August 14, 2012, 7:17 PM — If you want to impress people in technology-drenched Silicon Valley, you need a pretty special gadget. An iPhone 5 prototype would definitely do it, and something related to the Mars Curiosity rover would probably earn you some cool points. On Friday, I discovered something else: the all-electric Tesla Model S.
During a test drive along highway 280 near Tesla's Palo Alto headquarters, the car became the center of attention as driver after driver drew alongside and turned their heads to admire it. One even turned, pumped his fist, and shouted "Oh yeah!"
It's easy to understand why.
In the three years since Tesla first announced the car, excitement and anticipation for it have grown. That's illustrated by the thousands of reservations the company has taken for the sedan, a perhaps more sensible choice for many people than the company's first vehicle, the Roadster sports car.
Fun with the Model S starts with getting into the car. The door handles are recessed, but when you touch them, they glide out so you can pull open the door.
When you first sit in the car, sensors detect your presence and that of the key, and the car enters accessory mode. The dashboard lights up and a large flat-panel display that takes up most of the center console comes to life.
The 17-inch touchpanel screen controls almost everything about the car. It can be used to set and tweak the drive mode, monitor data from sensors throughout the vehicle, run the air conditioning and interior lighting, adjust the audio system, and a lot more.
It also has a built-in Web browser -- and not just the basic, feature-lacking browser sometimes found in consumer electronics products.
The Tesla's entire computer system is based on Linux, and a cellular connection ties the car to the Internet. When I fired up the screen it was on the home page of Space X, a second company run by Tesla Motors co-founder Elon Musk. A connection to Google Maps provides the basis of the navigation system.
But let's get on the road. That means depressing the brake pedal, tapping a gear lever on the steering wheel column into drive mode, and then switching your foot from the brake to the accelerator.
The car moves off smoothly and almost silently. There is, of course, no gasoline engine to silence, and the engineers have done a great job keeping road noise out of the car.
The ride is smooth and the car feels responsive on the twisty roads around Tesla's headquarters.