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19.06.2019
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Tesla Arcade hands-on: using a Model 3 steering wheel as a game controller

Tesla is pulling its secret video game features out of the shadows and bringing them front and center starting today as Tesla Arcade, a new game hub found across its line of electric vehicles. And earlier this afternoon, the company brought a Model 3 to downtown San Francisco to let The Verge try out Arcade and its newest title, developer Vector Unit’s Beach Buggy Racing 2. It’s an Android racing game you can play on a phone or tablet, but what makes it special on a Tesla car is its controller: the literal steering wheel of the Model 3.

Tesla has always prided itself on treating its electric vehicles like computers, and it often touts the ability to send game-changing, over-the-air updates to its cars that add everything from improved self-driving capabilities to silly Easter eggs like “James Bond mode.” Now, Tesla is going one step further and turning its cars into full-blown video game consoles.

With this new update, you’ll get Beach Buggy Racing 2 alongside some existing Atari classics. Tesla is also promising support for Studio MDHR’s cartoony platformer Cuphead in the coming months, which will work with gamepad support that Tesla already rolled out. The update also makes these gaming features easier to find. Previously, they were hidden inside a special menu accessible only by pressing the Tesla logo from the main hub of the infotainment center and finding a secret drawer of sorts for Easter eggs. Now, Tesla Arcade is found by pressing an arrow icon found at the bottom of the home screen’s main icons, which opens a dedicated menu bar. From there, you can tap the “Arcade” button and you’ll gain access to the full list of titles right away.

Photo by Brennan King / The Verge

Vector Unit worked alongside Tesla engineers to make sure its game could tap into the car’s physical steering and braking system. (Sorry, no gas: Tesla advises you not to press the accelerator while playing the game. Just in case you forget, the software disables the pedal until you exit Arcade and sends you a detailed “Warning” note.) In single-player, you can use the steering wheel or touch controls. I was able to even use both at the same time, steering with one hand and tapping the screen to use in-game power ups and attack items. There’s also two-player mode, in which a passenger can play split-screen alongside you, tapping the screen while you use the steering wheel.

Steering was surprisingly responsive, mainly because Tesla’s software unlocks the steering wheel from its standard rigidness when in park and lets you freely move it as you would on a toy wheel attached to a racing arcade cabinet. You can also adjust the sensitivity of the steering. That doesn’t change how the wheel feels, but it does make movements of the wheel move your in-game character more dramatically.

The Tesla steering controls are surprisingly responsive in Beach Buggy Racing 2

I found it much more fun to use the steering wheel than the touchscreen controls, and pressing the brake pedal (which, admittedly, I did not do too often) felt like it had a realistic slow-down effect on my car. One other neat touch is that your in-game vehicle is no longer a cartoony car, but the actual model and color of your real-life Tesla, pulled from the in-car software.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk teased this integration back at the E3 video game expo last week, in conversation with Bethesda’s Todd Howard, who’s helping the game studio work with Tesla to port Fallout Shelter to its line of electric cars. But Musk didn’t give a release date for Arcade at the time. Now, the company says the update will be making its way to Tesla cars this week and next, but anyone can try it at a Tesla showroom through June 30th.

Personally, I don’t see myself ever really wanting to play mobile games on the screen in my car. But as someone who commutes via bike and hasn’t owned a vehicle since they graduated college, I can say that having a car even remotely capable of playing video games like this is certainly an appealing dream. I can certainly empathize with those who do own Teslas and want to use Tesla Arcade, or are just plain excited about a future where the modern car has as robust an app ecosystem as our smartphones do now.

A Tesla spokesperson tells The Verge that the idea is to do something fun and unique that can perhaps keep you busy while you’re waiting to pick someone up, or while you’re at a Supercharger station. It helps that the games are indeed fun to play, and that the Model 3 screen is a gorgeous display that rivals the iPad Pro. In that sense, Arcade is yet another feature Tesla owners can show off to their friends, like the litany of Easter eggs that have come before it and more visceral showoff features like the Model S’s Ludicrous Mode.

For now, let’s just hope Tesla daredevils don’t try to get their gaming sessions in at stop lights.

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