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Learning to drive, version 3

By on November 24, 2019 in Uncategorized with 1 Comment
Susan Sampson and her e-car: Learning to drive on autopilot.

 By Susan Sampson

The first time I learned to drive, I used a 1961 Dodge Polaris station wagon with push-button transmission. 

Even though it was the size of an aircraft carrier, I passed the parallel parking test and got my driver’s license.

The second time I learned to drive, I mastered manual transmission, coordinating the use of clutch and brakes to start and stop on Seattle’s many steep hills.

Then it was time for me to learn a new trick: Using a computerized electric vehicle with autopilot. Like airplane pilots, I would be “flying by wire.” 

My husband Jerry approached the idea enthusiastically: “I want a car I can send to the store for pizza and bring it home with extra napkins,” he said. 

He’d be a natural for an electric car. He’s a retired aeronautical engineer and is so high tech that everything in our house is computerized, right down to the vacuum cleaner. 

Me? I’m barely comfortable with a smart phone. 

However, a computerized car would be good for me as my reflexes slow with age, my eyesight fades, and a computer “thinks” faster than I in traffic. 

I must learn: My electric car uses a smart phone, not a key, to operate.

 Jaguar, Nissan and Chevy, among others already have fully electric cars on the road. The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety just gave the Tesla Model 3 its highest safety rating and Tesla bragged it up as the safest car on the road, so that’s what we got. 

The car had a steering wheel, accelerator pedal and brake pedal, so at least that much was familiar. 

Jerry admits to driving like a holy terror when he was a kid. He obeys the law now, but loved that the electric car could start and come up to speed instantly, going 0-to-60 in 3.2 seconds. By contrast, I accelerate in what the car calls “creep” mode. 

I drive like I would a gas vehicle in  cruise control until I’m on the open highway, then I  switch  to autopilot. 

I keep my hands on the wheel. If I didn’t, the car would send up a warning on the monitor. If I ignored it, the wheel could jiggle me alert or sound a chime, and if I ignored that, the car could disengage autopilot. 

If I were using cruise control and started downhill, the car’s “regenerative braking” would put energy back into the battery. If I were using ordinary drive and did not press the accelerator, the car would come to a stop without my applying the brake. 

I need to get used to this before it becomes easy, but even after it’s routine, there is no way this car is going to let me take a nap behind the wheel, despite photographs of snoozing drivers I’ve seen on social media.

After a few short jaunts around town, we set out for a road trip from Wenatchee to Salt Lake City, Utah. 

Like new pilots navigating by IFF (“I follow freeways”), we planned to follow freeways nearly the whole way because the car navigated best following clearly marked lane lines. 

We felt the car swerve from time to time where the fog line veered at on- and off-ramps. The car wanted to pass slower traffic on the freeway, but we set it to ask our permission first. 

We programmed the speed of lane changes down from “Mad Max” to “Disabled;” that’s really what the car rudely called our slower pace. 

Some software designer played with other terms, too — we chose not to change the turn-signal sound to “fart.” 

Instead of gauges, the car had a clearly visible monitor in the center of the dashboard, great for my backseat driving from the co-pilot’s seat: “I don’t mean to nag, but you’re exceeding the speed limit in a red sporty-looking car with out-of-state plates. Dummy.” 

We planned our trip from one recharging station to the next. That was easy with voice command: “Navigate to the Kennewick Supercharger,” or to Baker City, Twin Falls, Boise, etc. 

We needed Tesla charging stations, but carried an adapter in case we had to use Leaf or Bolt chargers — like early cell phones, they weren’t standardized yet. 

We figured out that we could fill the battery to 80 percent as quickly as we could fill a gas tank, and go 230 miles under ideal conditions. 

However, recharging went slower as the battery topped off. It could take 15 minutes to squeeze a final four miles of range into the battery, so we didn’t try. 

I might want to fill slower so I could lock the charger into the car and leave for half an hour to get a cheeseburger, but there were new protocols to observe: Don’t hog the charger. Don’t use the same pump as another driver for fear of slowing down the charging process. Definitely praise the new car as the best decision possible.

Alas, the trip wasn’t perfect. 

As we turned north toward home, the weather changed to sleet with temperatures in the 40s. The range we could drive before recharging dropped proportionately. 

Warnings popped up on the monitor: “You are getting too far from the next Supercharger. Keep your speed below 70 mph to reach your destination.” We dropped our speed to 65 mph in an 80 mph zone, grieving Jerry seriously. 

We watched our predicted range drop like we would watch the needle on a gas gauge falling without a gas station in sight. 

We rolled into Boise with only 17 miles of range predicted, but at the rate we were eating up our charge, that might have been 5 miles. 

Had we run out of juice, we would have needed a rescue from Tesla roadside service: The car isn’t towable, you can’t put a quick charge on it, and only specially trained mechanics know how to get it on a trailer from the side of the roadway. 

While we crept along, we composed a message to Tesla’s mastermind, Elon Musk, about how his car’s range predictor needs a new algorithm to account for cold weather — also terrain and headwinds while we’re at it. 

We couldn’t use autopilot when dense clouds blocked the sky, but on the other hand, when visibility dropped to 500 feet over Emigrant Pass, the car never lost sight of our lane lines. 

To make sure we had adequate battery capacity for the longer legs of our remaining trip, we waited until mid-morning and warmer temperatures to start driving and kept our speed down. 

We loved the engineering of most aspects of the car, but the social engineering that made us rest and relax between longer legs of the trip, causing us to drive only in the middle of the day, outside of rush hours, seemed overreaching. 

On the other hand, maybe that kept us the safest riders on the road. 

When we got home, the car opened the garage door, folded in its mirrors, and automatically put itself inside, despite having only 10 inches clearance on each side — five inches if the mirrors aren’t folded.

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  1. Samuel R Sampson says:

    Awesome account of a entirely new experience!v No wonder the Model 3 is flying off the sales floor like flapjakes at a community breakfast!

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