SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Tesla Motors' upcoming all-electric Model S is a roomy ride that comfortably seats five adults as well as two children in rear jump seats that fold down.
The Model S will offer driving ranges up to 482 kilometres between charges and provide generous storage space in its "frunk" -- a front-end trunk located under the hood where most cars hide their engine.
But one of the flashiest features of the car, which Palo Alto, Calif.-based Tesla is now showing off in beta version in advance of it hitting the market in mid-2012, is the 17-inch "Tesla touch screen" nestled into the centre of the dashboard.
Tesla calls it the "gem of the interior," and it's eye-popping. Imagine a large iPad-like device equipped with 3G wireless for Internet access, navigation, listening to music, opening the sunroof and controlling cabin temperatures. Developed in-house by Tesla's software engineers, it eventually will have voice command.
"Our goal is to not only revolutionize the vehicle, but the whole experience of driving a car and using a car on a daily basis," said Ali Javidan, an engineering manager responsible for all of Tesla's prototype vehicles. "We tried to make it as user-friendly and intuitive as possible."
Carmakers from BMW to Ford are racing to merge Internet-connected features and infotainment platforms into the driver's seat. Scores of consumers already rely on their smartphones to find directions, and there's a robust app market for finding parking spaces. The next step is to integrate that into the car.
Tesla's high-resolution touch screen was developed with the help of former Apple employees. If you get a text message, the car could say, "You've got a text message. Do you want me to read it to you?" The hope is the increased functionality will allow drivers to keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. The large screen automatically dims while the car is in motion to cut down on distraction.
The touch screen, whose software can be updated remotely, is still a work in progress. It currently operates on a 3G connection, but could be upgraded to 4G in the future. The car has its own Wi-Fi hot spot, but consumers will be able to integrate their own wireless plans down the road. Tesla imagines the Model S being a big step toward driving more efficiently.
"If there's a lot of traffic or an accident, the car will be able to suggest" a different route, Javidan said.
Other features, like controls for temperature and the volume on the stereo speakers, are located at the bottom of the touch screen. You can use your fingertip to open the large "panoramic" sunroof by "swiping" to the size you prefer.
Music is also highlighted. You can create a playlist, connect to a streaming radio station like Pandora or connect another device such as a smartphone or iPod. Electric vehicles are quiet compared with those with internal combustion engines, so the surround-sound speakers flood the interior cabin with music.
Tesla plans to make up to 6,000 Model S's in 2012 and up to 15,000 in 2013. The Model S will be manufactured at Tesla's plant in Fremont, Calif.
-- San Jose Mercury News