It’s Thursday morning and I’m standing in the sweltering heat in the parking lot of Nott Autocorp on Waverley Street ogling a $188,000 electric car.
I’m here because the editors of this newspaper thought it would be funny for me to take a high-tech Tesla Motors automobile out for a test drive.
Sorry, what I meant to say is they thought it would be funny if a Tesla car with state-of-the-art Autopilot technology took me out for a test drive.
This is why I love journalism so much. It is extremely difficult, using mere words, to describe how freaky it feels to sit back and basically do nothing while a luxury car drives you around the city, but I will try: It feels really, really freaky!
Before they let me get my hands on the wheel — or, more precisely, NOT get my hands on the wheel — Trevor Nott, president of the luxury car company, and his brother Tom, senior sales director, took me out for a get-acquainted cruise and mini-tutorial in the Tesla Model S.
The first thing you need to know is this car features something called "Insane Mode," wherein it is capable of 691 horsepower and can go from zero to 100 clicks in a terrifying 3.8 seconds.
When Trevor activated this feature and stepped on the accelerator — WHAM! — it literally felt as if this spaceship-shaped vehicle had been fired out of a cannon, a fact I conveyed to everyone in the car by shrieking like a little girl.
The force slammed us back in our extremely comfortable seats and — please do not laugh at this next bit — almost knocked out multimedia editor Tyler Walsh when the camera he was using to film our test drive slammed into his eyeball. (You can see for yourselves by checking out the video at www.winnipegfreepress.com)
What with being famous for driving like a little old lady, I was perspiring heavily when Trevor decided it was time for me to take the wheel, so to speak.
To be clear, this is not an autonomous, driverless car, but it’s as close as it gets at the moment. The Autopilot self-driving mode is considered a driver-assist system, not a drives-by-itself system.
You can’t activate the Autopilot in your garage because the car, equipped with cameras and radar and ultrasonic sensors, needs to detect the white lines on the roadway to guide itself. If those lines disappear, the system can get confused and you’ll have to steer manually, which means it’s not exactly designed for a Winnipeg winter.
You, the inept human being, are required to physically steer when turning from one road to another, and you have to apply the brakes if you are the first vehicle to arrive at a red light or a stop sign, but otherwise the Autopilot does everything for you. Seriously.
With its sensors and radar, which you can see operating cartoon-style on a screen in front of you, the Tesla starts and stops, speeds up and slows down, changes lanes with the flick of a signal and parks for you, both parallel and perpendicular.
It will even come when you call it. There’s a smartphone app that allows you to press a button and hop in the shower or eat a bowl of cereal while the car, on its own, leaves your garage, warms up and waits at your front door.
"If the car is on the other side of the lot and I press the summons button, the car will come over and park right in front of wherever you summon it to," gushed Tom Nott. "It’ll come to the key fob."
Unless you’ve been in a coma for several weeks, you will know three accidents involving Tesla vehicles on Autopilot have generated high-profile headlines, especially an Ohio man who died in May when the cameras on his Tesla Model S reportedly failed to distinguish the white side of a turning transport truck from the brightly lit sky.
But Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said he’s committed to self-driving technology as the way of the future, and the Nott brothers calmly point out Autopilot is a far better driver than any human. "This is way safer than you or I driving the car," Trevor tells me as I activate the system by pulling a lever towards me twice, which should take seconds but, with me being nervous, requires several minutes.
With me behind the wheel, we cruised for more than an hour from Nott Autocorp to my driveway near the entrance to Assiniboine Park and then up Corydon Avenue and along a tangle of side streets back to Nott.
The first time you take your hands off the wheel and your foot off the brake and let the Autopilot go solo, it’s more than a little unnerving, which I indicated by screaming: "OH MY DEAR GOD THIS CAN’T BE HAPPENING! ARE YOU KIDDING? CHECK THIS OUT!"
At one point, Trevor pointed at my foot and said, "Doug, you’re going to get a cramp," which is when I realized I was keeping one foot hovering over the brake as if perpetually poised to stomp on a tarantula. When we approached one intersection, the Tesla, sensing we were too far behind the car in front and doing only 20 km/h in a 60 km/h zone, lurched forward like a rocket, causing me to wrongly fear it was trying to commit suicide, so I stomped on the brake and emitted a sound like a wounded forest creature.
The idea behind Autopilot is to allow you, the human driver, to relax because the car is doing the tedious stop-and-start driving for you, but, being paranoid, the reverse happened to me and I became hyper-alert because my tiny brain couldn’t wrap itself around the notion this computer on wheels was doing everything for me.
There were, however, moments of pure joy, such as when I rolled down the window, leaned outside and began shrieking at nearby vehicles: "HEY, LOOK, NO HANDS! MY CAR IS DRIVING ME!"
I realize the police and Manitoba Public Insurance frown on that behaviour, because they require you to be in complete control of your car at all times. Hey, even the autopilot technology reminds you to keep your hands on the wheel in case you have to intervene.
But this car is the most fun you can have while driving when, technically, you are not driving.
"You just need to relax, Doug," is what the incredibly gracious Trevor Nott explained later in his spacious office. "You’ll get used to it within a day of driving. The vehicle is smarter than you are. You’re just there in case you see something you think is a hazard.
"If I’m on the Perimeter on Autopilot, I’m as relaxed as I can be without being asleep. In traffic, it does all the stop and go for you and you can relax. If you need to turn, you take over. That’s it."
If you have a hard time believing this, maybe we should get together for a chat. I’ll send my car to pick you up.