The consumer electronics industry has changed radically over the past two decades. AR/VR devices have come and gone and come again, smartphones have gone from filling our pockets to dominating our lives, and the tentacles of connected services now touch everything we touch.

Yet for me, the most exciting thing to watch was the development of the technologies that drive us. I mean that literally: cars and scooters and electric bikes and all the other wild and wonderful forms of transportation that have grown wings or wheels in the last few decades.

Love for all these things has always been at my core. Many moons ago, before my time as editor-in-chief of this site, I worked as an automotive editor. In the late 2000s, this mainly meant pondering what was going on in the world of Ford Sync or writing about flying car concepts that are still very much on the table today.

It was an excellent advantage to drive very early electric cars, although it did not always end well. In 2012, I made an aborted attempt to get from Portland to Seattle for an episode of the Engadget Show without feeds. The poor Mitsubishi i-MiEV we had borrowed was not up to the task.

But then the Tesla Model S came along. At the time, I knew it was going to be significant. Everyone in the industry knew it was going to be significant, but it’s only looking back more than a decade later that we can truly appreciate how significant it was. In the rearview mirror, we can also see how unfortunate it is that Tesla has barely moved the needle since then.

Preview in Fremont

In the (long) run-up to the eventual release of this car in late 2012, Tesla invited me to a supposed grand re-opening of its Fremont factory. The place was incredibly massive and almost empty. Tesla employees were proud to show off the many giant presses that would churn out Model S components.

Other Tesla employees dutifully fed these presses with sheets of metal that came out the other end as flat as they went in. The presses were there and pressing, but the dies that formed the parts were absent. This event, like many upcoming Tesla events, was somewhat lacking in substance.

However, the time I spent talking to Peter Rawlinson had a huge impact on me. Previously from Lotus and Jaguar, Rawlinson was chief engineer at Tesla at the time. He and I talked for ages about the benefits of low-bay batteries and the torque behavior of electric motors. It’s standard stuff nowadays, but back then it was a fantastic learning opportunity for me. (You can enjoy some of his insights in a series of videos here.)

Early Tesla electric cars had two-speed transmissions. I asked Rawlinson if there was a third gear for reverse control.

“No,” he said. “We’re just revving the engine back.”

Now this seems like such a simple concept, but this moment caused a small explosion between my ears. I spent the rest of the day pondering the myriad other unintended consequences of this switch to electrification. Nothing else happening in the industry was as exciting as this.

My review

I got a quick ride in the Model S at that event in Fremont, a lap or two around the Tesla test track, but I had to wait until early 2013 before I could take one for my first proper review of the Model S. It was a release Performance with an 85kWh battery and a sticker price of $101,600.

I picked it up in New York and drove it home to Albany, New York. Along the way, I got a preview of what would become another unfortunate Tesla theme: an awkward relationship with the media.

Before I got far, a warning light came on my dashboard. I called Tesla PR to ask what to do.

“Oh, don’t worry, we’re watching you,” they said. “It is good.”

I did not feel well. I’ve been reviewing devices for decades and always assume some degree of logging is involved, but this seemed a little more sinister.

(It’s gotten more so over the years. In a later Model 3 review, I complained that the car’s high beams were terrible on country roads. Tesla PR asked me when this happened so their engineers could download the recording of my drive .)

The warning light went off, Big Brother is now visible in the back seat, I’m back to enjoying the car. After reviewing the Tesla Roadster two years earlier, a beautiful mess of a blinded machine, the Model S was something entirely different. It was calm, low-key, and not nearly as much of a current. I did a 165 mile drive home with 23 percent reserve, this in January on a 24 degree day.

That’s pretty bad by today’s standards, but remember that the most common EV of the day was the Nissan Leaf. In 2013, the Leaf range was EPA Assessment 75 miles away. The Model S was on another level.

But it wasn’t perfect. I wasn’t a fan of many of the interior materials and design choices back in 2013, and I’d be so disappointed to know that things haven’t really improved since then.

I also found the handling lacking, but my biggest complaint was the lack of advanced driver assistance systems. This Model S didn’t even have adaptive cruise. Autopilot was still a long way off, and the ongoing failure of Full Self Driving much further.

Still, I gave it a glowing review, and it deserved it. I was suitably impressed, as were many others. I spoke with several buyers of these early sedans recently, and most were completely in love with their cars, despite the many teething problems. (So ​​many broken doorknobs…)

It probably goes without saying, though, that many of the people I spoke to are less enamored of Tesla’s CEO than they were back then. Between that, the racially abusive work environment, and the constant anti-worker behavior, the applause for Tesla is much more complicated than it used to be. It’s a real shame.

The evolving landscape

The seismic forces generated when the Model S fell still reverberate through the industry. You can feel them in almost every premium EV on the market today.

Yet it is in these other EVs that most of the innovation in EVs is happening. If you look at what Peter Rawlinson did with the Lucid Air, a sedan that goes over 500 miles on a charge, it’s easy to imagine what could have happened if he hadn’t parted ways with Tesla. The on-road performance of the Porsche Taycan, the off-road prowess of the Rivian R1T and the minimalist cool vibe of the Volvo EX30 raise the bar.

Tesla has had more success than any other manufacturer in putting more EVs in more driveways and putting more chargers in more places. Tesla made electric cars viable and desirable. You have to respect him for that. Recently, however, the company’s greatest achievements have focused on reducing costs and minimizing complexity, often at the expense of quality and, indeed, safety.

Look at today’s Model S and you still see the car that was launched in 2012. It’s faster and has more mileage, sure, but it’s the same platform and basic design that I reviewed over a decade ago. Reflecting on the time wasted on vanity projects like the Model X and vaporware like the new Roadster, it’s hard not to feel the pain of missed potential.

I’m celebrating Engadget’s 20th Anniversarywe take a look back at the products and services that changed the industry since March 2, 2004.