June 23rd, 2022 marked the 10 year anniversary of the first customer deliveries of the Tesla Model S. This summer also marks the 10 year anniversary of me getting hired by Tesla. To commemorate this, I thought I’d share one of the most profound moments of my life — the day I first saw the Tesla Model S in person. It was a car that would come to change the course of the entire automotive industry, as well as the course of my own life. So, come take a stroll down Memory Lane with me, won’t you?
Two of my greatest passions in life are sporty cars and the environment. Growing up in the 1980s and ’90s meant that these two passions of mine existed in diametric opposition to each other. Up until very recently, conventional wisdom held that the more fun a car was to drive, the more terrible it was for the environment. Throughout my early adult life I yearned to reconcile this dichotomy. The thing was I had no idea how to make that reconciliation happen, or if it was even possible. Enter Tesla Motors — a small Silicon Valley electric vehicle startup spearheaded by one of the co-founders of PayPal, Elon Musk. Tesla was setting out to do the seemingly impossible task of bringing to market the first ever long range, high performance, and commercially successful electric car — the Model S. Eureka! Color me intrigued.
I closely (aka obsessively) followed Tesla’s origin story for years, as far back as the AC Propulsion tzero (the inspiration for the original Tesla Roadster) in the early 2000s. From there I followed the development of Model S through the alpha prototype unveiling in 2009 to the beta builds. I was so taken with what the company was doing that I wanted to contribute in any way I could to help it. This led to Tesla actually flying me out to its Silicon Valley headquarters in Palo Alto for a round of interviews in the Fall of 2010. (Although, I wouldn’t end up being hired by Tesla until the Summer of 2012. More on that later.) Finally, the day had come when I would get to check out the production-intent iteration of Model S in person.
SCENE: The Classic Car Club Manhattan, October 30th, 2011.
Tesla had a pre-production beta Model S on public display for the first time, right in downtown New York City. It was a humble setup. The car sat there on display, tucked in the corner of the The Classic Car Club, its trunk and hood unlatched, cordoned off by a simple black velvet rope and a handful of Tesla employees (some of whom would later become my colleagues).
Upon arrival, I was expecting to see throngs of excited people, feverishly crowding around the car. Instead, the place was practically empty, with only a couple of onlookers standing in the scansion queue, waiting for their chance to sit in the car. Among the onlookers was Maye Musk, Elon’s proud mom, stopping by to support her son’s latest endeavor.
I was flabbergasted by the lack of attendance; that the car wasn’t getting absolutely mobbed by people and the press. It was like happening upon a super famous musician like Lady Gaga doing a solo acoustic set in an empty bar in the middle of the day on Bleeker Street. “Doesn’t anybody realize what is happening here?!” I thought. Like rabid fans of the niche often do, I failed to appreciate that very few people in general even knew what the Tesla Model S was at that point in time, let alone cared enough about it to get up and go to the lower westside of Manhattan to check it out.
A car like no other …
There it was — an ALL ELECTRIC sports sedan! Sure, there had been some electric cars that came before it from other manufacturers, but they were small, awkward, low range, and dorky. “Martyr-Mobiles” as I call them. Model S was the antithesis of that. It was big, quick, long range, and gorgeous. Nothing like it had ever existed before — an exhilarating family sedan free of the addiction to fossil fuel, that could instead be fueled by a plethora of clean renewable sources, including pure sunlight. Game changing. I walked around the car in absolute awe, taking in the stunning exterior design, while also contemplating the revolutionary engineering that laid beneath its service. Tesla’s mission with Model S was to prove that an electric car could be way better than a gas powered car could ever possibly be … and prove it they did.
To say the Model S rewrote the rulebook on what a car can do is a massive understatement. Its all-electric “skateboard” powertrain architecture was a complete departure from the internal combustion gasoline powertrains that had dominated automobile anatomy for the last century. The flat battery pack ran along the floor of the car between the front and rear axles, doubling as a stress member of the chassis. The drive unit (consisting of the motor, inverter, and single speed gearbox — each about the size of a paint can) was packaged together at axle level between the rear wheels. This gave the big sedan a lower center of gravity than a Porsche Boxster. Being electric, the single-speed drive unit was able to deliver 100% torque at zero rpm, giving the car super quick, quiet, uninterrupted, linear acceleration; capable of beating the gas guzzling V8 sports sedans of that day in a 0–60 mph sprint.
This architecture also provided unparalleled crash/rollover safety. Not having to build around the massive mechanisms that a gasoline car has — like a huge engine, transmission tunnel, gas tank, and exhaust system — meant the Model S body structure could be optimized for crash safety in ways never before possible. In fact, Model S would go on to earn the highest safety rating of any vehicle ever tested by the NHTSA up until that time (bested only by other Tesla vehicles that came later). On top of extraordinary performance and safety, Model S had 4× the efficiency, more interior space, more seating capacity, 2× more storage, and lower maintenance than the gasoline-powered cars of its class had. The Model S was not just a new breed — it was an entirely new species.
It was jarring, in a Pavlovian kind of way, to lift the hood and not see a massive gasoline engine sitting there, all tangled up with wires, belts, and hoses. Instead, under the Model S hood was ample storage space, whimsically dubbed the “frunk” (front trunk). No driveshaft and transmission tunnel meant a flat floor for more legroom. No gas tank and exhaust system meant enough rear storage for an optional third row of rear-facing stowable child seats. It was a sedan with seven seats!
Subtle design touches sprinkled throughout the car’s exterior further added to its allure; like the charge port that was cleverly hidden behind the driver-side brake light reflector, and the beautiful flush chrome “auto-present” handles that extended from the doors as you approached the car, as if to welcome you inside. As excited as I was to finally get to see the car’s exterior design in person, that excitement was dwarfed by the euphoria I felt when I sat in the driver’s seat.
Compared to the analog automotive world that had existed for the past 100 years, with interiors cluttered with buttons, knobs, and gauges, stepping into the Model S was like passing through a portal into Tomorrowland. The driver binnacle housed above the base of the steering column was an all-digital high-resolution display, framed by a sleek brushed chrome bezel. A massive 17-inch touchscreen display occupied the entire center of the dashboard. It might as well have been an IMAX movie screen. It was dazzling.
It’s important to appreciate that when the Model S alpha prototype was unveiled in 2009, it was the world’s first look at such a large, commercial intent, touchscreen inside a car. No other touchscreen of that size existed in the consumer market yet, let alone in an automobile. Pocket-sized touchscreen smartphones existed, but larger touchscreen devices like the iPad had not yet been unveiled, so a tablet sized touchscreen like the one in the Model S alpha had not been experienced before. It was like something out of Star Trek TNG — science fiction made real.
Like so many other elements of the Model S, the touchscreen was a game changer for the automotive industry. This concept of having a customizable internet-connected virtual cockpit that could periodically update itself to improve not only its user interface, but also vehicle performance, efficiency, and features via free over-the-air software updates, was truly revolutionary — and more than 10 years later, it still is.
The disrupter cometh …
It is easy to see why the Model S would come to garner so much universal admiration from both the press and public upon its release in 2012. It was the superlative in practically every metric that one uses to measure what makes a great car. Superior acceleration, superior quiet, superior safety, superior efficiency, superior technology, superior aerodynamics, superior styling, superior storage, superior functionality, and superior ease of maintenance — all in one car. And not in spite of it being electric — but because it was electric. Tesla, a small Silicon Valley startup, had built a car that changed what people thought was possible. An electric vehicle so much better than the best gasoline-powered cars that it would ultimately force the entire auto industry to follow its lead, or else be relegated into antiquated obsolescence. There it was, right there before my eyes at the Classic Car Club in lower Manhattan; the unifier of my passions’ dichotomy. The harbinger of the electric car revolution. The Tesla Model S.
It’s hard to put into words the feeling that was in the air for me that day when I first saw the Model S in person. It felt like a date with destiny, like I was at a crossroads in my life. It was an epiphany, really. I had this tremendous sense that my destiny and the destiny of this company Tesla were going to be forever intertwined. Although, at that point, I didn’t quite know exactly how. I had a divination that, somehow, someway, absolutely spectacular things were ahead. Deep down I knew — I KNEW — that regardless of the seemingly insurmountable odds, this small Silicon Valley company would go on to change the course of my life, as well as the course of the entire global automobile industry. As tremendously naive and unlikely as this prophecy may have seemed to most at that time, I could feel it in every cell of my body.
All of this was the impression the Model S made on me just being parked there — not even moving. Getting the opportunity to drive it the following year took my epiphany to a whole new level. The way I saw it, as many people as possible needed to have this same epiphany too, so I made it my singular mission in life to proliferate this epiphany to as many people as I possibly could.
In the summer of 2012, I officially joined Tesla as part of the initial Model S delivery launch program. During my time at Tesla over the following seven years, I had the job, and great pleasure, of witnessing that same “epiphany moment” happen over and over again with the countless people I introduced to the Model S. It was glorious. The Model S was my chariot, office, and Kool-Aid stand on wheels. I spent more hours in that car than I did in my own home. My passion for cars and the environment, two things that were once diametric opposites, were now fused together in a laser beam of EV evangelism. I was completely in my element. Much like when I was in Monty Python’s SPAMALOT (that’s a whole other story), it was a dynamic chapter in my life when my passion, my skill set, and the job at hand were all perfectly aligned.
Model S would go on to win numerous awards, including the coveted Motor Trend “Car of the Year” award. Car reviewer Carlos Lago would refer to it as “the most significant car since the Model T.” Jason Cammisa of Hagerty echoed that sentiment when he recently said that the Model S was the most significant car of the last ten decades. Consumer Reports gave it a 99/100, the highest score the company had ever given a car, only to be beaten a couple years later by a subsequent variant of the Model S (the P85D), which ended up getting an accumulative score of over 100 — in essence breaking the Consumer Reports rating system — because the car was so good in so many ways. Motor Trend would later go further with their praise and crown the Model S the “Ultimate Car of the Year,” dubbing it the greatest car they had ever tested in their 70+ years of existence. And rightly so. It was that great. It was that significant. It changed everything.
In the following years it would become the highest selling car in the full-size luxury sedan class, dethroning German luxury brands that had dominated that segment for decades. Subsequent variants of the Model S would continue to be a platform for game-changing automotive innovations. Autopilot would bring driver assistance to a whole new level. “Insane,” “Ludicrous,” and “Plaid” performance modes would bring acceleration to new heights. Its “skateboard” battery and powertrain setup would set the architectural standard for EVs that practically all the auto industry follows today (save BMW, *ahem*). Lastly, Model S paved the way for the tremendous success of its younger (and more affordable) siblings, the Model 3 and Model Y.
From an ecological standpoint, the benefit to life on this planet due to the shift in the auto industry that the Model S caused is massive, incalculable, and cannot be overstated. Model S will go down in history as the catalyst that started the entire automobile industry’s transition from gas guzzling engines to highly efficient electric motors. A transition whose fleetness is crucial to life as we know it, and the lives of generations to come.
In the autumn of 2017, just past my 5 year anniversary at Tesla, my 40th birthday, and six years to the week of me first seeing the Model S in person, I took delivery of my very own Model S. It was a happening I could’ve only dreamed of when I first saw it those years earlier at the Classic Car Club. 10 years ago, I was mocked by some for my enthusiasm about Tesla. I was told it was a fool’s errand and it wouldn’t amount to anything. Today, Tesla is not only the most valuable automaker in the world (by a massive margin), it is also the fastest growing complex manufacturer in history; with no signs of slowing down. What a difference a decade makes.
The original Model S was a tour de force of innovation, a neon signpost that pointed the way for the entire global auto industry to follow, a chariot that led Tesla from obscurity to dominance on the world stage. What is really exciting is that Tesla is not even close to slowing down its innovation game. Elon Musk has said that success is determined by the rate of innovation. Tesla is walking that walk (see: Cybertruck, FSD, … and, well, everything else Tesla is building).
As for me, these days I’m cheering on Tesla from the sidelines. In the summer of 2019, I bowed out of Tesla (and corporate life in general), but I am still a staunch advocate for the company and its mission. Now I support the mission by being a repository of Tesla product knowledge and company culture/history for anyone who asks or will listen … and by writing sappy sentimental articles like this one. On any given weekend, you can find me whipping my Model 3 around the track at Sebring International Raceway, bringing more petrol-heads into the fold with every lap. Old habits die hard. I love Tesla like it is one of my own children, because in a proverbial way, it is. I devoted years of my life to helping it grow healthy and strong. I am ingrained in its DNA and its DNA is ingrained in me. For me, working at Tesla wasn’t just a job, it was a calling. I am so proud of what it has become, and where it is going. I try to attend Tesla special events/parties whenever I can, and when I do, I’m like a proud papa at my kid’s recital, beaming over their latest accomplishment.
10 years ago, the Model S was the manifestation of Tesla’s radical pace of innovation. That first experience I had with it changed my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined. There are many more “Tesla firsts” that this next decade of innovation will bring. Getting into a driverless robotaxi for the first time, shaking hands with a Tesla Bot for the first time, and more.… Whatever is to come, it makes me thrilled for the future. What a time to be alive! Cheers to the Tesla team for continuing to build a world we all want and need. Viva rEVolution!
OBLIGATORY STOCK DISCLOSURE/DISCLAIMER THAT CLEANTECHNICA MAKES ME DO (BUT I ALSO SECRETLY ENJOY BRAGGING ABOUT ANYWAY):
During my employment at Tesla from 2012 to 2019, I was granted and optioned thousands of shares of $TSLA stock. I am LONG $TSLA with a multimillion-dollar stake in the company, and do not intend to sell any part of my stake for several years. Any content I create is for entertainment purposes only and not intended to be investment advice.
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