top up the battery enough to get home in under 15 minutes, and we got home to a dog that was extremely happy to see us after such a long time away (Yes, we had people taking care of her, don’t be like that.  But she did miss us).


All in all, the road trip was everything I expected it to be.  Smooth, fast, comfortable, and best of all, 100% electric.  Assuming our chargers were getting elecricity from standard sources, we produced 1/3rd as much carbon as we would have in a normal gas car.  I personally buy my electricity from a wind farm, so at least 1/3 of the trip was from renewables, so that reduced our footprint even further.  

Someone asked me from a cost perspective, was it cheaper driving an all electric car? I found an article that summed it up like this:

The long-range version of the Model 3 has a 75 kWh battery pack with a 310 mile range. If we still assume the average national electric pricing of 13 cents per kWh and a charging efficiency of 85%, then a full charge will cost $11.47. This is $3.70 per 100 miles of mixed city and freeway driving, or 3.7 cents per mile. This is almost 80% less than the cost per mile to drive the most popular gas-powered cars, which is approximately 20 cents per mile.

This fits my back of the envelope fiddling. I looked at my bill, and the entire charging costs from Sunday’s drive (about 370 miles) was $11.47. So not only was it not putting out any CO2, it was far far less expensive to operate than a traditional car.

I can easily see a future where more and more of these trips are automated, and my input into operating the car will be needed less and less.  We’re not there yet, and we won’t be for I’m guessing another 3-5 years.  But the progress is absolutely there, and I welcome it.

Everything Wrong with my Tesla Model 3 Performance

I finally got it. I got the robotic, electric, high performance car of my dreams. Sleek, fast, geeky as all get out, tremendous range – it’s everything a nerd would want in a car.

But it’s not perfect.

People have been coming to me pretty regularly and saying “So, how do you like your Tesla?” – and I answer truthfully. “I love it. It’s amazing. It’s my robotic space car. It’s nerdy and stupendously fast. But it’s not without its faults.” At this point their eyes light up and they get excited. “Yeah? Like what?!?”

The automotive press has not been kind to Tesla. With a strongly outspoken CEO in Elon Musk, it’s lofty goal of bringing affordable, exciting electric cars to the masses, and the base challenge of pushing against an industry selling a few hundred billion dollars worth of cars every year, it hasn’t been easy for them to break into the market and succeed. But succeed they have, pretty much jumpstarting the performance / luxury electric car market singlehandedly.

But there are problems. The car is hardly perfect. I’d like to run down the flaws and issues as I see them…

The Company

Tesla the company is relatively new in the automotive industry. Founded in 2003 right after the dot com bubble burst, they spent some years understanding what it takes to build a new kind of car from the ground up, without carrying all the folderol that the big auto manufacturers have. The Roadster came out in 2008, and the Model S 4 years later in 2012. In that time, the focus had to be on technology, manufacturing, and production.

What they didn’t have a chance to focus on was the customer end of things.

Dealing with Tesla can be an infuriating process. Because they don’t have a ‘dealer’ model similar to current car manufacturers, buying a Tesla is not far from ordering a laptop from Apple. You got to the website, choose your option, click ‘Buy’, and a car will be available… sometime.

It’s this ‘sometime’ can be problematic. Without a salesperson to regularly work with, the delivery process is extremely oblique. There is a nice website that will tell you the status on your car, but it’s not particularly informative, showing things like “We’re putting together your paperwork” for WEEKS until it suddenly changes to “Your car will be available for pickup in 3 days at such and such a location.” Thanks guys.

The Delivery Process

Okay, so now you have a delivery date. What happens at the delivery is relatively normal. You show up at the ‘delivery center’, 1-2 folks walk you through the dos and donts of the car, you sign a bunch of papers, and you drive off in the car. This actually went fine, the only drawback is the people there are complete strangers. No one knew me or anything about my excitement or interest or history. They were basically just like a refrigerator installer. “Here’s yer machine, bud. Seeya.”

The Exterior

I have a Model 3 Performance, which has some nice trim changes, but in general, the Model 3 is BORING. It’s a 4 door sedan. I suppose this is better than some of the more radical car designs floating around (Have you seen the new Civics and Prius’s? Yikes.) But on the other hand, if I’m getting a fairly expensive car, I wouldn’t mind if it turned heads just a little. People who know Teslas will go “Hey! Look! A Tesla!” but for the most part, the Model 3 just blends in with the other shiny sedans out there.

Having said that, there are some Issues – well known, easy to work around, and possibly even understandable for a ‘first generation’ run of this model, but they’re still there:

  • The delivery person warned us of this, but I did it before he even told me. There’s a nice little hatch that opens and closes over the charging port. You can unlock this hatch from the mobile app or from inside the car, or by touching the bottom of it when you want to plug in the cable. BUT. You should never try to close it by hand. Nope nope. Don’t push on the top of it or move the door, that can break it.

    Huh? 🙂
  • The storage space under the front hood (where an ICE car would have an engine) is referred to as the ‘Frunk’. Apparently, this thing is delicate as heck. The delivery guy went out of his way to tell me to never slam it, nor close it with one hand. Gently set the hood down onto the latch, and then push down with both hands on either side of the latch. This seems like an obvious workaround to a design error, but it’s not something a normal person would think to do.
  • Much has been said about trim and panel fit. Sometimes the cars don’t fit together cleanly and properly. This was a real problem in the first runs of the Model 3, but far less so in later ones. I received mine in the spring of 2019, and haven’t noticed any particular gaps or bends or points where things aren’t coming together. Having said that, there has been a persistent whistling noise coming from the drivers side mirror. If I stick my hand out while driving, I can make that sound stop, but it’s obvious there’s some gap in the trim that’s causing air to whistle through it.

The Interior

The interior of the car is beautifully simplistic. Comfortable, laid out well, lit well, and easily the most comfortable car I’ve ever owned. The expansive glass roof, plenty of headroom, very adjustable and supportive seats, and the well articulated steering wheel all help make the car extremely comfortable.

But, this article isn’t “everything that’s awesome” – lets look at some of the flaws.

  • I absolutely detest the door lock mechanism. For those who have not been in a Model 3, there isn’t an actual ‘door latch’ that you pull to open the door. There’s a button. You touch the button, the window slides down about an inch, and the door unlatches – and then you push it open. There’s a sort of emergency latch that you can pull up, but the Tesla rep warned me never to use it, as it might damage the door. This just seems like poor design or an afterthought. It’s taken some time to get used to the ‘push button to open the door’ methodology – I almost never get confused now, but it’s really a very bad choice of design.
  • The center console is a mess. There’s several chambers, each quite deep and having a different ‘lift’ or ’tilt’ mechanism. They’re also cavernously deep, so putting something in them is akin to dropping the one ring into Mt Doom. You will likely not get it back easily.
  • No drink holders in the back? Well, they are sort of there, but they’re in the center console between the back seats. That’s… sort of weird, particularly if people are sitting 3 across.
  • It took looking up in the manual to figure out where the emergency 4 way blinker lights are. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to try and find the control next time they’re in a Model 3. We couldn’t find it until we looked it up in the manual. This is an EMERGENCY BLINKER button. It should be trivial to locate. It isn’t.
  • Why doesn’t the front drink holder have removable silicon liners? Those things get DIRTY. Even inexpensive little toyotas and kias have silicone liners for the cup holders.


Okay, lets start talking about the controls. This section isn’t about the software that runs the center display / functions of the car, this is basic control layout and usage.

The Model 3 has a very simplified set of operator controls. The steering wheel (obviously) two foot pedals, two control stalks (one on each side), and two thumwheel / joysticks. And the horn. That’s it. Everything else is done via the touchscreen. But lets look at those controls.

The stalks are useful and well placed, as are the thumbwheels. I never lose track of where they are. And there were some logical decisions made about what each set does. The left thumbwheel is ONLY audio controls (volume up/down, next/previous track, pause and unpause). The right thumbwheel is for quick commands to the autopilot / cruise control system. Pretty easy to work with.

The stalks are more complicated, because they service multiple purposes. The left one is your turn blinker, obviously. It also controls your high and low beams for the headlights, as well as a ‘quick touch’ to turn the windshield wipers on and off (assuming the auto wiper system doesn’t work).

The right stalk is sort of like your gear shift. You control what ‘gear’ you’re in (drive, reverse, park), as well as the state of the autopilot system. I haven’t figured out a lot of the wiggle functions on that stalk, other than engage autopilot and ‘go into drive’.

Sounds basic, so what’s are the issues? Well, there’s a bunch:

  • First, the mechanism for turning on and off turn signals is confusing. A light push on the left stalk, up or down, will blink the turn signals 3 times. If you hold the stalk, they’ll keep blinking until you release it. There’s a ‘secondary’ level of push though, that means “turn the turn signal on until… something tells them to stop.” – this part is the confusing one. The turn signals will stop blinking if the car thinks you’ve completed a turn, or… you signal some other way. How to turn off a turn signal seems to involve some invocation I still haven’t worked out. I find myself signaling in the opposite direction sometimes, or just wiggling the stalk around until the signals stop. This is hardly safe communication with other drives. On a normal car, the turn signal stalk locks into position until it either is automatically returned to a neutral spot, or you force it back to the center. The Tesla turn stalk doesn’t do that. It is always in the ‘neutral’ position whether you’re signalling or not. This is confusing.
  • Second, you can only sort of control your wipers via the end button push. A quick push will wipe your wipers once, and a longer push will turn on the spritzers. The wipers are normally controlled via the center touchscreen (with intermittency and automatic settings controlled there). But there’s numerous times i find the ‘automatic wipers’ don’t really keep the windshield clear enough, so i find myself pushing the button a lot. Or navigating the touchscreen to turn the wipers on and off faster or slower. You don’t want to be fiddling with the touchscreen while driving. This is not a very good setup.
  • High and low beam headlights work as you’d expect, though the ‘automatic’ high beams is gimmicky and works poorly. More on that in the Software section below.
  • Oddly, the right stalk is mostly okay. the gear position mechanism makes sense, and the ‘double press’ to engage autopilot is intuitive and works well.

The Software

I’m going to lump a couple topics into this section, but first some preamble.

So much of what makes a Tesla a remarkable vehicle is the decision to base as much of it’s functionality as possible around software. This is why there’s only one display system (the touch screen), and virtually every function is managed and displayed through this interface. It makes it easy to change, easy to upgrade, and easy to tune. All the ‘smarts’ of the car (it’s sensors, battery management, and yes, even the power train) are controlled via software. Some of that software is visible to the operator directly, but a lot of is internal. The operator doesn’t see the battery management, the heating / cooling systems, the adaptive drive for the motors, etc. The operator mostly sees the interface on the display. So lets focus on that.

Model 3 Center Console

The Tesla Model 3 has one large 15″ LCD touchscreen in the middle of the dash. There are no other display systems in the car. No turn signals, no idiot lights, no dashboard. Just this display. This ‘one screen to rule them all’ makes the Tesla much easier to upgrade and modify. In a traditional car, you can’t move the heater control from one place to another because, after 6 months of use, you realize the original placement was poor. But on a single screen like this, it’s a simple software change to rearrange controls. This has disadvantages as well. The center location of the display is awkward for the standard driver who expects basic operational information to be directly in front of them. The speedometer is in the upper left corner of the screen, as are basic status lights like blinkers, hi/lobeams, and what gear you’re in. All other controls and information is located at different points of the screen ,and sometimes that info may be hidden or on a different tab. This absolutely takes time to get used to, but it means improvements can be made via software. By comparison, my Chevy Volt had the WORST design ever for it’s center console, with horribly placed buttons that were impossible to understand. The software interface on the touch screen was mediocre at best, and over the 3.5 years I had the car, they made absolutely zero UI improvements to that display, when any number of changes could have been made – just not to the button layout.

But enough background. Given this amazing technology, the interface and tools must be awesome and perfect, right? Oh hell no. Lets investigate…

  • There’s a system in the Tesla that allows the hi/lo beams for the headlights to automatically adjust based on oncoming traffic and other cars. On the surface, this seems pretty straightforward, and it works relatively well. Until it doesn’t. Hi/Lo beams are also a mechanism most drivers use to communicate with other drivers. “Your lights are off” “Something dangerous is ahead” “I’m a jerk”. The Tesla software will turn the hibeams on and off depending purely on distance to another car in front of it (if it sees it), and if another car is coming towards you. That’s it. On the highway, the highbeams can flicker up and down automatically several times in a minute depending on how far behind another car you are. This is irritating as heck for other drivers. While a nifty gimmick, I disabled it.
  • The windshield wiper automatic system is supposed to turn on the wipers when it starts raining, turn them to ‘fast’ when needed, and off when things are dry again. I find myself many times going “Why aren’t my wipers on?” The system is very cautious about when to turn them on. Once they’re on, they’re fine, and will turn themselves off after the rain stops, but I do find myself hitting the ‘wipe now’ button regularly because the automatic system hasn’t yet figured out the window is wet.

The Autopilot

For some, this is it. The holy grail of the Tesla. The much vaunted ability for the car to drive itself. The model 3 has 8 external cameras that can ‘see’ to a distance of about 250meters. In addition to the cameras, there’s also a front facing radar that gives very accurate distance measurements to the computer. These systems together provide the autopilot computer in the car enough information for the car to drive itself. It can see obstacles, react to changing circumstances and environments, and navigate it’s way in relatively complex situations. It couples that information with maps that are constantly updated with traffic and construction changes. The car’s GPS will locate you on the map (though the Tesla won’t use GPS for very high detail information. You don’t want to depend on GPS for autopilot, then go into a tunnel, for example).

So, given all this technology, is it actually dependable as a self-driving system?

Hell no.

The autopilot has many many problems. It’s definitely not ready for prime time. While it is an absolute technological marvel, it is nowhere near the level needed for full autonomy. Even in the best possible driving situations for autonomous navigation (a mostly open highway), the system makes many many errors in judgement. Most of the time those errors are not threatening or dangerous, they’re just uncomfortable or irritating. A few examples:

  • The autopilot can change lanes as needed for faster / slower traffic or when approaching an exit. If there’s any form of traffic in the way (someone coming up quickly behind you, or a crowded lane), it’s handling of the lane change is infuriating. Not for me the driver, but mostly for other people on the road. It takes far far too long to make the decision to change lanes – and by the time it does, the ‘gap’ it was shooting for doesn’t exist anymore, so the car can swerve back into its original lane. Again, not particularly dangerous for me the driver, but irritating and alarming for people around us.
  • There are regular ‘phantom braking’ problems. You could be going along normally, and suddenly the car will ‘brake’ abruptly for no apparent reason. A moment later it’ll resume normal speed. This is jarring. I’m sure it had a very good reason to do that, but there’s no indication to the driver or passengers what just happened.
  • Autopilot HATES wide lanes. Onramps that don’t have middle dividing lines, or secondary roads that aren’t perfectly sized – the autopilot will ‘hunt’ from one side to another trying to guess which is the proper side of the road to be on. Ung.
  • The ‘navigate on autopilot’ feature which is supposed to allow the car to happily change from one highway to another using ramps without driver intervention gets easily confused on anything less than perfect interchanges. If the lane markings aren’t crystal clear and well sized, the car will jump around trying to determine the ‘best’ path on the ramps – and will frequently guess wrong.

The system is not ready. Having said that, Tesla is doing the right thing to get it there. Their software is constantly ‘learning’ how to drive properly – every Tesla on the road is collecting data on how people handle these weird road conditions, and that goes into the neural network that the navigation computer uses. And each update, it gets a little better. But I can’t see a driverless Tesla, or a ‘door to door automated driving’ Tesla on the road in the next 5 years.

The Toys

So we’ve talked about basic software tools and functions in the car. In addition to those things, there’s some stuff that’s just plain goofy and fun to have. Since the Model 3 is basically a computer with a touch screen attached to a car, there’s some silly stuff you can do.


My question is, is this stuff really adding any value?

For instance. You can play games on the display. That’s sort of fun, and the display is good and uses the existing car controls to play the game. But that means you can only play in park. And from the drivers seat. This seems more of a ‘Hey kids, look what my car can do, neener!’ feature than something I can use as a selling point for the car.


Yeah, I have the Performance version of the model 3. That means the extra motor, the low profile wheels, the painted calipers, the whole shebang. Those extra options added another 25% to the base price of the car. What do I get for that? Well, to start there’s that neck-snapping 0-60 in 3.3 seconds acceleration. Driving a car with this much power, with an always-available 450HP and 470 ft-lbs of torque is intoxicating. It changes how you handle traffic, navigation, everything. That power is ALWAYS there. No downshifting, no revving / turbo spool up. This car is the modern day equivalent of Neal Stephenson’s Deliverator from Snow Crash:

“The Deliverator’s car has enough potential energy packed into its batteries to fire a pound of bacon into the asteroid Belt. Unlike a bimbo box or a Burb beater, the Deliverator’s car unloads that power through gaping, gleaming, polished sphincters. When the Deliverator puts the hammer down, shit happens. You want to talk contact patches? Your car’s tires have tiny contact patches, talk to the the asphalt in four places the size of your tongue. The Deliverator’s car has big sticky tires with contact patches the size of a fat lady’s thighs. The Deliverator is in touch with the road, starts like a bad day, stops on a peseta.”

But, the performance version has some drawbacks. The cost? I’m not sure if it’s worth it. Is it really necessary to have THAT much power at your beck and call at any minute? I don’t think so. The only time I’ve really used it is to impress people I take on test drives. That’s not worth the money.

But let’s also talk about those low profile wheels. The short version? They suck. They’re fragile as hell, and they are NOT covered under warranty. Yes, everyone ‘knows’ that low profile wheels are the worst thing to happen to cars since they added ‘tiptronic shifting’ to every hyundai on the planet, but at $750 a pop for those wheels, hitting a pothole gets real expensive, real fast. Ask me how I know.

A model 3 AWD Long Range will get you 0-60 in 4.5 seconds, for $12k less. Do yourself a favor. Unless you’re dripping money, if you want something that’s still faster than most cars out there, just get that.


So where does that leave me? Do I like my car? Yes. Am I excited everytime I get in it and drive? Definitely. Am I proud that I am using a vehicle that emits absolutely zero carbon dioxide, and I’m powering from energy I buy from wind farms and solar? Absolutely. Do I think this is the future of cars in the world? No question.

Is the car perfect? Absolutely not. Not even close.

But it is, by far, in my opinion, the best electric vehicle on the market today.

Bye Bye Volt

Alas, all good things, etc etc.

Tonight I returned the Chevy Volt I leased three years ago. In the intervening time I drove 54,000 miles, at an average of 98mpg, using 550 gallons of gas. Had I continued with the Passat wagon I had before that, which got about 28mpg, I would have burned 1928 gallons. That 1400 gallons saved 28,000lb (14 tons) of CO2 from being emitted. That’s about a years worth of emissions for a fairly efficient house.

Nowadays I work full time from home, so my daily mileage has gone from 70-75 miles a day down to about 6. In a sort of weird reversal of history, where in the above article I lamented trading in my Jeep for the Volt, I now have a 2000 Jeep TJ as my only personal vehicle. Of course Mrs. Geek has a Subaru wagon, which we use for most errands, trips, etc, but the Jeep is mine, and I adore it.

I did have a reservation in to buy a Tesla Model 3 when they were available (which is now), but given the low miles I’m driving, and that I’m spending more and more time out of the country, it doesn’t make sense to have an expensive electric vehicle just sitting at home.

So here I am in mid-life with “nothing but an 18 year old manual truck in the garage”.

I’m okay with that.

2016 New England Auto Show

Yesterday Zach and I went to the New England Auto Show at the Boston Convention Center. it was right next door to Arisia, so we thought “what the heck, lets take an hour or two to go look at shiny cars.” He’d never been to a commercial car show before, so we trundled over.

2016-01-1717.jpgOn the way in, we ran the usual gauntlet of free coupons, surveys, and other marketing nitwits. The line to buy tickets was super-fast (literally walked right up to the next person selling), but someone had already stopped me in line “Hey, I bought an extra, want mine?” er…. sure! That was $15 not spent.

Once on the show floor it was acres and acres of carpeting with shiny cars and trucks parked on them. I realized quickly that Zach knew more about modern car lines than I did, so I let him identify some things. I helped out with things like “Yes, that really is a Bentley, and yes, they really do cost a quarter million dollars, and no, I can’t tell you why.”

There were some important wins that made the show worth while. I was able to look at the 2016 Volt, and in particular, whether I could fit in it (spoiler: yup). I also love that Chevy redesigned the Volt’s center console, which was a mess. That plus the new battery layout and longer range (about 53 miles on battery, as opposed to the 41-ish I get with my 2015) makes me want to see about changing my lease over.

Two other high points of the show. Zach has decided that his dream car is the Mazda MX-5 Miata. I’ll admit that when it first came out as the Miata 25 years ago, I was pretty taken with it. No way I could sit in it though. 2016-01-1715.jpgZach had never had the opportunity to ‘try one on for size’, so now was our chance. He fit! The soft top closed comfortably over him, and he was over the moon. If you’re going to be in love with a car, at least he’s picking a stylish, not stupidly over the moon expensive one.

The one other bit of fun we had was Zach was able to climb into a real live Modified-class track racecar. We were gaping at it when the owner said “Want to try it on for size?” “Not me”, I said, “But could he try?” I pointed to Zach and he said “heck yeah!”. So after some wriggling in through the window, he socketed into the drivers seat (which was conveniently sized about right for him), and he got a feel for what real racecars feel like.

All in all, a nice 2 hours spent with my son geeking about cars. For me, it was also a chance to try out my lovely new Canon 11-16mm ultra wide angle lens. Here’s the full gallery. This was my first time doing any decent work with such a short focal length, and I was pleasantly surprised with the results. I like it!

Why You Should Drive an Electric Car

This morning, while getting ready to go to the Worcester Electric Vehicle Ride and Drive Event I put together a little placard to show next to my Chevy Volt to answer some basic questions. What is a Volt, how efficient is it, etc.

It got me thinking. How much is this really helping things? Am I really driving green?

Well, lets take a look at the numbers, purely from a CO2 emissions standpoint. I’ll use my current statistics since I bought the car May 1st. The spreadsheet is to the right.

My Volt numbers
My Volt numbers

If I were to drive all 9,546 miles on a gasoline engine at 40mpg, I would have burned 238 gallons of gas. Each gallon of gas burned releases 18 pounds of CO2. I would have released 4,295 pounds, or a little over 2 tons of CO2.

I only drove 2970 miles on gas, so I released only 900lbs of CO2.

Stark numbers, wouldn’t you say?

Now, there’s other factors. Even though I didn’t burn the gasoline myself, that energy had to come from somewhere. I purchase my electricity through National Grid and have signed up for their Green Energy program that makes sure my money goes to pay for green power, so one could argue there’s no emissions for my usage. But lets assume I get my power via normal channels.

According to the EIA, Natural Gas releases 1.21lbs of CO2 per kwh generated. I’ve used 2,389 kwh, totalling 2890lbs of CO2 if I sourced it from natural gas, bringing my total CO2 emissions to about 3790lbs. By that measure, I’ve only saved a few hundred pounds of CO2. We’re putting aside the other nasty stuff that’s generated by internal combustion engines.

But you cannot improve the cleanliness of an internal combustion engine just by checking a box on your power bill. You can do that with electric. With one checkbox (“Use green energy sources”), I cut 4tons of CO2 out of my carbon footprint every year.

Isn’t that worth it?

National Drive Electric Car Week

Tomorrow night I’ll take my Chevy Volt to WPI for National Drive Electric Week’s Worcester Electric Vehicle Ride and Drive Event. It looks like there’ll be about 35 EV’s there, so should be a great mix of technologies and equipment.

volt plugged in
My Volt plugged into the Level 2 charger at Curriculum Asssociates

My Volt has been a great addition to my daily commute, and it’s even more fun now that there are Level 2 chargers at work. I can go days without burning a single ounce of gasoline.

OwnStar – Vulnerability in OnStar Application for GM vehicles

Hack of OnStar Remotelink lets attacker unlock, remote-start, and track cars.

The OwnStar device can detect nearby users of the OnStar RemoteLink application on a mobile phone and can then inject packets into the communication stream to the phone, getting it to give up additional information about the user’s credentials. Those credentials can then be used to gain access to the vehicle’s OnStar account and the full functionality of the OnStar RemoteLink app.

Kamkar says the vulnerability is in the app itself and not the OnStar hardware in GM vehicles. He added that GM and OnStar are working to correct the flaw in the vulnerable mobile application. GM customers who use OnStar can protect themselves for the time being by not using the RemoteLink app.

Good thing I don’t have a GM vehicle that heavily uses OnStar remote services.

Source: ArsTechnica

One Week with the Chevy Volt

So a week ago I traded in my Jeep Wrangler for a Chevy Volt.  It was a hard decision, but made sense on so many levels.  I have a long commute (70 miles round trip), do other road trips, etc.  And while I’ll miss being able to bang around in the woods and romp through the mud, the Volt has been… all things are considered… pretty damned awesome!

chevy volt on charger
My 2015 Chevy Volt plugged in at the office

Lets start with the run down.  In the last week, I’ve driven about 450 miles.  In that time, I’ve burned a grand total of 2 gallons of gas.  And lets be clear, this isn’t because I drive carefully or anything – this thing is fun as heck to drive, and tearing along an on-ramp or powering around someone in traffic is a ton of fun.  This is just using basic energy management.  At night, I plug the Volt into an normal 110v outlet in my garage, which, by morning, means I have a full charge – a battery range of between 40 and 45 miles.  When I get to work, weather permitting and no one is in the parking spot near the outlet, I plug in there as well.  6 hours at work is enough to top off the battery and get me home again.

If I don’t get a chance to plug it in?  That’s okay… when the battery runs out, the Volt functions like a ‘normal’ car and runs on the engine, giving a respectable 40mpg.

That’s the basics.  Now lets get into the cool geeky stuff.

The car doesn’t look like an EV.  It’s not a Prius, it’s not a Leaf, it’s not an Insight, and it’s sure as heck not a Tesla.   On the outside, it just looks like your standard smallish sedan.  On the inside it’s modern as heck, with 2 color displays, schwoopie internal lines, and comfortable details.  I’m 6’6″ tall, and my son is 6’2.  We fit just fine, though if we’re hauling tall kids in the back seats, things can get cramped.  Having said that, even the tall kids find they have enough headroom in the back – it’s usually footspace gets a little tricky.  The trunk is certainly smaller than the Jeep (duh), but the car is a hatchback, and while I wouldn’t want to haul furniture with it, I can carry whatever project I’m working on in the back without much trouble.

Something I hear from other EV car drivers, I’ll pass on here.  If you’ve never driven an EV car, find a friend who has one, and ask to take their car for a quick drive.  There is nothing in my experience that compares with driving a modern, comfortable automobile under electric power.  It is almost silent, the acceleration is smooth and clean (and strong!!).  It’s almost impossible not to smile when pulling this car out of the garage and heading off down the road.  It feels space-age.  We may not have flying cars yet, but this sure feels like we’re getting there.

Too many people think of the Chevy Volt like a Prius or similar.  An extremely practical, un-fun car.  Let me tell you folks, this car is seriously fun to drive.  The acceleration is phenomenal when you ‘drop the hammer’ as they used to say.  According to the interwebz, the 0-60 time is 8.7 seconds, (compared with the plugin Prius at 10.5 seconds.  The Leaf zips at 7.4 seconds – it’s a much lighter car with no engine).  My Wrangler would have done that in 10.4 seconds, and burned half a gallon of gas doing it.

This brings up another point.  When I drive the Volt aggressively, I don’t feel like I’m doing damage to it, or to the environment, or anything.  I’m using more battery power, sure, but unlike a gas engine (which runs less efficiently when heavily loaded, ie burning more hydrocarbons), the Volt just runs the battery down a little more.  You can wildly vary the efficiency of an internal combustion engine based on driving style, and by efficiency I mean “how much crap you blow out your tailpipe”, but the Volt?  The only efficiency you’ll hurt is how long your battery will last until it needs a recharge.

Lets talk about some more geeky things.

onstar app
The OnStar app on my Android phone showing the status of the Volt

The Volt is an EV car.  I spend 95% of my time driving it on batteries only.  As such, I’m always looking for ways to not use the gas engine.  I’ve signed up on the ChargePoint network, which gives me a little RFID card, a mobile app, and a network of Level 2 charging stations where I can top off my battery while having some coffee.  A full Level 2 charge of the Volt takes a few hours (An hour on a level 2 charger adds about 10 miles of range to the battery).  So while electric ‘refueling’ is still a ways off, it’s nice to know I can stop off for lunch somewhere and plug in the Volt for a while while I grab a burger.

The other win is the OnStar mobile app.  While I’m skeptical of any of the ‘big manufacturer’ tools, GM’s Onstar stuff is pretty good, and their mobile app is super-handy.  From my phone I can check the status of the car – how the battery is doing, when it’ll be charged, how much gas is in it, heck, even what the tire pressures are.  More excitedly, I can remote start it.  In nasty weather, I can tell the Volt to power up and start warming the cabin.  It’ll do this purely on ‘shore power’ (drawing from the power connector, not the engine), so it’ll be nice and toasty when I’m ready to leave, without sacrificing range.


While I went into this change for purely practical reasons, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how much I’m enjoying the car.  It’s performance is great, it’s comfortable, and I can’t argue with the cost of operation.  One interesting side effect… I get bothered when I’m running on gasoline.  95%of the time I’m emitting zero pollutants.  No CO2, no hydrocarbons, not even making a lot of noise.  But when that engine starts (which is nearly silent, I notice it mostly because my dashboard changes configuration), I start feeling dirty.  I’m BURNING OIL!!!  I picture a bucket of gas on fire.  Ewwww.  Then I look around at all the other cars on the road and go “They’re all doing this right now.  Why?”

Maybe it’s the shiny… maybe people are afraid of EV cars, or just don’t understand them, but for me, I wonder why there isn’t a while hogged march toward everyone using cars like this.  There are a lot of hybrid cars on the market right now, but they’re in the ‘we use an electric motor to make the gas motor use less gas’ category.  Why isn’t this sort of design more prevalent?

Goodbye Jeep, Hello Volt.

Today I made a hard decision.

8 months ago my venerable VW Passat became unmaintainable. It required a new oil pump, which was going to run around $2000. It had been good for me for 4 years, but with 140,000 miles on it, I was concerned about shoveling more cash into it.

I’d always wanted a Jeep. Heck, what kid didn’t? So I shopped around and eventually bought a 2012 Jeep Sahara Unlimited. It had all the bells and whistles, and I had a blast with it. Romping in the woods, plowing through snow in the winter, it was a big Tonka toy.

Eventually though, that Tonka toy, while still fun, was getting impractical. I drive 70 miles a day for work, on a highway, with longer trips up to NH, RI, and out to the Cape. A big off road vehicle that gets 18mpg is not a commuter car. I was spending too much on gas, too much on the car, and it became apparent it wasn’t the right type of vehicle for my day to day ride. With a heavy heart, I realized it was time to switch.

Continue reading “Goodbye Jeep, Hello Volt.”