No hands: Missoula owner high on Tesla’s performance, lukewarm on self-driving abilities

After unplugging his car, Glenn Kreisel fed the parking meter and turned down Higgins Avenue, closing the distance to the van ahead of him.

His Model S Tesla hardly made a sound, though its acceleration was impressive. While downtown driving doesn’t allow it, the specs say the car can do zero to 60 in 2.5 seconds.

“If you’ve never driven electric, it’s a different feeling,” Kreisel said, waiting at the light. “The acceleration is instant. The second you step on the accelerator, you’re going forward. It’s not like a combustion engine where you’ve got to get that motor going to get the RPM.”

Electric motors aren’t new in vehicles across Missoula, and the city has responded in kind to accommodate the growing use of non-combustible technology.

Through a partnership with NorthWestern Energy, the city unveiled two electric charging stations in the Park Place garage earlier this year. The Nissan dealer on Brooks Street also provides a station, and a Tesla supercharger was installed on North Reserve Street several years ago.

Coupled with his own 240-volt charger at home, Kreisel has the power he needs to fuel his Tesla.

“I like things that are society changing, culture changing,” he said. “The electric was one thing, because I think that has a chance to change the carbon footprint.”

The other half of that society-changing equation points to autonomous cars, which are expected to result in a “transportation disruption” starting as early as 2021. By 2030, autonomous vehicles powered by electric motors could account for 95 percent of all passenger miles.

Like the first driver to pull into Missoula in a Model T when everyone else was still using a horse and buggy, Kreisel is among the first to cruise the city’s streets in technology that aims for fully autonomous driving.

For a software developer with an eye on the future, the temptation of self-driving cars has emerged as a distant but realistic promise. All Tesla vehicles, including his new Model S, come equipped with the latest hardware needed for self-driving capabilities.

He purchased the car to see just how autonomous it actually was.

“The first Model S didn’t have enough sensors to be autonomous,” he said. “It had one camera up front and a couple of ultrasonic sensors on the side. But in 2017, they released eight cameras and 20 ultrasonic sensors that can sense up to 800 feet away. Theoretically, the technology is there to be completely autonomous.”

Glenn Kreisel and his electric-powered, autonomous Model S Tesla in downtown Missoula. The car drives itself perfectly on the interstate, though it the technology needs improving for city conditions. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Kreisel turned down Orange Street heading to the interstate to demonstrate the car’s autonomous capabilities. While it failed to navigate the roundabout without his intervention, it was purely capable of driving itself once on I-90.

There, Kreisel brought the car up to speed and took his hands off the wheel. Where most vehicles have a speedometer and an oil gauge, his Tesla projected a digital car suited for a video game. The panel of cameras, sensors and forward-facing radar, coupled with advanced processing software, kept the vehicle centered on the highway.

It also changed lanes when prompted without any use of the steering wheel. As for that slow, arching bend heading into Hellgate Canyon – it navigated that as well.

“On the highway, it’s really solid, but highways are very controlled environments,” Kreisel said. “All the turns are manufactured, the lanes are well marked. In that situation, you can switch it into autonomous and feel safe and secure.”

But the city poses a different challenge.

Along with the car’s failure to navigate the Orange Street roundabout, it can’t yet detect red lights at an open intersection. Pulling down Broadway back into the city, the vehicle chose the turn lane, though Kreisel wanted to go straight.

It’s the little things that will need improving as the technology evolves, if they’re little things at all.

“My whole life is software development, and so I have that mindset to understand how to solve a problem, how complex a problem is and how to tackle that,” he said. “I always thought autonomous driving was too complex a problem to solve. I won’t say it will never be solved, but not at least in the near future.”

Tesla CEO and founder Elon Musk is more confident. He recently took to Twitter to say that the artificial intelligence behind his company’s autonomous vehicles will be able to bring passengers where they want to go without asking for a destination.

Kreisel, who’s impressed with his Tesla’s performance and capabilities, doesn’t buy the hype just yet. He doubts that self-driving cars will do all the work while drivers are reduced to passengers reading the morning paper en route to the office, at least not any time soon.

“I think in certain controlled situations it’s possible, but the hype is pitching it like everyone’s going to be able to access autonomous and drive it wherever they want without affecting their normal habits,” he said. “When you look at the stats compared to the hype of what you hear, you realize the reality.”

Tesla and other automotive engineers continue to improve new autopilot capabilities that can navigate more complex environments, like downtown Missoula. As the updates are released, Kreisel’s car – like a home computer – downloads them to its onboard system.

All things being equal, his Tesla isn’t the futuristic nerd-mobile he once feared.

“I let my driver’s license expire when I was 21 and I didn’t renew it until 2010,” said Kreisel. “I was waiting for three things to happen. I needed a car made in the U.S., it had to be all-electric and it couldn’t look like a nerd-mobile. This is a great, sporty car but for now, I’m calling it augmented driving.”