Commentary: This isn’t a story about a car. This is a story about the future of the human race.
his isn’t a story about zero to 60 or measuring trunk space. This isn’t a story about suspension or automatic steering or battery efficiency.
This is a story about survival.
This is a story about the end times. About the inevitable heat death of the universe and the strange ways the human race is desperately, pathologically trying to destroy itself in the most efficient way possible.
This is the story of the time I drove a Tesla Model X for four days and lived to tell the tale.
A short introduction: I am very much not a car guy. I failed my driving test five times. When I was 20, I drove for 5 kilometres (3 miles) with a burst tire and didn’t notice the difference. One time I tried to top up my car oil and forgot to put the lid back on, setting in motion a spectacular sequence of events that ended with my car engine exploding in the middle of Melbourne on a hot Sunday afternoon.
My children have inherited my gift for mindless destruction. There’s Mr. 5YO, a sullen, athletic type who loves video games. There’s Mr. 2YO, a violent agent of chaos with a gift for wedging things inside other things. Last weekend he had a right good go of dislodging my right eyeball from its socket.
The reason for this story: We know Tesla makes great cars technologically, but what happens in the context of real family life? Considering my children and their chequered past, what will they do with the largest prey of all? A car that comes from the future. A car that is essentially a giant, moving rechargeable iPhone.
The Tesla lady hands me the key and leads me to the car I’ll be driving. She politely asks me to open the door and I pause. The car is sleek and smooth, there are no perceivable edges or gaps. I am a monkey with a stick and this is my monolith.
I shuffle my feet awkwardly.
“I… don’t… know how?”
The fancy car
I don’t review cars. I have never driven a “fancy car”. I currently own a 2006 Toyota Rav4, a garbage can masquerading as an SUV. This is not a joke. I regularly sit in the driver’s seat, inhale the scent of trash and continue with life like this is a normal occurrence, because it is a normal occurrence.
When you have a car designed to ferry children from point A to point B, your car is a glorified bin with wheels. There are biscuits between the seats, banana peels decorating the floor. Nappies, a strange collection of sticks. A broken little umbrella.
In this context the sleek, futuristic Tesla Model X feels otherworldly.
I push accelerate. My synapses frazzle like a caveman who’s been force-fed sherbet. I’m sitting in a car that’s been sent back from the future and every fibre of my being, from my organs to the flesh on my bones, is vibrating with terror and excitement.
There is a gigantic tablet in the centre of this car. It responds to my movements. I don’t have to wrestle with the steering wheel. I accelerate and the car does what it’s told. “Yes, master.”
It doesn’t smell like garbage.
The Tesla Model X is a luxury SUV, obviously. I have no way of comparing it with other luxury SUVs competing for market share in this space. I only know this car feels light-years ahead of anything I’ve ever driven and I’m bewildered by this strange object sent from the future to deliver us from fossil fuels and Terminator-children designed to return us to the Stone Age.
The Tesla rep asks if I have any questions.
“Just one,” I reply. It’s an important one. Roughly six months ago I was driving down the freeway when my two-year-old son figured out how to open the passenger door. I was driving at 60 miles per hour at the time.
“How do you turn on the child locks?”
What follows fries every fibre of my lizard brain. Using the Tesla’s tablet, we scramble through an insanely rigorous set of settings in search of “child locks”. It reminds me of switching from iOS to Android and trying to figure out how to switch off Facebook notifications. You know it’s obvious (and will be in hindsight), but right now you’re scrolling through an endless sea of information and you’re gasping for air.
You can adjust suspension. You can adjust steering. You can make your seat warm. You can play Atari games on a gigantic tablet.
But right now I just want to make sure my children don’t die.
Is this our car?
I’d been looking forward to picking up my oldest son from school all day. I couldn’t wait to see his reaction to the Tesla.
The youngest son, not so much. He’s 2. Too young to really give a single shit about anything other than Paw Patrol and destroying everything of value inside our house. When I picked him up from daycare he quietly climbed into his car chair
Me strapping my oblivious son into AU$172,685 car.Mark Serrels/CNET
Installing my legally required children’s car seats into the Tesla Model X had been relatively easy, but there was a strange dissonance. Seeing our perennially stained child seats — seats that had been peed on, shat on, and vomited on — seamlessly latched inside a AU$172,685 car (about $86,200, £83,800) just didn’t make sense. As if looking at an MC Escher painting, or a magic eye book, I stared vacantly at my son sitting in the Tesla, waiting for the image to somehow start making sense.
Picking up my five year old was different. It was everything I’d hoped it would be. He walked toward it with “whoas”.
He gasped. “Is this our car?”
We made a detour to the freeway. During a quick drive with the Tesla rep, I’d been shown how to put the car into autopilot. “Only use it on the freeway,” was the advice. Advice I intended to take.
Using it for the first time, with a Tesla rep beside me, I felt relatively comfortable. Comfortable with leaving my own life in the hands of this intelligent collection of components. How would I feel with my children in the back? How would I feel when it was their life on the line?
Fine. Totally fine.
I drove onto the freeway. I hit accelerate. With my children in the back squawking endlessly about “going faster”, “getting McDonalds for dinner” and fighting over an empty water bottle, I tugged the switch twice for autopilot, took my hands off the steering wheel and prayed silently for the sweet release of death.
No, it’s the children who are wrong
Sometimes it’s difficult to escape the feeling that as a culture, we eat our young.
On the day I drove autopilot while my kids bickered in the back seat, more than a thousand children marched through Sydney as part of the nationwide Strike 4 Climate Action. Throughout the country — in Melbourne, Ballarat, Cairns, Newcastle, Perth — children left the classroom to protest government inaction over climate change.
It was inspiring. These children couldn’t vote, they had no way to elect or oust the people making decisions that might ruin the planet they’ll inherit, but together they found a way to make their voices heard.
Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a man who once brought a lump of coal to parliament and said, “Don’t be scared”, criticised the protests. “We do not support our schools being turned into parliaments,” Morrison said in parliament. Then he said he wanted “less activism” in schools.
Actually, the kids are alright.
The end times
When I get home and reverse the Tesla into my garage, the neighbourhood kids jump off their bikes. They gather round, slack-jawed.
“I messaged my mum as soon as I saw it,” said one. Another started rattling off Tesla model numbers like he was Elon Musk himself. One younger kid, who lives across the road, told me he was a superfan. These kids don’t put Porsche posters on their walls anymore, they put up Tesla Roadsters.
They huddled around, gasping as the falcon doors opened, stretching into the sky. With their parents’ permission (of course) I took them all for a spin and they spent the entire ride cackling like a set of insane hyenas.
The man across the street walked over afterward. With the complete absence of humility only middle-aged men have the power to summon, he told me electric cars don’t work.
This is the end of days.
The doors lift up and I recoil in embarrassment.
On the day I drove autopilot while my kids bickered in the back seat, a study came out. Traces of feces were found on every single McDonald’s self-serve touchscreen tested by London Metropolitan University microbiologist Paul Matawele. This of course was big news, covered broadly, gleefully. But I was unsurprised. McDonald’s touchscreens are covered in shit because we’re all covered in shit.
I’m covered in shit.
I eat meat six times a week and I’m destroying the world I live in. The ice caps are melting, California wildfires are raging and the only people who can breathe clean air are inside cars like this Tesla Model X. A car my middle-aged neighbour is convinced doesn’t work. A car normal human beings can’t afford.
I told you this was a story about survival.
Not my car
“It’s not my car.”
That’s what I say to everyone staring as I open the falcon doors of the Tesla Model X. It doesn’t belong in the early-morning thrum of the school drop-off, parents sleepwalking, kids buzzing like battery hens, souped up on Weet-Bix and sugar.
The doors lift up and I recoil in embarrassment.
“I’m just borrowing it for a few days,” I say. Reminding everyone I’m normal, completely normal, nothing to see here.
In 2018, Elon Musk was fined $20 million and had to step down as Tesla chairman after allegedly misleading investors via Twitter. He’s currently being sued by a British caver involved in a heroic rescue of Thai children stuck in an underwater cave, for calling the caver a “pedo”. He smoked weed on the Joe Rogan podcast and then, seemingly oblivious to his company’s less-than-stellar reputation for worker treatment, casually tweeted that he was a big fan of the 80-hour work week and that maybe up to 100 was required to “change the world”.
In short, 2018 is the year when Elon Musk went from Tony Stark to [whispers and uses air quotes] problematic.
So when I say “not my car”, part of me says “not my car” because being seen as a big shot showing off his fancy new car at school drop off is my worst recurring nightmare. But sometimes I say “not my car” because, well, a lot of people don’t seem to like Elon Musk right now and I’m not sure it’s right to separate the artist from his art.
Again, I push the accelerator to the floor. The soundless whoosh sends shivers down my spine and I accelerate at an ungodly speed. In this moment it occurs to me I don’t belong here. I’m like a stained child’s car seat, covered in vomit and dried-up urine.
This is not my car.
The Saturday I drive from Sydney to Canberra is a dull and sustained 320 kilometers of moving in a mostly straight line from point A to point B.
But in the Tesla Model X, time seems to move faster.
I’m comfortable. I’ve adjusted my seat to my own particular specifications and saved it as a profile. Brilliantly implemented climate controls mean the blazing heat of Sydney’s summer sun doesn’t filter through. The car is set to an intelligent type of cruise control that adjusts on the fly, based on cars that may or may not be in front of me as I drive.We’re vacuum-sealed inside a strange dream.
I’m watching the tablet. It has a running tally of my battery usage, an estimate of how many kilometers I’d be able to drive at this speed, in these current conditions. We’ll make it to Canberra. Comfortably.
I love this car. I love it so much. If you’re travelling in the end times you might as well do it in style.
In the back seat of the car my children are arguing about music choices. We eventually settle for the Ninjago theme song, played on repeat until the heat death of the universe. I acquiesce.
We’re vacuum-sealed inside a strange dream. Outside the world rages in chaos.
That’s when it occurs to me. If the Australian bush suddenly transformed into a flaming inferno, if someone finally dropped the bomb, if the oceans rose and engulfed us all — in this car, in this moment — we’d be among the last to die.