As a car nut, I’m excited about the direction the auto industry is taking with cars that display more and more efficiency, particularly with that of the Tesla brand. Not only is Elon Musk changing the way that electric cars are viewed, his design team is also changing how they look – and I can’t help but draw parallels to the way Apple does things.
Tesla first launched its brand with the Roadster. It was built on the same chassis as the Lotus Elise and shared about 7% of internal components. The car itself is battery-powered, run off a giant rack of Lithium-Ion cells situated underneath the car, giving it a low centre of gravity and good cornering ability. Its successor is the Model S, a stab at premium marques like BMW, Mercedes-Benz and AUDI with a four-door sedan and a price tag to match.
But the geekery doesn’t end with the fact that its electric, its the fact that a lot of what goes into the car is thanks to computers. Tesla’s factory is close to Silicon Valley in California and the most daring thing the company has done with the Model S is the dashboard – it’s completely bare. There’s a minimal amount of knobs and buttons and the centre is dominated by a 17-inch capacitive, 10-point touch screen.
Tesla hasn’t said what drives the tablet or even what operating system it’s running. But the results are incredible – there’s a fine level of control that’s more intuitive than BMW’s iDrive system. Because the dash has no buttons, all those can be incorporated on the touch panel to save on weight, complexity and space. The tablet can display movies, launch a web browser, run Google Maps and it can even launch a settings page to control things like the car’s headlights, the sunroof, seat adjustment and more.
There’s even an option to include custom user interfaces in the future, supporting personalised skins and allow for software updates to improve usability, as well as allowing for apps like an e-mail client, voice-controlled functions and note-taking. Its different to what any other automotive manufacturer offers and it’s part of Musk’s belief about the brand – that it needs to be desirable and functional, but simple at the same time.
Now what does that remind you of? The iPhone, of course. In 2007 at the iPhone launch, Steve Jobs took a moment to concentrate on the main reason why Apple decided to move into phones with touch screens. Job’s goal was to take away the keys and remove limitations as to what the UI could look like and what software designers could create.
That’s the same plan that Musk has copied and he even admits this in a Megafactories documentary by National Geographic. It avoids confusing new owners when they step into something that looks like Darth Vader’s bathroom and because consumers are used to touch input these days, it’s a more natural way to interface with a revolutionary dashboard.
If Tesla is successful, we’ll see the same drastic turn in the auto industry as other brands try to avoid the change for as long as possible. Already some large American companies like Ford and Chevy are supporting the use of touch phones and tablets to control functions in the car and control things like your media. Time will tell if they make the jump into something more user-friendly like the system the Model S offers.