Recently, I was privileged to spend an entire weekend with the Polestar 2 , a European-designed, Chinese-manufactured electric vehicle that recently delivered cars to US-based buyers.
Transportation is about to get a technology-driven reboot. The details are still taking shape, but future transport systems will certainly be connected, data-driven and highly automated.
My interest in EVs is more than just a desire to better understand the industry as a technologist — as a consumer, I am looking to replace one or both of my current vehicles.
My experience with EVs as a driver is somewhat limited — ten years ago, I was given a similar opportunity with the Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid. That GM vehicle has since been replaced with the Chevy Bolt , a true EV. I’ve also recently test driven a Tesla Model 3 Sport , a 2019 model, and I have on occasion driven a Tesla Model S owned by one of my friends. So while it is not “zero,” I don’t claim to have a huge amount of EV expertise.
Polestar is an automotive brand that Chinese automotive manufacturer Geely owns through its acquisition of Volvo in 2010. While the company is headquartered in Gothenburg, Sweden, all the production takes place in Luqiao, China. The company started delivering left-side drive US variants in December 2020 into the New York market and recently expanded its “Spaces” (showrooms) to 24 locations across the US. The company established a presence in Florida at its Tampa location and will soon have Spaces in Naples, Miami, and Palm Beach.
We took delivery of the car on a late Friday morning — a mid-range, dual motor, 408hp version priced at $52,000, with a vegan fabric interior (made of recycled plastic beverage bottles) in a dark blue color.
My first impressions were that this was a very sedate, sleeper-looking, Euro-styled mid-sized hatchback. At 181 inches long, 58.2 inches high, and 115 cubic feet of interior passenger space, it’s significantly larger with more passenger space and a lot more cargo space than a similarly-priced dual-motor (~$50,000) Tesla Model 3. In comparison, the Tesla Model 3 weighs 3,552lbs. In contrast, the Polestar 2 is 4680bs, which is still heavier than the more expensive (and more closely compared) Tesla Model Y at 4,555lbs.
The vehicle’s range, when fully charged, at 78kWh charge capacity, is 240 miles — but the company recommends that you do not charge it to 100% to preserve battery life, that you stop it around 90% — this can be set using the software settings in the main console. Generally speaking, we got around 220 or so miles of range out of the car charged at about 90 or 92%, depending on how hard we drove it and how strong we ran the AC — we are located in Florida, after all.
The charge connectors that the US variant supports are CCSI Type 1 at a maximum of 116kW, different from what Tesla uses. My experience with charging using 3rd-party providers and infrastructure is something that I will discuss in a separate piece since I think it is not so much applicable to the Polestar 2 but all EVs in general.
Because I am not a seasoned EV or even automotive reviewer, my objective was not to performance test the vehicle. My main interest was understanding the underlying technology stack and seeing how it compares to its competitors in the space. So much has been written about this car by the automotive trades such as Car & Driver and the UK’s Car Magazine that I would not be able to give that type of evaluation justice, anyway.
In the cockpit
One of the things that takes a bit of getting used to is there is no “energizing” or “turning on” the car. You carry the keyfob, which has Bluetooth Low Energy capabilities, and you unlock the door and get in — that is it. When you sit down in the driver’s seat, the car wakes up, as it has a weight sensor.
The Parking brake is engaged with a button (P) on the central column underneath the shifter. The shifter is entirely electronic, resembling something you might see on a video game controller. The force feedback steering wheel and electronic shifter are “drive by wire,” meaning they are not attached to anything mechanical. The powertrain has three positions, Forward (F), Neutral (N), and Reverse (R). There are no gears and no transmission per se; the motors are direct drive attached to the axles, so you get a pure linear acceleration curve in powerplant response.
Translation: Crazy, whip your head back, completely silent, nervous laughter fast.
Driving is a bit of a unique experience, at least as it relates to the rapid acceleration and getting used to the behavior of an electric car. Polestar has implemented a “One-Pedal” driving system, which means you do not use the brakes very often. When you want to slow down, you simply let off on the accelerator pedal, which due to kinetic energy, will cause the electric motors to spin in the opposite direction and regeneratively charge the batteries.
The “One Pedal” regenerative system can be disabled, or it can be set to low or standard depending on the desired behavior or effect. After a day of driving, I got used to the regenerative braking, and using a single pedal to accelerate and slow down became much more natural. In addition, there is the Creep option — the idea of “creep” is not a natural concept on an EV (the forward motion that occurs at idle when the pedal is released on a combustion vehicle). This effect, however, can be simulated by enabling it in the center console menu system.
The overall aesthetic inside the car is comfy but clean. All of the IVI (In-Vehicle Infotainment) controls, including climate and electric powertrain adjustments, occur at a central console, an 11.15-inch (283mm) portrait-orientation display resembling a large tablet such as an iPad or a Samsung Galaxy Tab . Map data from Google Maps is also displayed within the dash, which can be toggled between a map mode and stripped-down mode with just the speed and a few other indicators, such as the range and status of the regenerative braking system.
While the car we had had collision avoidance features and lane assist, the vehicle loaned to us was not equipped with a Pilot Pack, a $3000+ upgrade. This system provides adaptive cruise control and a 360-degree camera system with increased driver awareness. The basic configuration we used had a rear-view camera, with sensors in the front and rear for parking. Most of the time, the front sensors worked, although we had some issues with the parking pylons in some of the parking lots we were in, and it did not give us a warning when we ran into them. If I were to consider a Polestar 2 purchase, I would likely go for the Pilot Pack because my wife is used to the 360-degree camera and the adaptive cruise controls on the Infiniti Q50 that we currently have.
The audio system, which included a SiriusXM radio, was excellent, in at least overall audio quality. One of the exciting perks or outcomes of designing an electric car is that the electronic and mechanical components behind the dash do not have to be designed around a combustion engine, as all of that space is freed up. So Polestar was able to put a subwoofer behind the dash, where engine components would typically be — so you get that nice deep bass where you otherwise would not in a typical, original manufacturer audio system. No need to stuff that sub in the rear trunk.
Android Automotive is not what you think it is
The Polestar 2 is the first vehicle to use Android Automotive — which is not the same thing as Android Auto, which is a smartphone connectivity and remote display interface for Android phones, similar to Apple’s CarPlay. Android Automotive is a full IVI stack, which means all of the necessary built-in apps to control the non-essential vehicle subsystems as well as the 3rd-party apps that you might need for content consumption and other purposes run off this system. The exception is the low-level powertrain and steering systems — should Android Automotive reboot or abend and the dash and central displays become inoperative, your vehicle still drives — this is something we noticed happen once.
We were happy to see we did not lose control of the vehicle when the operating system restarted on one occasion — although I would have instead not crashed the IVI operating system at all, as we lost the dashboard display with the vehicle speed and other data when it happened.
As Android Automotive is an official Google Android platform, it has access to the Google Play store. But unlike what you might find on an Android smartphone, it is not the complete Google Play store with the full catalog of apps on it — these are apps that have been refactored for the automotive display and have had automotive-specific modifications.
For example, the “Home Screen” is different for facilitating app launching than a smartphone. Google Maps, which is the default (and only) navigation app, has been changed to filter locations such as charging stations. It is only a top-down map view, it doesn’t have the Satellite view or the Terrain view, and it doesn’t have a 3D view or any of the other views such as Street View or Biking. However, it does have Traffic details as they come up. It also doesn’t show any of the other updates you might see for “Latest” or feeds from Google contacts; it has been stripped down to bare essentials.
There are only a few dozen apps in the Google Play store for Android Automotive total, and according to Google’s guidelines, only certain types are permitted. It is an even smaller list than what is allowed under Android Auto — for example, 3rd-party navigation, parking, and charging apps aren’t permitted. Google Maps is your only option for navigation, not even Waze. There is no browser capability in Android Automotive. Even Google Assistant, which will work with voice queries with the usual “OK Google”, will not display any information to you while driving. For example, suppose I were to say, “OK Google, show me the menu of Oli’s Fashion Cuisine in Boca Raton.” In that case, it will respond, “Sure, here’s the menu of…” but nothing happens, unlike with an Android smartphone, a similar Android device such as a Chromecast or a Chromebook, or even the Google app on iOS.
So you can forget major apps like Facebook, never mind Chrome. This is all done, of course, in the interest of reducing driver distraction — you can’t even use the Google Play Store or access the built-in vehicle manual when the vehicle is in motion. In theory, maybe sometime down the road, we might see a stripped-down version of the notifications system that allows you to see text messages, Slack, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, et cetera. Perhaps we might see WearOS Google Maps navigation prompts work in the future (a big maybe), but the native versions are not allowed. But there are many things I would like to use that make sense for Automotive use that do not fit into these categories, such as Yelp or a weather app like RadarScope or MyRadar.
While I understand the need to reduce driver distractions and disable certain functions when the vehicle is in motion, I don’t see why certain classes of apps should not be used when the vehicle is parked. What’s wrong with Chrome, Gmail, Slack, Zoom, or RadarScope when the car is pulled over, or you are sitting in a parking space, let alone something like Yelp or a weather app?
Smartphones are a second class citizen
But… connect your phone using Android Auto or CarPlay, right? Not now, you can’t. Whether for Wi-Fi tethering or Bluetooth, phone connectivity is strictly for media control or contacts updates. If you want to use Spotify, Tidal, or Amazon Music, you’ll need to use the Android Automotive apps in the console. While Apple Music for Android exists for smartphones in the Google Play Store, it doesn’t exist (yet) in Android Automotive.
However, there is some hope on the horizon. According to Polestar’s configuration website, CarPlay — but not Android Auto — is scheduled to be added to their IVI system by Spring of 2022. While Polestar could conceivably add Android Auto I think that there are probably licensing limitations the company will be under that will prevent it from doing that.
You can USB-C charge your phone using one of the four connectors in the car (two in the front and two in the rear) but they are not USB-PD enabled for fast charge, nor do they have any data functionality to connect to the entertainment system. There is also only one 12V adapter in the entire vehicle, in the rear trunk, presumably for things such as portable coolers. If you want to use a radar detector, you’ll need a USB adapter or something with a 12V cigarette lighter connector such as a portable inverter and a battery, or a hardwire kit with a fuse tap something a stereo installer can easily do.
As if the lack of full-blown smartphone connectivity was bad enough, there is the issue that the official Polestar app is… well, not very good. In fact, I would classify it as awful and pretty much useless. While I was able to establish connectivity to the vehicle using my iPhone with its pairing procedure and able to lock and unlock the vehicle and activate the climate control system remotely, I was never able to get the synchronization features to work, particularly the ability for the car to report its charge level to the app. That, we ended up using apps like Electrify America or EVGO during the charging process.
I understand that this is a known issue with the app, that Polestar’s cloud servers that support it are frequently non-responsive, and others have needed to unpair their phones and juggle admin accounts to work around the problem. Regardless, I never tried any of these workarounds as I only had three days to use the vehicle, so I never knew what the charge level the car was at remotely unless I was using a 3rd-party app like Electrify America that was able to report the current status while the vehicle was being charged.
Even with these issues, I loved this car
Overall, my feeling is I liked the Polestar 2 better as a “car” than the Tesla Model 3. Why? From a user interface perspective, while it has its issues (and these issues are not trivial), I liked the simplicity of the Android Automotive central console. The car has an actual dashboard showing navigational information and automobile performance data, and informatics. However, I would like to have seen more detailed on-the-fly performance information, such as from the various sensors on the car and electric motor data — an “expert” mode or something.
In comparison, the Tesla Model 3 just seemed like I was driving an iPad with a crazy amount of data being displayed at once, with an overly complex UX, and having to rely solely on the central display unit, as it doesn’t have a real dash. Also, I was not too fond of the interior of the Model 3; I felt it was cheap and unsophisticated when compared with the Polestar 2, which feels like a European luxury vehicle — the Volvo heritage certainly comes into play here.
In summary, the Polestar 2 is quite a technical achievement, and it is a very fast, extremely well-built, and engineered, responsive EV. While the Android Automotive IVI stack needs further development and the smartphone app needs much work, we truly enjoyed driving it. Both my wife and I were pretty sad to see the Polestar 2 leave on Monday afternoon, and I would love to have given it a few more weeks of extended testing. I am encouraged by Polestar’s progress with the vehicle in its current state and looking forward to seeing what they do with additional software and hardware advancements with the Polestar 2 and the upcoming Polestar 3, their upcoming electric crossover.