Tesla’s Model 3 shows what the infotainment system of the autonomous future could look like. In the present, however, it sometimes reveals serious weaknesses.
Tesla affords a certain level of extravagance in terms of infotainment in all of its vehicles. With the mid-size sedan Model 3 you go even further. The large display in the middle of the dashboard is the central point of contact for all status information, control options and finally, for entertainment. It is also the only display in the entire interior and, therefore also responsible for the display of all information – from the speed to the turn signals and the status of the windshield wipers. What sounds and looks futuristic is actually also intended for the future. The display unit is designed so that it can also be used in the future, autonomously driving Model 3.
While other manufacturers such as Audi, BMW, or Mercedes regularly offer map updates for navigation in the best case, Tesla subsequently provides new functions or revises the user interface. Such extensive changes have so far been inconceivable for the established manufacturers.
This is due, among other things, to different mentalities. Tesla does not see itself as a traditional car manufacturer but flirts with the proximity to the IT industry. The infotainment system has a correspondingly modular structure and even supports hardware upgrades – at least for the Model S and Model X.
Elsewhere, Tesla behaves just like its competitors. Although the Model 3 dispenses with hundreds of different configurations, it cannot do without incomprehensible dependencies. The large display, voice control, and navigation (without real-time data and satellite view) are available in all configurations. Integrated streaming services, browser function, real-time traffic data – summarized as “premium connectivity” – and others are part of the “Premium interior” package. However, this cannot be booked individually but is linked to the all-wheel-drive configurations in which it is included. This means: If you want to have the maximum range of functions with the infotainment system, you pay at least 8000 euros extra compared to the cheapest model 3. Even if the larger battery and higher performance could be dispensed with.
Our test car had a total price of 68,200 euros. “Premium connectivity” is only free for the first year, after which about $ 100 per year is due; Tesla has not yet given away European prices.
At the heart of the infotainment system is the third-generation main compute unit (MCU3), which can also be found in all Model S and Model X that Tesla has produced since March 2018. The computing unit, which, unlike the two sister models, is not in the same housing as the display, houses Intel’s automotive platform Gordon Peak, which in turn is equipped with the Atom x7 A3950 quad-core processor. The processor presented in October 2016 with a TDP of 9.5 watts offers a performance of around 190 GFLOPS or around 40,000 DMIPS. For comparison: Mercedes’ MBUX achieves 500 GFLOPS and a little more than 59,000 DMIPS in the highest expansion level (Nvidia Parker 128, the platform presented in August 2016), which are not only accessed by the infotainment system. It runs on a Linux adapted by Tesla together with the Qt framework – in the test vehicle in version 9.0.
Linux running on an Intel platform
Apart from steering wheel buttons and voice commands, all interaction with the infotainment system takes place via the 15.4-inch display with touch function. With 1920 x 1200 pixels, of which the bottom 120 lines are reserved for displaying the menu bar, the display is sufficiently sharp. In the test, the contents remained legible even in direct sunlight despite the reflective surface.
A two-part display for everything
In the left third, the display in the stand provides information, among other things, about open doors and the remaining range. Instead, while driving, recognized road users and lanes are displayed, while parking a top view with distance markers. In the lower area you can see the consumption.
The right two thirds of the display are intended for functions that are not critical during driving and are accordingly located on the side of the display that is further away from the driver. From a safety perspective, this is a serious disadvantage in connection with the lack of physical buttons or switches for important functions such as headlight control.
Some menus can be displayed in different sizes, including the entertainment area. Here the user has the choice between full screen with all information, half the height with controls (forwards, backwards, pause etc.) and a small bar that only houses the controls. The change between sizes is done with a simple swipe gesture.
Almost useless: Tesla voice control
The voice control that can be called up via the display or the right of the two scroll buttons on the steering wheel does not compensate for this. It convinced in the test with a high recognition rate even with mixed sentences with English and German terms. But on the one hand, no vehicle functions, not even the air conditioning, can be controlled by voice; on the other hand, actions are often necessary on the display despite correctly recognized commands. The expressed wish to play a certain artist, title or radio station (only Internet radio) ends in the results list of the internal search engine. There you have to tap to start what you want. This step is only omitted when navigating.
It is also disturbing that Tesla has stored several keywords for each function, but natural-looking communication is still not possible. So “game XY” is ignored, but “play XY” works. Without a cell phone connection, Model 3 becomes deaf: Internet access is required for all commands.
After all, the operation on the display is coherent. All sub-pages (media playback, navigation, air conditioning, etc.) can be reached via the menu bar at the bottom of the display. All of the important functions are usually located in the upper area, so scrolling is not necessary. However, you should not use this or the on-screen keyboard while driving, as the elements are almost always too small and there is no haptic feedback – blind operation is impossible. This also applies to the media side, despite the comparatively large controls. Without a passenger and looking at the display, you are dependent on voice control with all its restrictions or the two scroll buttons. However, the latter only offer a small range of functions. The left one is reserved for media playback (volume, back and forth), the right button for activating voice control and operating the adaptive cruise control.
The navigation function is automatically activated when Model 3 is switched on. Tesla uses navigation from multiple sources. The open-source maps come from Valhalla and Mapbox and are stored locally in the vehicle. If there is no mobile phone connection, the system guides the driver to the destination address without any problems. Tesla obtains the real-time traffic data and all POIs (points of interest) from Google search from Google. Accordingly, a connection to the Internet is necessary for this data. Permanently integrated POIs are only Tesla’s Supercharger and Destination Charger. On request, the charging stations are not only displayed together with their distance but also the number of currently free charging points, the price per kilowatt-hour and offers on-site (restaurants, public restrooms, and more).
Tesla goes its own way when calculating the route. After entering the destination address, unlike other manufacturers, only a route is calculated, but you have little influence on it (avoid ferries and routes subject to charges). After the calculation, the system informs about the length of the route, the estimated time of arrival and the expected level of the battery after arrival.
The autopilot thinks with you for you
If the route is via a motorway or a road similar to an interstate highway, you can navigate with the autopilot if you wish. Despite the same name, the infotainment system does not mean partially automated driving with the assistance of the assistants, but rather extended suggestions for driving with navigation. For example, the driver receives suggestions as to when vehicles in front should be overtaken or when to switch to the right lane so as not to miss the exit. “Navigate with autopilot” also takes into account the charge level of the battery and integrates a supercharger as a stopover when calculating the route if necessary. Charging points from other operators are not included in the form of a POI list. With luck, these can be found and selected using the search function, the test often only helped by researching the exact address and then transferring it to the system.
It also works semi-automatically: select the destination on the smartphone in Google Maps and then transfer it to the installed Tesla app using the share function. From there she finds her way into the car. That sounds cumbersome, but largely corresponds to the procedure that is also common with other manufacturers.
When driving, the navigation impresses with timely and clear announcements, only a lane assistant is missing. The calculation of the routes was completed within a few seconds in the test, even in complex cases, and the display was always fluid – even when zooming or moving the map. Only the deviation from the route was recognized several times only after several hundred meters.