The Tesla S has the most insane in-car touchscreen multimedia system ever

3rd Oct 2013 | 11:36

The Tesla S has the most insane in-car touchscreen multimedia system ever

Massive 17-inch touchscreen revolutionises in-car tech but also raises safety concerns

Tesla Model S: Multimedia system

Tesla's new Model S has the best in-car multimedia system yet. There, we've said it.

Centred around a preposterously huge 17-inch capacitive touchscreen, the Model S's bonkers in-car system is far from perfect. On paper, it's also far from being the Model S's main attraction, what with its world-beating 310-mile pure-electric range.

But TechRadar was lucky enough to be the first to get its hands on the full European-spec version of Tesla's all-electric luxury saloon. And we've discovered that the Model's S's infotainment is the most surprising aspect of a car that defies expectations on several levels.

After all, electric cars have had a frosty reception in many markets. Here in the UK, around 2,000 electric cars were sold in 2012. Over 2,000,000 new cars found homes last year, putting electric car sales at just 0.1 per cent of the overall UK market.

Yet the Model S turns out to be much more usable as real-world transport than most would expect from an electric vehicle as well as a car that has us rethinking in-car interfaces.

Titanic touchscreen

First, let's deal with the elephant in this article or least the touchscreen that seems to be suffering from elephantitus. We won't deny it, when we first saw the Tesla's huge 17-inch touchscreen, it looked ridiculous.

It's almost as if Tesla took a blasé bigger-is-better approach and simply slapped a large PC monitor into the dash. If anything, the incongruity of finding such a large screen in-car makes it look even bigger than 17 inches. It's massive.

Tesla Model S

Then there's the question of how practical a capacitive touchscreen is in an automotive context. There's a school of thought in the industry that says capacitive screens are a bit sensitive, a bit flighty for cars. A nice deliberate resistive screen that needs a good, hard prod is what you need.

Then there are issues like, ergonomics, tactility and physical feedback. At the very least, the jury is out on touch. Some major manufacturers like Audi and BMW prefer wheel-based inputs while others, including VW, go with touchscreens.

However, even the touchscreen camp has kept the functionality on-screen strictly limited. Conventional physical controls for a wide range of functionality typically remain.

Tesla Model S

But not in the Model S. Tesla has ditched almost every physical button and control. There's a steering wheel with some short-cut keys, buttons for the windows, a hazard light switch and a button to release the glove box lid. And that's it.

Yes, really. Literally everything else from the climate control to the suspension settings and even the sunroof is controlled via virtual menus on the touchscreen. Again, we have no problem admitting that, on paper, this sounds like a very bad idea.

New approach to navigation

But here's the thing. It actually works. Probably the best aspect of the system is the navigation functionality. In-car navigation has long worked well for simply getting from point A to point B. We're talking turn-by-turn navigation.

Some systems are more accurate than others. Some have more detailed internet-based traffic data or points-of-interest databases than others. But most are pretty good at getting places.

Tesla Model S

Provided, that is, you know where you actually want to go. What these systems have so far been rubbish at is allowing you to get a feel for where you are and what's around you, to explore. The bigger picture, so to speak.

The Model S is absolutely awesome at that. That's because is combines the best of both worlds. On the one hand, you have traditional turn-by-turn navigation on the large LCD screen that replaces the driver's instruments.

But you also get a huge, highly detailed rendition of Google Maps painted across the main touchscreen. Just like Google Maps on a smartphone or tablet, there's multi-touch support for swiping around the map, zooming in and out and all the rest. After driving the Model S, you feel like you're flying blind in other cars.

Intriguing interface

The rest of the interface defies convention, too. Thanks to the big screen, menus for things like hands-free telephony are big, bold and clear.

What's really impressive here is just how quickly you become comfortable with the interface. Within five minutes of syncing an iPhone, we reckon you'll find making calls in a Model S more effortless than any other car.

Tesla Model S

The multimedia playback is just as good, playing back tunes from your handset and mass storage devices or streaming music via TuneIn Radio and thousands of internet radio stations.

Tesla has done a good job offering plenty of configurability, too. You have the choice of dedicating the entire display to one main function, like mapping.

Tesla Model S

Or you can split it vertically and even swap the functionality top to bottom. So you can have Google maps up top and media playback in the bottom half. It's up to you.

Motorway browsing

The final major piece of the puzzle is the web browser. It's where the Model S's infotainment is sometimes at its most revelatory, but also reveals some major shortcomings and safety concerns.

First up, the browser does what it says on the tin. It won't play embedded video. But it will do most things. In our experience, most functionality that depends on Javascript or HTML5 works.

Tesla Model S

Thanks to that big old screen, you get a proper desktop browsing experience, too. Which is where the good and the bad really begin to kick in.

You can, for example, load up your web mail and stick that in the top half of the display. It really is possible to drive along, refreshing the page for new emails. Tesla doesn't lock out any functionality on the move.

It's something of a revelation to have that kind of functionality so accessible and usable on the move for the very first time. But the question is, should you be able to do this at all?

Tesla Model S

There's a big debate going on right now regards driver distraction as a function of in-car tech and we fear Tesla may find itself on the wrong side of it.

While we prefer to make our own choices as responsible adults, the safety lobby will no doubt take a different view. At the very least, it would be advisable for Tesla to provide a reduced functionality driving mode that can be optionally enabled.

Patchy performance

It's also worth mentioning that system performance is sometimes patchy. Scrolling response in the web browser can be pretty awful. Google Maps rendering and response to swipes and scrolling can be very sluggish, too.

In truth, the Model S needs a faster processor. But that doesn't stop the system overall being a true revelation. It's totally transformed our attitude towards in-car touch and virtual controls. They may not be the only solution for the future. But the Model S proves in-car touschreens aren't just viable. They're highly desirable.

Tesla Model S: Driving, range and charging

As for the rest of the Model S experience, that's a bit of a revelation, too. Performance wise, think BMW 5 Series with warp drive. Our test car sports the bigger 85kWh lithium battery and it really shifts.

Some independent tests have measured zero to 60mph at four seconds flat and it feels good for that sort of performance. With the battery pack entirely contained on the floor of the chassis, the centre of gravity is bonkers-low, too, about the height of the wheel hub.

Tesla Model S

So the Model S corners super-flat and absolutely doesn't seem like the two-tonne beast that, in fact, it is. It's also rear-wheel drive and really feels like it. Toggle off the traction control and there's drifting for the digital generation on offer.

Overall, the dynamics are up there with the very best in the industry. For the most part, this is not a car you have to make exceptions for based on its novel pure-electric drivetrain.

Open range

The final piece of the puzzle for any electric car involves range and recharge. Our day with the Model S started at Tesla's service centre in Acton, west London and began with a 40 mile round trip up and back the M40 to familiarise ourselves with the car.

After returning to base, we headed out again, via the M4, to Newbury, squirted up and down the leafy lanes, stopped for some photography and the returned to Acton during rush hour.

Tesla Model S

It was a pretty mixed bunch of driving, little of which was executed with range conservation in mind. We just drove the car as we would a conventional combustion powered alternative.

After all that – around 175 miles - the Model S still had an estimated 75 miles left in its batteries. Not far off, in other words, the typical 100-mile overall range of most electric cars.

All of which means the Model S is genuinely usable as proper transport. OK, it's still not a true long-distance vehicle in the UK. At least not until Tesla gets around to installing a promised network of super chargers.

Tesla Model S

Using existing public charging facilities, topping up the massive battery is the work of around 15 hours. At home it could be double that using a standard wall socket. With one of Tesla's super chargers, you can half fill the battery or add 150 miles of range in just 30 mins.

But in many ways, talk of charging times misses the point. For us the model usage for the Model S is a bit like a mobile phone. Charge it overnight and use it during the day. With a 300-odd mile range, the Model S gives you more options for doing that than just about any other electric car.

What's the catch?

At this point, you might be thinking we're blown away by the Model S's all-round attributes. And for the most part we were. But there are a few niggles.

Performance of the infotainment system aside, the general ambience of the cabin doesn't quite tally with what is expected to be an £85,000 car. The Model S feels low rent inside next to similarly priced saloons from, say, Audi or BMW.Tesla Model S

There's more noise on the move than we expected, too. Silent running is one of the attractions of an electric car. But the truth is, when cruising on the motorway it's wind and road roar suppression that matter and the Tesla is nothing special by those metrics.

Then there's the £85,000 price itself. Yes, cheaper models with smaller batteries will be available from around £55,000. But even that is a hefty sum and for us the 310-mile range of the biggest battery is central to the Model S's overall appeal.

Tesla Model S: Verdict

The Tesla Model S is far from perfect, then. The infotainment system can be sluggish. Some parts of the interior feel cheap. Noise suppression on the motorway is nothing special. And the asking price is pretty painful.

But it's what the Model S does well that makes much more of an impression. The huge 17 -inch touchscreen is a revelation and has permanently altered our view of what makes for a great in-car multimedia system.Tesla Model S

The Model S's exciting dynamics and impressive real-world range are also game changers when it comes to conventional perceptions of what electric cars are capable of. In many ways, the Model S makes almost every other car on the market seem suddenly a bit last century.

Deliveries of the first right-hand drive Tesla Model S cars are expected early next year with prices starting at around £55,000 for the smallest 60kWh battery offering 240 miles range and extending up to £85,000 for the 85kWh performance-pack option with 310-mile range and the quickest acceleration.

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