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Tesla vs Toyota

I took delivery of a Tesla Model 3 a few months ago. My original intention was to take my mother to dialysis in it (she really wanted an electric car), but when that didn’t work out, I decided to keep it. For one thing, I’ve always resented having to own a car in the US, and I was worried about my environmental impact.

I was wowed: it’s a performant, beautiful car that feels safe. Features like auto-steer and an in-car personal assistant feel like driving in the future. It even connects to my phone and unlocks as I approach and locks as I walk away. It’s seamless: what an amazing thing.

And then I drove across the country in a 2021 Toyota Sienna.

The Toyota Sienna is not famously a beautiful car. It’s kind of got this soccer mom reputation, which shouldn’t malign it (what’s wrong with parents who take their kids to sports practice?), but at the same time it doesn’t give it a reputation for performance or elegance. It’s got a lot of room for suitcases and has a hybrid drive train that allows it to go 500-600 miles on a tank of gas, which made it a perfect vehicle for a long road trip. And it’s pretty comfortable in the back.

It turns out to be a performant, beautiful car that feels safe. It has auto-steer and (through Apple CarPlay) in-car Siri. It even connects to my phone and unlocks as I approach and locks as I walk away. It’s seamless: what an amazing thing.

Furthermore, CarPlay is an order of magnitude better as an operating system than Tesla’s software. The Tesla assistant sucks in comparison - and it’s not like Siri is known for its perfection. There are fewer apps available. And then on the phone side, both the Toyota and Tesla mobile apps leave a lot to be desired, but they also fundamentally do the same stuff.

The big advantage of the Tesla is that it doesn’t need any gas at all and doesn’t make exhaust fumes. I’m very happy with it and I’m not going to trade it in. But it turns out that some of the stuff that wowed me about it is just part of buying a modern car. They’re safer and smarter than they ever were, and the gap between a Tesla and a Toyota is much smaller than I thought.

One caveat: I didn’t spend the extra money to get full self-driving. In part, that’s because full self-driving seems to not quite be ready for primetime, although I’m tempted to try it for a few months for the automatic parallel parking. Automatic parallel parking, by the way, is something a Prius can also do.

That leads me to some interesting questions about what happens when fully-electric vehicles reach real ubiquity. My Tesla has a much higher range than electric vehicles produced by traditional auto makers, but I have to assume that won’t always be the case. What’s Tesla’s edge then? How do they stay in front? It’s not obvious to me.

I’m really happy to be driving an electric car, and I can’t wait until all cars are electric. But in terms of features, I’m not sure there will be a clear winner.