Tesla's mystery test car may be a Model S refresh

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Roberto Baldwin/Engadget

For the most part, Tesla’s Model S has maintained a familiar look since it was introduced in 2012 — the largest external change was the elimination of the fake grille back in 2016. There might be a refresh looming on the horizon, however. A driver near Tesla’s Fremont headquarters spotted a mysterious test car that he suspected might be a refreshed Model S design. While the car’s wrapping and the brevity of the encounter prevented gathering many details, the observer noted “bigger” headlights as well as taillights that weren’t present on other Tesla cars.

If you’re wondering, it didn’t appear to be a Model Y — the upcoming crossover has lights like those on the Model 3, not to mention a conspicuously raised rear end that wasn’t present here.

There is the possibility that this is just a “sloppy wrapping job,” as the eyewitness initially suspected. That doesn’t line up with the different taillights, though, and rumors of Model S and Model X refreshes have swirled for months. If this is indeed a hint at an upcoming design update, it would come at a good time. S and X sales have been falling sharply in the wake of widespread Model 3 availability. Spruced-up designs could revitalize interest from those who’d otherwise buy high-end Model 3 trims, not to mention give Tesla a better chance of fending off competition from the likes of Audi and Mercedes.

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Tesla starts selling used Model 3 cars online

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Roberto Baldwin/Engadget

Until now, buying a used Tesla Model 3 has usually entailed tracking down a reseller or spotting a sale from an individual owner. Now, though, it’s just a matter of visiting Tesla’s website. The EV maker has started selling used Model 3s online in the San Francisco Bay Area, and some of them are potentially good deals (if not as good as you often see with used cars). You can pay slightly over $40,000 for a 2017 Long Range model where you’d be happy to get a brand new Standard Range Plus version for that much.

As with Tesla’s existing used car sales, each vehicle has to go through a 70-point inspection and comes with either a four-year, 50,000-mile warranty or a two-year, 100,000-mile warranty. In theory, you won’t have to worry that the previous owner ran down the battery or was hiding a production defect.

There are reasons you might want to hold off. Tesla now makes Autopilot standard on its cars where it was only an option on earlier versions, and it tends to subtly refine aspects like build quality over time. Even so, this may be your best bet at hopping into a Model 3 without either paying a steep premium or having to settle for entry-level specs.

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Meet TezLab, the Fitbit for Tesla vehicles

Some of the best real-time insights into Tesla and its global fleet of electric vehicles — outside the confines of its Silicon Valley headquarters — might be through the lens of TezLab, a tiny upstart in Brooklyn.

Now, a little more than two years after its founding, TezLab is on the verge of hitting what its founders believe is a tipping point of users, a milestone that could finally trigger a path to monetization. And it’s adding lots of new features to help accelerate that plan.

For the non-Tesla owner, the name TezLab is likely a foreign one. In certain circles though, namely Tesla owners obsessed with understanding how their electric vehicle performs, TezLab is a familiar friend.

Tezlab is a free app that’s like a Fitbit for a Tesla vehicle. Tesla owners who download the app can track their efficiency, total trip miles and use it to control certain functions of the vehicle, such as locking and unlocking the doors and heating and air conditioning. There’s even a gamification piece that lets users earn badges for hitting milestones or completing tasks.

The company has started to add new features as part of a longer term plan aimed at monetization.

One of these features, which crowdsources data like Waze to give insights and ratings on Tesla Supercharger stations, is rolling out now. The video below shows how this supercharger feature will function.

The Waze for supercharger feature is considered “phase one” of the company’s plans to broaden its crowdsourcing and social community.

Origin story

The six-person team behind TezLab was born out of HappyFunCorp, a software engineering shop that builds apps for mobile, web, wearables and Internet of Things devices for clients that include Amazon, Facebook and Twitter, as well as an array of startups.

HFC’s engineers, including co-founders Ben Schippers and William Schenk, were attracted to Tesla largely because of its techcentric approach and one important detail: the Tesla API endpoints are accessible to outsiders.

The Tesla API is technically private. But it exists, allowing Tesla’s own first-party app to communicate with the cars to do things like read battery charge status and lock doors. When reverse-engineered, it’s possible for a third-party app to communicate directly with the API. (Tesla CEO Elon Musk has talked recently about opening up the API to third-party developers)

“Essentially, the plumbing is already built to connect to the server,” Schippers told TechCrunch recently. “This was the catalyst for us.”

A Tesla vehicle buying trend was triggered at HFC. Schippers, Schenk and a number of other software engineers and staffers at HFC bought, and still own, Tesla vehicles like the Model 3. The company’s HFC fund provided the initial $350,000 to build the first version of TezLab.

Repository of data

TezLab hasn’t captured anywhere near every Tesla owner. But Schippers believes they’re getting close to reaching a critical mass of users. More than 200 owners are downloading the app each week, and that rate is accelerating, he said.

TezLab has 16,000 total installs on the Apple App Store and Google Play, according to Sensor Tower . The figures are all unique, new installs. The firm doesn’t count re-installs or downloads to multiple devices belonging to the same user. However, that total install number is likely closer to 18,000 because many are listed under TestFlight, an online service used to test apps.

In comparison, Tesla delivered 245,506 vehicles globally in 2018. TezLab doesn’t expect every Tesla owner to download the app. Instead, Schippers is initially aiming for 10% of owners — a target he believes is within reach — and eventually higher.

Even at its current numbers, TezLab has become a massive repository of Tesla data. The company is storing between 850,000 to 1 million events a day, and that volume is growing. That translates to more than 1 GB of data a day, according to Schippers.

“We now have enough data in our system to start making large assumptions of what the fleet is doing and why,” said Schippers, who is CEO of HappyFunCorp and head of product at TezLab.

tezlab

The data is aggregated and anonymous and isn’t shared publicly. And there are no plans to sell that data.

“I think we can create something really meaningful, without getting into the business of selling data,” Schippers told TechCrunch.

Of course, what Schippers and others at TezLab have built could, theoretically, end overnight if Tesla were to change access.

Tesla could do to us what Facebook did to Zynga, and we don’t want that,” Schippers said.

Tesla declined to comment on this topic.

What TezLab does provide publicly on its website are insights based on that crunched data. For instance, anyone visiting the site can get a breakdown of model ownership, the average trip length and average time between plugging in.

As the company adds more features to the app, an understanding of how people use their Tesla vehicles should deepen.

In the background, of course, TezLab knows more than what it shows on its website. It can quickly spot phantom drain issues, if the Tesla API goes offline or chart spikes in charging use. For instance, Tezlab was able to determine that visits to Tesla Supercharger stations were 84% higher on Memorial Day than on an average day in 2019.

The Strava model

Capturing and storing that data is at the core of TezLab’s plan to make money. The app will remain free even as more features are added.

The company plans to follow the business model of the social fitness network Strava,  which is charge for storage, not features. That data could become a lot more valuable to owners as new features are added. TezLab is looking at tracking Autopilot miles and is looking into doing “interesting stuff with Sentry mode,” the security feature now live in Tesla vehicles.

This summer, the app will introduce clubs that Schippers hopes will build up the community. The feature will let Tesla owners join a specific club, say in Norway, Brooklyn or San Francisco. It will be designed so owners can easily find and converse with other owners. And Schippers added, only people who own Tesla are allowed in.

TezLab’s staff puts itself squarely in the “protector of the realm” category when it comes to Tesla. In the end, all of this is to help Tesla succeed, said Schippers.

“We look at what Fitbit did for walking and exercise and motivation,” he said. “And we’ll bring that to the space of electric vehicles.”

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Tesla wants to make the car ‘the most fun possible’

Ready to race?
Ready to race?
Image: e3 / screengrab

Tesla owners, prepare to be entertained. 

Elon Musk made an appearance at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, known as E3, in Los Angeles Thursday and said in a conversation with game designer Todd Howard and video game journalist Geoff Keighley that entertainment options are expanding in Tesla vehicles.

“What can we do to make the car the most fun possible?” Musk mused on stage.

First up is the game Cuphead, which Tesla announced earlier this month as an addition to the gaming options already in the Tesla in-car screen. Then Bethesda Game Studios is working with Tesla to bring Fallout Shelter to the gaming selection.

Beach Buggy Racing 2 is also coming to the games collection, but this one uses the car’s steering wheel and will be multiplayer. “If you have a steering wheel and it’s sitting right there…” Musk said about the in-vehicle steering. 

All the new games are made specifically for a Tesla.

Within the Tesla browser, streaming video options like Netflix and YouTube will be available when the car is parked and connected to WiFi. If you’re just parked somewhere, waiting for someone to finish an appointment, or at a Tesla Supercharger station recharging your electric vehicle, Musk suggests squeezing in some quality streaming time straight from your car.  

Musk noted that the Tesla screen “was not originally made as a game player,” but the Easter egg drawer full of games — many from Atari — is becoming a well-known secret. Also hidden on the Tesla screen is fart mode, which Musk described as “my finest work.”

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'Framing John DeLorean' documentary makes Musk’s Tesla all the more impressive

John DeLorean's DMC puts Elon Musk's Tesla in a more favorable light.
John DeLorean’s DMC puts Elon Musk’s Tesla in a more favorable light.
Image: bob al-greene / mashable composite; Central Press/Getty Images; Gregg DeGuire/Getty Images; Wikimedia Commons

“It’s got cocaine, hot chicks, sports cars, bombed-out buildings, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, FBI agents, and hard-core drug dealers.”

That’s how the son of former General Motors exec John DeLorean — who created his own car company, DeLorean Motor Company, or DMC — describes the story of his father’s downfall and the end of his car dreams in the new documentary Framing John DeLorean

That dramatic description could easily be adjusted to describe Elon Musk and his electric car company Tesla, what with his high-profile girlfriends like Amber Heard and Grimes, that pot-smoking incident on the Joe Rogan podcast, his bizarre accusations of drug use, his fraught relationship with federal SEC officials, and, of course, plenty of cars. But comparisons to DMC also serve as a boost to Tesla’s perception and reputation.

Framing John DeLorean is out in theaters Friday. It features plenty of re-enactments of auto executive DeLorean (played by Alec Baldwin) in its examination of the man’s almost-impossibly cinematic life and that of his ill-fated car company, DMC. The company fizzled out in 1982 in the most epic way, with a federal drug bust, arrest, and trial after DeLorean got tangled up in a cocaine trafficking deal to fund his dying car company. (Again, epic.) That was only a few years after the company launched and produced one and only one car, the now-famous gull-winged DMC-12 (also known simply as the DeLorean).

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Comparisons of DeLorean to eccentric billionaire and car executive Musk aren’t new. There’s even a piece that asks point-blank, “Is Tesla the Next DeLorean?” Both men are considered visionaries with intriguing personal lives and a singleminded determination to produce a different type of car despite pressure to stick to the status quo. 

But after the documentary’s many interviews with DeLorean’s former colleagues and industry leaders, along with archival footage and commentary from his children, DMC’s demise puts Tesla in a new light. A much more flattering one. It shows how Tesla has succeeded where others have tried and failed, even if it’s still working on becoming the car of the masses and not just dominant in electric vehicle sales.

John DeLorean poses with his car.

John DeLorean poses with his car.

Image: Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Tesla CEO Elon Musk launches the Model X in 2015.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk launches the Model X in 2015.

Image: SUSANA BATES/AFP/Getty Images

To be clear, neither Tesla nor Musk was ever mentioned in the film — filmmakers Don Argott and Sheena Joyce are more focused on uncovering who DeLorean was and what motivated him to make the decisions that led to his dream company’s demise. “No one is ever one thing,” Joyce said after a screening in San Francisco earlier this month. (DeLorean died in 2005.)

The movie stops short of taking a deeper look into the car industry and how DMC shaped the automotive landscape of today. But at one point, a car industry expert in the film notes that DMC was the first American car company to arrive in 1975 since Chrysler in the 1920s. 

Tesla has since taken that title and truly become the first American car company — it’s based in California — with longevity and potential. Tesla has produced more than 300,000 cars since 2003; anticipates at least 400,000 vehicles delivered by the end of 2019; went public in 2010; and has had moments of profitability. It’s become something of a success story and galvanized electrification throughout the car industry despite critics, naysayers, and a big stock drop in recent weeks (more than 30 percent after a bad first quarter and company-wide cost-cutting measures).

The DeLorean could've been a Tesla.

The DeLorean could’ve been a Tesla.

Image: Patti Gower/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Only about 9,000 DMC-12s were ever made, but that hasn’t stopped the car from becoming a cult classic. It helps that popular movie Back to the Future turned the DeLorean into an iconic vehicle in 1985 — although just a little too late to save it. The DMC fan club that emerged from the film hints at what could’ve been. DeLorean had his fans — his daughter touches on that in the doc — but they barely compare to the numbers of Tesla and Musk fanatics. (An unscientific look at search results for DeLorean fan groups compared to Tesla fan groups makes this clear: 267,000 results for DMC and 3.78 million for Tesla.)

DeLorean had visions of factories mass-producing his cars. A shot in the doc showing the land where DMC would end up building a 660,000-square-foot factory in Northern Ireland is reminiscent of Tesla’s similar shots, promising car plants worldwide pumping out car parts, batteries, and most importantly, jobs. The British government shut down the Dunmurry DMC plant in 1982. Tesla this year is building yet another factory in Shanghai, and another in Europe soon.

A photo from 1981 with the DeLorean DMC-12

A photo from 1981 with the DeLorean DMC-12

Image: Birmingham Post and Mail Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

A Gigafactory for Tesla battery production in Nevada

A Gigafactory for Tesla battery production in Nevada

Image: tesla

Then there are the design similarities. DeLorean was hailed for his innovative stainless steel, gull-winged car design. Musk has described the Model X electric SUV with its falcon-wing doors as the “Fabergé egg of cars.” Musk’s nearly bare interior with only touchscreen in the Model 3 is eye-catching, just like the bullet-shaped DMC once was. Even down to the door handles, both carmakers were thinking differently.

The fact that DMC got the ultimate marketing push with its high visibility as the time machine in Back to the Future too late to save it is more than frustrating (and apparently wasn’t even intentional, according to the filmmakers interviewed in the Framing doc). Tesla, comparatively, is still garnering attention for its sedans and SUVs. The Model Y launch event in March brought in hordes of online viewers, and back in 2016 about 100,000 reservations came in for the Model 3 — and it’s not bankrupt yet. There’s even an Easter egg tucked into Tesla’s software referencing the modified DMC-12 Doc Brown uses.

A Twitter meltdown is more likely than a federal cocaine bust to take down Musk and Tesla, but still, Framing John DeLorean serves as a cautionary tale of sorts for the electric car maker. It might be riding high and confident now, but the car industry is fickle. 

The film opens in select theaters Friday and is available to rent online on Google Play and Vudu

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