Despite years of advances in battery and charging technology, one annoyance of owning an electric car hasn’t changed: When your battery runs low while on the road, you’ve got to stop at a charging station, plug in, and hang out for 20 minutes or more. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has long advocated that his customers use that time to have a bite to eat or drink a cup of coffee. They could read a book, catch up on email, have a heart-to-heart with the kids. Now he’s given them a more realistic way to pass the time: videogames .
Alex Davies covers autonomous vehicles and other transportation machines for WIRED.
Starting this week, Tesla drivers have access to “Arcade,” a collection of games they can play on their car’s center screen to pass the time while plugged in, or anywhere else. Along with Atari classics like Pong, these include a special edition of Beach Buggy Racing 2, a Mario Kart–like game produced by Bay Area–based developer Vector Unit. As long as the car is in park, drivers can race on 22 tracks, using the steering wheel and brake pedal to control their avatar (acceleration is automatic).
Working with Tesla, Vector Unit loaded this edition of the game with nods to electric driving. The power-up boosters usually denoted by a bottle of nitrous oxide are now supercapacitors. The gas cans that usually decorate the tracks are Superchargers instead. Vector Unit added a “Starman” character, modeled after the dummy strapped into the Roadster that Musk shot into space last year.
The Tesla edition of Beach Buggy Racing 2 comes with various nods to electric driving, including the "Starman" sitting the in Tesla Model 3 Elon Musk launched into space last year.
It wasn’t too much work, says Vector Unit founder and technical director Ralf Knoesel, since the company already makes games for a variety of hardware setups, from iPhones to consoles. The biggest task, he says, was redesigning the user interface for Model X and S cars, which have vertically oriented screens.
Knoesel and his colleagues are big Tesla fans—big enough that they did the work for free. “We just think it’s really cool,” Knoesel says. (They did, of course, get a nice heap of publicity.)
It’s that kind of fandom that makes Tesla such an unusual automaker (along with its focus on electric propulsion, battles with regulators, and fights over quality control and the application of its Autopilot feature ). Musk is more connected to his owners, and the public in general, than any automotive executive. And while his high-profile tweets have landed him in legal trouble , he spends most of his social media time interacting with Tesla fans and owners, fielding suggestions, answering questions, and swapping the dankest of memes.
Tesla transmitted the game to car owners via an over-the-air software update. Such updates let the company add unexpected features like Beach Buggy Racing, a Whoopee cushion imitator that can embarrass the occupant of any seat, and “romance mode,” which displays a crackling fire on the center screen and plays love songs. The question, Musk said at E3, is “How do we make it as fun as possible?”
Tesla has tens of thousands of employees making hundreds of thousands of cars a year, and is still scrambling to become profitable as its tries to rival its older, stodgier competitors. But the climb up hasn’t dulled its sense of fun just yet.
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