Tablet envy in a car: Tesla Model S boasts 17-inch touchscreen control panel

DETROIT— Tesla's booth may have been dwarfed by the adjacent, ultra-luxe spreads of Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz at the North American International Auto Show, but the all-electric vehicle company had one thing that was much bigger than anyone else’s: the 17-inch capacitive touchscreen that serves as the control center for the company’s new four-door Model S.

"We wanted to innovate," said Tesla general manager (Southwest region) Jeremy Snyder. And if the company also wanted to induce envy, it accomplished that as well.

Melissa Riofrio
The 17-inch touchscreen panel contains most of the car's controls, and it can surf the Web.

Control the car—and surf the Web

From this massive display you can, of course, manage typical features such as climate control and navigation—the latter task uses Google Maps. You can even program drive settings, such as ride feel, or, more amusing, set up a "creep" function, so you can take your foot off the brake and move ahead a bit at a stoplight; although this is something a gas-powered car in gear does, an electric car doesn't. The control panel runs on a Tesla-designed version of the Linux operating system.

Tesla's Snyder also showed off how you can surf the Web and revel in all the screen real estate for viewing content. But sorry: You can’t stream video. Snyder declined to identify the ISP that provides the 3G connectivity for this service, but he noted that early customers would pay nothing for the first year of the service. Monthly pricing going beyond that period has not yet been set.

Tesla
Nvidia Tegra chips power both of the displays.

You can also tether your phone and use its data plan to stream content to the display. If no Internet connection is available, the display cannot stream music or use Google Maps.

Nvidia Tegra chips power the displays

There’s another digital display where the instrument cluster (the speedometer, fuel gauge, and so forth) is normally located. You can customize what it shows using physical controls on the steering wheel. The very, very few physical buttons include those, plus some on the doors to control the windows and side mirrors. Dedicated Nividia Tegra chips power each of the displays.

Melissa Riofrio
The instrument cluster is customizable via buttons on the steering wheel.

Upgradable firmware hints at further innovation

Tesla's ongoing service includes pushing out new firmware for the displays from time to time. The upgradability is good, because you won't be stuck with some aging system as time passes. The vague promise of future improvements also gave Snyder an opportunity to demur when I asked about things I didn’t see in the current implementation, such as apps, LTE connectivity, and Wi-Fi.

Tesla
The touchscreen control panel on the Tesla Model S is as eye-catching as the car itself.

Before I met with Tesla, I'd been taking a rough gauge of automaker's commitment to in-car technology by checking the presence and size of a display in a car's dashboard. By that measure, Tesla is way ahead of everyone else. Tesla's in-car technology might be a few checkmarks short of fully advanced, but the Model S implementation nevertheless shows the company's deep and daring commitment to transforming how people interact with—and use—their cars.

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