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Backstory: Scariest Moment in a Space-Age Car


Published December 27, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 27, 2017 at 10:03 a.m.

Tesla Supercharger station at Healthy Living Market & Café - DAN BOLLES
  • Dan Bolles
  • Tesla Supercharger station at Healthy Living Market & Café

While reporting a story this fall on the rise of electric-car ownership in Vermont, I took a spin with photographer Todd Lockwood in his 2016 Tesla Model S 90D. It was there I saw the future. And it blew my mind.

For starters, I'd never ridden in a car that could touch the fully electric luxury sedan's zero to 60 mph time: 4.2 seconds. You can find a handful of faster street-legal production cars out there, but they're mostly top-of-the-line McLarens, Ferraris and Porsches. The Tesla's instantaneous acceleration felt something like those first g-force-inducing moments of takeoff in a jet plane.

And then there was the sound — or, rather, the lack of it. Without the familiar rumble and whine — or, in the case of my battered old Jetta, the clunk and wheeze — of an internal combustion engine, the Tesla floats along blacktop almost silently. Other electric vehicles, aka EVs, boast a similar dearth of engine noise — and, it should be noted, peppy pickup. But thanks to its elite engineering, the Tesla's elegant, spaceship-like cockpit barely even registers road noise. Lockwood, formerly a recording engineer, was quick to show off his car's state-of-the-art sound system, playing a recording of his son's college a cappella group. "This car is now one of my favorite places to listen to music," he told me.

But pace and quiet were maybe the second and third most astonishing aspects of Lockwood's $90,000 ride.

The first? As we glided southbound on Interstate 89 outside Williston, Lockwood turned to me with a grin and asked, "You wanna see something really cool?" He then engaged the autopilot and removed his hands from the wheel. The car hugged a bend in the highway and, thanks to its roughly bazillion sensors, maintained a safe distance behind the vehicle in front of us.

Then we changed lanes. Lockwood flipped the turn signal left and returned his hands to his lap. The Tesla waited until a car in the passing lane sped by and then moved itself into the left-hand lane. To which I responded: "Holy shit."

To be honest, the idea of driverless vehicles amazes and terrifies me in equal measure. My father was a professional driver, and I inherited his love of and pride in driving. I relish motoring in snow. I never use cruise control and almost exclusively drive a stick — sometimes I double-clutch for fun. If you need computerized "park assist" to parallel park, we probably can't be friends. So the notion of autonomous cars pokes at my delicate driving sensibility. And that's to say nothing of blindly trusting a road trip to computers, sensors and GPS networks.

Still, the practical implications of driverless cars are staggering. Provided everything works as it should, driver error would essentially become a thing of the past. As Lockwood noted, elderly drivers wouldn't have to give up their freedom. Self-driving cars could theoretically end drunk driving. The term "fender bender" would be an antiquity on par with "landline." And instead of listening to books on tape on your morning commute, you could just read a freakin' book.

As Lockwood explained, EVs are far easier to automate because of their relative mechanical simplicity compared to cars with combustion engines. That means that as electric cars become more viable and accessible, we're inching closer to a fleet of autonomous cars. It's only a matter of time.