Friday, January 18, 2019

Jaguar I-Pace first impressions

A mere three years after I got a ride in a prototype of the early Google self-driving cars, Elon Musk launched Tesla's autopilot. I'd experienced something like autopilot already, but to see it in a production car was thrilling. I walked into the local Tesla center and ordered a Model S that day. I took delivery in early December, and turned autopilot on as soon as I got on the highway leaving the factory in Fremont. The future had arrived!

My feelings for Tesla over the following three years are... complicated. I admire what the company has been able to do. I've taken the factory tour a few times over the years, and it's staggering to witness the conversion of the old NUMMI factory into a modern marvel of engineering and automation. I loved knowing that my purchase of a Tesla was accelerating an industry's conversion from internal combustion engines to more environmentally friendly options. I was thrilled to know that my car was built just miles from my house. The nature of the way the car was constructed - heavy battery low to the ground, a single gear motor ensuring tons of torque from the minute you hit the accelerator - meant it was terribly fun to drive. As fun as it was, it was also the safest production car on the road. Win-win.

And yet. Bugs that existed in the infotainment system when I took delivery persisted. For years. The build quality of a car valued at more than what my first apartment cost was uninspiring. There was that time that my car wouldn't boot. Still drove, but the center panel was unresponsive. Took them almost two weeks to fix it (by replacing the center tablet, because they didn't know what was wrong and couldn't reset it.) Or the fender bender I'd had which took almost 2 months to repair - because they had no inventory of replacement parts, and they'd converted the entire factory to pumping out as many Model 3s as they could. I just needed a headlamp. A headlamp that took over a month to produce, because they had none available. (!)

Which brings me back to auto-pilot. I used it almost every day for the first two years I had the car. But as the company struggled to meet its Model 3 targets, I read several articles about the pressures being exerted on the company by leadership. Whistleblowers called attention to questionable safety decisions made repeatedly inside of the same factory I'd toured. There was the Apple engineer in his 30s who died when autopilot malfunctioned - on Highway 101, less than a mile from my office. The same team responsible for software that was buggy - I never knew if that podcast I was listening to when I turned the car off would be waiting for me when I turned it back on, or if the infotainment system would randomly select another for me - was the team responsible for the software that drove my car. Safety accidents caused concerns at the factory. I started to wonder whether I would keep the Model S when my lease was up.

That's when I heard about the I-Pace. I'd never considered buying a Jaguar. But it was going to be an electric car, it looked decidedly different, and early reviews suggested it was going to be a competent alternative to a category Tesla had had all to itself for years.

My local dealer got a prototype over Labor Day, so I took it for a quick drive. I didn't have enough time to put it through its paces, but it sure seemed to fit the bill. Last week, the vehicle I'd ordered (the HSE model) arrived on a boat, and I took delivery a few days later. If you're looking for a professional review, here are a handful that I liked:


Several friends have asked for my thoughts, so here goes:



Build quality. This car is exceptionally well-built. The fit and finish are uniformly excellent. Where the Telsa's interior always felt a tad spartan, the I-Pace is clearly a luxury vehicle.

Driver assistance. I remain surprised by what the Tesla chose not to include, given how technology-forward the car has always been. My I-Pace includes blind spot alerts in both rear view mirrors, along with audible alerts if you signal a turn into a lane where a vehicle is already present. Visibility in the car is generally good, but having additional alerts to help avoid an accident is a big win. The heads-up display is OK, not great. (The HUD in my wife's Lincoln Navigator offers much more relevant info, for instance.) But it's nice to have the vehicle's speed displayed, call info, etc. without having to take your eyes off the road.

Cruise Control. Though the I-Pace makes no claims to compete with Tesla's Autopilot, I was pleasantly surprised to find it offers both adaptive cruise control (set a speed, it will adjust as cars in front of you slow down, keeping speed with them) as well as steering assist (it will read the lane markings and control the steering to keep the vehicle in the middle of the lane). I've used it a few times, and don't yet know if I'll use it as regularly as I'd used Autopilot. Seems to work well, and it will yell at you if you take your hands off the wheel for more than a few seconds. Given my overall ambivalence to the current state of the art for cars (more or less) driving themselves, I think I'll generally be the one driving.

The green steering wheel means it's in steering assist mode; the green lines indicate that it's tracking the lane markers to stay inside the lane. The orange indicator indicates that it's staying a set distance from the vehicle in front of you. 


Android Auto. Yes, I've worked at Alphabet for 12 years, so I'm a tad biased when it comes to phone OS. That said, I had my first exposure to Android Auto last year when I rented an Audi A4 from Silvercar. The resulting experience in the car was so transformative that I declared I'd never buy a car that didn't support Android Auto. Having native access to Waze, Google Maps, Spotify, my phone / contacts, Google Assistant... it's light years better than anything I'd previously experienced. Jaguar thankfully supports both Android Auto and Apple's Car Play, which is great, because...

Infotainment System. The I-Pace has two different screens. The primary screen is a wide, short screen, with a second, smaller screen below. I'd read a number of reviews that mentioned general frustration with this system, and they weren't wrong. It can often take several seconds from tapping on the screen for the screen to respond to your touch. I rely almost exclusively on Android Auto while driving, so I've only interacted with the screen when parked. Which is good, because any amount of interaction w/the screen while driving would likely drive me batty. (One of the forums mentioned that the OS for this is Embedded Windows - not sure if that's accurate or not, but if true, it's actually cause for cautious optimism: the Jaguar can be updated over-the-air (OTA) - and software performance can be tuned and improved. Fingers crossed.)



(Side note: relying on Android Auto for navigation means that the car's built-in nav system - which can incorporate battery range, and ID charging stations along the way - is bypassed entirely. Among other things, it means I don't get the turn-by-turn indications in the HUD that I'd get if I relied on the Jaguar's native navigation system. I get why they don't talk to each other - but it's a quirk of  running two OSes in parallel vs. a tighter integration.)

One nice feature of the built-in nav system? A dynamic representation of where on the map your car can get to given the current battery charge. It's slick:



Also: it turns out, having buttons and knobs in the dash is quite a bit more useful than having a giant iPad control every feature in the vehicle. The Jag's layout is for the most part intuitive, and not having to swipe through lots of menus to get to a specific control is great.

Height adjustment. I thought this might be a gimmick - the car has three height settings: "Access height" lowers the car for entry/exit so you're closer to the ground, "Normal", and "Off-road". While I haven't had the good fortune to take this car off-road yet, the numerous online reviews suggest that it's a legit off-road contender. (Here's Top Gear's take.) Put the car in off-road mode, and it raises the car over 2 inches higher. On the highway, the car automatically lowers itself by a half inch to improve its drag coefficient. (Tesla's with the optional air suspension also lower the vehicle at speed, and can raise/lower the car, for instance when approaching a driveway with a steep initial incline.)

Driving. This is a driver's car. I'm sure part of my reaction is a general new/shiny honeymoon phase, but it is genuinely exciting to drive. By default, the car starts in "Comfort" mode, which smooths acceleration and defaults to a lighter steering / suspension mode. But you can put the car in "Dynamic" mode - resulting in faster acceleration, tighter steering, firmer suspension. You'll use more of the battery, but you'll have more fun. Several family members have reported that the ride as a passenger is more pleasant - I think this is due to a few factors: first, it's just more comfortable due to more headroom and legroom in the cabin. Second, the I-Pace has an air suspension that my Model S did not (it was an option, I didn't add it). Overall, my passengers prefer riding along in the I-Pace, for whatever that's worth.

(Speaking of being a driver's car: when you put the car in Dynamic mode, you unlock an app on the main screen called Dynamic-I. Dynamic-I yields a lap timer (!), a G-force gauge (!!), and a real-time graph of your throttle and brake usage. I've not taken the car to a track, so I have no real use for the lap timer or throttle/brake graph. But comparing to the figures in this post, it looks like the I-Pace gets a nearly identical number to the AWD Model S when accelerating 0-60mph.)



If you have range anxiety, you have a third mode: "Eco", which will optimize for extracting every last mile out of your charge. You'll lose some of the car's performance abilities, but you'll drive longer.

The seats are the most comfortable seats I've ever had - the driver support is light years beyond what I'd had in my Model S. They are infinitely adjustable - leg support, lumbar support, lower back side support, etc. - once I found the setting that felt ideal, I never looked back.

Range. There's been quite a bit of chatter online about whether the I-Pace's range holds up. They'd originally claimed a range >240 miles on a full charge; the EPA rates it at 234 miles, and owners are reporting a fair bit of variability, with some being disappointed by sub-200 mile rides. Here's what I can say: when I took delivery of my Model S in 2015, it said that my battery (at 90% charge; Tesla doesn't recommend charging to 100%) had 250+ miles of range. Over a few years, that degraded a tad to ~238 miles. In reality, my actual range was more like 160-180 miles. First, you never drive to empty. Second, different driving conditions - esp. local roads with lots of stops and starts - often diminished total range. That said, I could always charge at home, and the Supercharger network was never far from wherever I was. So I never really cared about range.

For the I-Pace, after just a few hundred miles of driving, I'm inclined to think it'll be something similar. When fully charged, it tells me my range is ~260 miles (it's adjusting for your driving behavior as well as the driving mode you're in), and apparently I'm an efficient driver so far. But I fully expect that number to decline as it gets more data and as the battery capacity degrades a tad.

Frunk. Like w/my Model S, you can pop the hood. Unlike with the Model S, you can actually store stuff in there. The storage space in the I-Pace's frunk is hilariously small. You could fit a few books in there, maybe even a small briefcase. But beyond that? The trunk or the cabin are your only choices.

Charging. So this is where Tesla has a HUGE advantage. There are over 10,000 superchargers worldwide. Living in the Bay Area in California, there's a supercharging station in my home town, there's a supercharging station at the Tesla center one town away, there are a dozen within a 20 mile radius. They charge fast - like, really fast - and they're convenient. (As a bonus, my Model S was entitled to free supercharging, something which they've phased out. A full recharge for a new car will run $20-25.)

Per Jaguar's recommendation, I installed a Chargepoint Home charger. For the first few days, it charged my I-Pace without incident. (It's a 32A charger, and adds 24 miles of range per hour.) I wanted to condition the battery by running it low before recharging it, so I didn't charge for several days. Went to charge it the other night, and discovered that the Chargepoint Home had malfunctioned. (They're shipping me a new one, it will be here next week.)

No worries, the Chargepoint map showed a DC fast charger nearby - great! Drove there yesterday, only to learn that there are two incompatible DC fast-charging implementations: CHAdeMO (doesn't work with the I-Pace) and CCS/SAE (works). (Side note: who came up with these acronyms?!) Remembering the dealer telling me I could swing by and use their charger whenever I wanted, I drove to the dealer (~10 miles away). Showed up, and learned that their charger had been offline since last night. Plan C: I'd seen a news report that Electrify America had just installed the two fastest chargers in the U.S. a few miles from my house. Off I went.

My experience at Electrify America's station was comically awful. Their power cords are too short - I had to move my car to within two inches of the metal poles in the parking spot for the cord to reach my charging port. Then they declined my first card, then my second (both are in good standing). Finally took a third card, and charged my car for 5 minutes before declaring "charging error". I tried a second charger, and couldn't get it to approve any card... and gave up. (There's an I-Pace owners group on Facebook that I've joined; after my experience, I found a thread there that documented an identical experience by another I-Pace owner four weeks ago. John shared those concerns publicly here.)

I've since discovered PlugShare - both an app and website - which looks promising as a way to only see charging stations that work with my car, and get a sense for just how quickly they'll be able to charge. A Level 2 station will add roughly 20-25 miles of range per hour, which is ~10% of what a supercharger will give you. I believe a fast charging station will add 100-120 miles of range per hour, but haven't yet been able to confirm that. The emptier your battery, the faster it charges; as it fills, it slows. This screencap of my Model S charging on a supercharger last year was representative:

322 mi/hour? That's... fast.

In short: the reliability, ubiquity, and consistency of the supercharger network is a big, big advantage for Tesla. I'm hopeful that my Chargepoint Home malfunction was a fluke - if so, charging at home will be easy and dependable, and for the vast majority of my trips, I'll be fine. But for longer trips, I'd have to do quite a bit more planning than I'd ever had to do with the Tesla.

This doesn't mean I regret my purchase - I definitely don't! But it's to Tesla's credit that they removed one of the big obstacles to electric car ownership and totally nailed the user experience from discovery to delivery to payment processing. Implementation matters, and the non-Tesla commercial charging experience right now is a patchwork of incompatible formats and let's-see-if-this-works payment processing. It'll work (eventually), but it takes patience. For non-Tesla electric cars to really go past the tipping point, we're going to need a similarly robust and reliable charging infrastructure - and if yesterday's experience is any indication, we're not there yet.

That sound. The first few reviews I'd read were pretty dismissive of Jaguar's decision to pipe in a computer-generated digital equivalent of engine noise as you accelerate. (More on this from The Verge.) I thought I'd hate it - after all, one of the benefits of an electric car is the absence of engine noise and the overall quiet ride. But in my first week I've found that I quite like the audible cue of acceleration. Maybe it'll seem like a gimmick in time, but somehow it feels normal and even a bit fun. (Note: the sound is different if you're in Dynamic mode. In either mode, the noise gets more muscular the faster you go.)

Conclusion: I adore my I-Pace. It doesn't look quite like anything else on the road, it drives like a dream, and the interior is more comfortable, roomier, and laid out in an intuitive way. Other Tesla owners who've grown wary of time devoted to stupid easter eggs instead of fixing long-standing bugs (a whoopee cushion? seriously?! ) but who are bought into electric car ownership will find the I-Pace to be a worthy alternative. And those who haven't yet made the leap into an electric vehicle should be warned: one test drive of this car will make it hard for any other vehicle to match up.



After a week, I've got a few random items on my wishlist. On the off-chance that someone from Jaguar sees this, I'd love to get these to the right team:
  • Miles driven since last charge: The Tesla trip odometer provided this info by default, and it's a nice way to have eyes on your actual range for a given charge. I haven't figured out if this is presented anywhere, but it'd be nice to be able to access it.
  • Reprogram the voice button: The steering wheel has a voice command button that seems to only activate Jaguar's voice commands. I'd love to be able to redirect this button to activate the  Google Assistant (or for Apple users, Siri). I've seen this in other manufacturers, and it's a big usability win. Ordinarily just saying "Hey Google" while driving would be enough, but it turns out you kind of have to store the phone in the center console, where the mic can't hear you. Why? Because...
  • GPS in the car seems to only work if the phone is actually in the closed center console. If the phone is out and accessible, the phone's GPS receiver struggles to triangulate on the GPS satellites; if it's in the center console, it's much more reliable. Other owners have reported similar behavior - guessing it's tied to the construction of the panoramic glass roof... whatever it is, it means my phone is out of reach and unlikely to hear me. Fortunately, if I trigger the Google Assistant from Android Auto's touchscreen, it uses the car's built-in microphones, and it works fine.
  • The second screen is great for displaying media info (or controlling the phone) when the primary screen is showing Android Auto/CarPlay. Really wish it'd show the artist/song title instead of just the channel name. 
  • Related: why doesn't Android Auto use the Pixel's song identification system to surface "Now playing" info and display that on screen? (I've filed that feature request internally.)
  • Another Android Auto wishlist item: really wish any of the electric charging apps (EVgo, Chargepoint, PlugShare, etc.) were categorized as Maps apps in Android Auto so I could easily select them to pull up a list of charging stations nearby and see what their charging capacities are.
  • The Jaguar Android app isn't the most beautiful thing I've ever seen, but it mostly gets the job done. That said: naming the app "Remote" is... not the best decision. When your app drawer is alphabetized by default, you'd expect to find it listed under "J" for "Jaguar", or "I" for "I-Pace". Definitely not expected that it'd be under "R" for "Remote". 
  • When I took delivery of the car, OTA updates were disabled. I think this was an oversight on the part of the dealer - but I was surprised, when poking through the car settings menu, to see "Updates" set to "Off". OTA updates are one of the many advantages to modern cars - I don't want to have to take the car to a dealer to get the latest software - this is the sort of thing that should be on by default. 
  • There are a ton of features in the car that are buried and unlikely to be discovered by most drivers. An email highlighting a new feature or family of features sent on a regular basis would be a great post-purchase way of ensuring that most of the really useful features are enabled and used. (At a minimum, if I were a PM at Jaguar, I'd be running some analytics across the installbase to see how many users are editing the defaults. Sure, many of the early buyers are likely to be early adopters... but I'm a week in, I'm a huge tinkerer, and I'm still finding stuff I haven't seen before.)

Monday, October 5, 2015

My unconsciously biased address book

The 20% problem
Earlier this year, I cleaned up my contacts and became interested in what the gender split would look like for my address book. Not only was it no better than my Twitter experiment from last year, the numbers were exactly the same. Of the just over 1,900 contacts in my primary address book, 399 are women. Last year, people I followed on Twitter were 79.7% men; today my address book is 79.9% men.

If the majority of leaders at most companies are men and if the majority of their networks are men (as mine are), then this is a self-perpetuating problem.

[This is an excerpt from a post on Medium. Read the full post there.]

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Using genderize.io to infer gender in a LinkedIn network

A month or so ago, I got to wondering whether there was any way to determine the gender of my LinkedIn network. Surprisingly, LinkedIn doesn't even ask for gender on sign-up, so I couldn't just pull the info directly from LinkedIn. And I didn't need a 100% accurate solution – I just wanted a directionally-useful metric.

After doing a bit of Googling, I found genderize.io, a nice little API that gives you a best guess for a gender if you give it a name. If you send it this string:

https://api.genderize.io/?name=richard
you get back this result:

{"name":"richard","gender":"male","probability":"1.00","count":4381} 
In other words, genderize.io believes with 100% confidence that "richard" is a male name. (From Genderize's documentation, the count "represents the number of data entries examined in order to calculate the response.")

I have more than 2,300 connections on LinkedIn, so getting a breakdown of everyone's gender was going to be too time-consuming. Instead of doing the names one at a time, I signed up for a developer account and paid for up to 100,000 queries/month. (For more than a handful of queries, Genderize.io will rate-limit you; with a developer account, you get an access token that bypasses the rate limits.)

With an access token, here are the steps I used to get a breakdown of my LinkedIn network's gender split:

  1. Export LinkedIn connections
  2. Import the file into a Google Sheet
  3. Delete everything but the first name field ("Given Name")
  4. In a separate column, create a a URL string that appends the contents of the Given Name column to a tokenized URL that includes your Genderize.io access token. For me this looked like:
    =CONCATENATE("https://api.genderize.io/?apikey=ACCESSTOKEN&name=",B2)
  5. In a new column, use Google Sheets's "ImportHTML" function to execute the query represented in the adjacent column:
    =importdata(C2)
  6. Step 5 creates several columns, as Google Sheets will bring in the Genderize.io query results into the spreadsheet; unfortunately, it does not properly split the gender result into its own columns. Create a new column and use the "Split" command to break the string [gender:"female"] into separate cells, then use "CountIF" to count how many times the word "female" appears in your worksheet. Divide that number by the total number of rows in your spreadsheet, and you have your % of female contacts.
(If I was a better programmer, I could have built a simple Python script using Genderize.io's API to do this automatically. Maybe someone who reads this will want to build it? Let me know!)

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Google, plus our past = the future of photos

A couple years ago, I wrote about my first serious attempt to organize my family’s photos. 50,000 digital photos spanning more than a decade — scattered across multiple computers, phones, cameras, and hard drives. It wasn’t a bad first attempt, but if I’m perfectly honest, it required a fair bit of work to keep it current. Which means it was out of date pretty quickly. (And it’s just as well: my middle child repurposed the photo server earlier this year to be a Minecraft server.)

Then I remembered the photo albums. Dozens and dozens of photo albums. Actual dead-tree, hold-in-your-hand, photo albums. Photo albums from my childhood. Photo albums from my wife’s childhood. Photo albums from our early, pre-digital life together. Photo albums from grandparents, passed down to us when they died.

Photo albums that none of us had looked at in years.

So naturally I got rid of them.

Read the full post over at Medium.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Measure twice, cut once

Finally got a chance to try out writing on Medium, @ev's new platform for writing on the web. I loved the experience, and expect I'll use it some more in the months ahead to get out a few other posts I've been thinking about.

I wrote about a tough decision we made in 2010 to shut down Blogger's oldest feature: FTP publishing. (Back in 2010 I wrote about the announcement here.) The gist of the post is captured in the quote below, but I encourage you to read the whole thing.
It’s easy to say yes when a customer (or prospect) asks for a new feature: after all, if it’s just a day or two of engineering time, why not? But you quickly lose sight of the product you’re building: your product no longer has a coherent vision, and each new feature brings with it uncertain support costs that will last as long as the feature remains. Much harder — but much more important — is the discipline to question whether the feature is a required piece of what you’re building. New or old, easy or hard — if the feature does not support the overall product goals, it has to go. Customers and team-members alike respond to that discipline — particularly if it results in better support, more predictable development, and a clearer understanding of what it is you’re trying to build.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

How Google sets Goals: OKRs


(cross-posted from the Google Ventures Startup Lab blog.)
On the day Google’s acquisition of FeedBurner closed in 2007, it was also the first day of a new quarter at Google. My new manager at Google asked me to draft my OKRs for him to review. I had no idea what he was talking about.
I’ve now gone through the process of setting my Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) 24 times, and each time I marvel at what an effective mechanism they are for focusing my effort as well as aligning my work with the company’s objectives. Last fall, I led a workshop about OKRs at the Startup Lab, which we’re making public today.
John Doerr originally presented OKRs to Google’s leadership in 1999 when Google was less than a year old, and they’ve been in use ever since. In the video, I present a portion of John’s original deck, then lay out how we’ve implemented them at Google over the years. I also shared a few of my OKRs from my time as a Product Manager on Blogger, and answered some questions from the employees at our portfolio companies who were present for the workshop.
Though the video goes into more detail, here are a few keys to what make OKRs work at Google:
  • Objectives are ambitious, and should feel somewhat uncomfortable
  • Key Results are measurable; they should be easy to grade with a number (at Google we use a 0 – 1.0 scale to grade each key result at the end of a quarter)
  • OKRs are public; everyone in the company should be able to see what everyone else is working on (and how they did in the past)
  • The “sweet spot” for an OKR grade is .6 – .7; if someone consistently gets 1.0, their OKRs aren’t ambitious enough. Low grades shouldn’t be punished; see them as data to help refine the next quarter’s OKRs.
One comment: in talking recently with one portfolio company who’s implemented OKRs, I realized that I should have been more emphatic in pointing out that OKRs are not synonymous with employee evaluations. OKRs are about the company’s goals and how each employee contributes to those goals. Performance evaluations – which are entirely about evaluating how an employee performed in a given period – should be independent from their OKRs. We’ll cover employee evaluations in an upcoming workshop.
About the Startup Lab workshops
Since its inception, the Google Ventures Startup Lab has held more than sixty workshops. These sessions are open to every employee of our 160+ portfolio companies and are held on a variety of topics: everything from privacy to Javascript testing to business development. Speakers are drawn from experts at Google and beyond. More than 95% of our portfolio companies have attended at least one workshop, and our recorded talks have been viewed thousands of times. We began releasing public versions of select workshops to share with the broader entrepreneurial community, and will release new videos several times a month.
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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Tips on renting an RV

Each year for the last four years, my wife and I have rented an RV and taken our kids to visit some of our national parks. In that time, we've logged nearly 6,000 miles and we've visited the Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce, Columbia River Gorge, Lassen Volcanic National Park, the Hoh Rainforest, and Olympic National Park. (Not to mention a number of wineries, parks, coastlines, and a bunch more.) This year, we're visiting Joshua Tree and Death Valley, and will swing back through Las Vegas on our way back to the Bay Area. It's safe to say that every year the spring break RV trip is one of the year's highlights.

Whenever we do this, friends inevitably want to know more about the experience. After collecting questions on Google+, Facebook, and Twitter, I'm going to try to cover what it's like, what we wished we'd known, and we've learned since we started.

First, let's do the numbers:

  1. Rental cost. This is almost always the first question. Our first year we rented from Cruise America; for the last two years we rented from El Monte RV, and this year we're renting from a local outfit that rents privately-owned RVs. For for the first two, prices ran about $100/day and included a set number of miles; you'll pay $.30-.40/additional mile. The local outfit is more expensive; I'll explain why we picked them over the others below.
  2. Gas. You should expect your RV to get somewhere around 8-10 mpg, so it should be relatively easy to figure out about how much you'll spend on gas by dividing your total trip distance by that number and multiplying by the cost of a gallon of gas.
  3. Lodging. We've paid as little as $20 for a night in an out-of-the-way RV park and as much as $65; I'd guess the average is somewhere around $40/night.

On a week's trip that might be 1500 miles, you might pay $800 for the RV, another $250 for the mileage, $700 or so on gas, and around $300 for lodging. All-in (not counting food, more on that in a minute) you're looking at around $2k. Not a bargain, by any stretch. But keep in mind that that's transportation and lodging; for us, the equivalent in airfare, hotels, and car rentals would easily exceed that number. (And it probably goes without saying, but if your trip doesn't involve as much driving, you'll save on mileage and gas costs, potentially significantly lowering that number.)

How big is the RV? What's "Class C" mean? "Class A"?

We've progressed: our first RV rental was a 25' Class C; the next two years we rented a 26' Class C with a slide-out, and this year we're renting a very small 30' Class A. (I say very small because a Class A could easily be 40' long (or longer).) Each of those links gives you a good feel for what the layout of the interior is; the difference between a Class A and Class C is whether the RV is built on top of a van chassis (Class C) or is a whole vehicle (Class A). Moving from the 25' to the 26' slide-out was a big step up; the increase in living space when you're parked for the night is a huge win. Believe it or not, the five of us (and our dog!) didn't feel cramped. (We did feel cramped in the 25' RV in that first year.) The boys often went to the bunk over the cab where they could read or play their videogames; my daughter often used the table to work on her activities or read.

We'd seen a version of the RV we're renting this year (the Thor ACE) at an RV showroom near our home, and decided that we'd try to rent it if we could. That led us to find SF Bay Area Private RVs; we liked the layout of the RV, the nicer appointments compared with what we'd rented from CA and El Monte, and the possibility of having a slightly quieter cab when we drive.

What's it like to drive?

I won't lie: the first hour driving an RV was a bit nerve-wracking. The RV takes up all but a few inches on either side of a highway lane. It's unnerving the first time you get out on the highway and realize how close to the cars and trucks you are. But it was really just about an hour; after that, you get used to driving with the mirrors and using turn signals well ahead of any turns. Turning on surface streets isn't particularly hard either: keep an eye on the side view mirror, and start turning once your back tire is even with the turn you're making. Once you learn those techniques, you're good to go. Length doesn't really matter: you're driving a big vehicle. The width is what's noticeably different; the rest is details.

You do not need a different driver's license to operate an RV.

How nice are the RV parks? Who stays there?

This was a big unknown for us. Our first year, we picked parks out of AAA guidebooks and did pretty well. After a couple nights, we started seeing the name Woodall's in each of the lobbies we checked into; that's the bible of RV parks around the country. We now travel with the Woodall's book whenever we're on the road. One of the real perks to traveling by RV is the flexibility: if you didn't end up getting as far as you thought you would, just find a closer RV park and stay there! (Even when we're within the cancellation window for an existing reservation, we've found most parks to be very relaxed, and they often waive the cancellation fees. Worst case, you're out one night's stay – $30-40 or so.)

The parks themselves vary in quality; if you're on vacation, you'll want to avoid parks that are mostly long-term residents. (Nothing against them, but the vibe is less "vacation" and more "keep it down, we live here".) Almost every park has laundry facilities, many have pools and exercise facilities, and it's pretty common to find game rooms (ping pong, pool tables, arcade games). While we generally don't spend a lot of daytime in the RV parks, they can be a nice place to hang out and let the kids knock around. We've met families like us traveling with their kids, we've met a number of foreign tourists visiting the US (renting an RV and seeing the national parks is apparently the thing to do if you're German), and a number of retirees.

The food

It didn't really occur to us when we started out how convenient the RV would be for eating while on the road. The fridges and freezers in the RVs can hold quite a bit, and operate continuously off of either your propane tank or electricity when you're parked. (See "a full hookup" below.) I think we knew we were hooked in our first year when we pulled up to an overlook on the Southern California coast, parked, fired up the stove and cooked Easter Sunday brunch while watching the waves crash on the beach below. Since then we've had countless meals in incredibly scenic spots. Sometimes we eat while driving, other times we stop and bask in the view. Having the food nearby is a huge benefit. Another perk that we hadn't realized when we started: we eat a lot less fastfood when we're on vacation.

A "full hookup"

Aside from cost, friends seem most interested in how much you're "roughing it" in an RV. Putting aside the RVs that can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars (be sure to check out Travel Channel's Extreme RV show if you're interested in those), we've found the experience to be surprisingly comfortable. The kids typically throw their scooters and a variety of toys into the storage bins, so when we show up at a new park, they can immediately grab a few of their things and get to exploring.

Each of the RVs we've rented has had a generator that can generate its own electricity (it uses gasoline from the RV's main gas tank as a fuel source, which means it won't run if the tank has less than 1/4 tank of gas), and a water tank and water heater so you have running water and hot water no matter where you are. That said, each RV park we've stayed at has had what's referred to as a "full hookup", which means they have electricity, water, a sewer line. Hooking the RV up takes about 5 minutes, and once you're connected, you can charge your phones/tablets/computers, watch TV, take a shower, etc. Though several parks also include coax cable for watching television, we've never used that. (DVDs for the kids, and Netflix on a laptop for us!)

Coupled with a fully stocked fridge and freezer, the reality is that we're always more supplied than when we were camping, and we generally have "our stuff" wherever we are. Compared to non-RV vacations where you've only got what's in a few suitcases, life in the RV always feels more comfortable and relaxed.

Oh, and if you are traveling with kids, don't overlook the tremendous win that is an always-accessible bathroom no matter where you happen to be!
Right... the sewage. How bad is it?

Not bad at all. I always keep a box of latex gloves in the cab, so that when we get to where we're going for the night, I can cleanly connect the sewer line. It's simple to connect, and in four years I've never been splashed with the "black water" (that's what they call the sewage; "gray water" is what comes from the water that goes down the kitchen and bathroom drains) when emptying it. We buy a package of treatment pellets at Walmart at the start of each trip; after you empty the black water tank, you drop one in the toilet and it eliminates any odors and helps break things down. (Let's leave it at that.)

We've spent nearly 30 nights in an RV so far over the last several years, and haven't ever once noticed an odor from the bathroom being on board. Non-issue.

But... will I be connected?

First things first: wifi at RV parks is often better than it is at hotels. That said, it's sometimes exactly what it is at hotels. I generally love being off the grid when we go on these trips. I turn on my out-of-office responder, turn my phone's sync feature off, and generally don't look at my work e-mail while I'm gone. That said, we frequently post pictures from the trip as we go, and often check in with family to let them know where we're at. As I mentioned above, we often watch a movie on Netflix or Amazon on one of our laptops after the kids go to bed.

While you can often count on wifi when you get to where you're going, one thing you often can't rely on is a cell signal while on the road. There were entire days on our trip to the Grand Canyon when we went without cell service. The lack of a data connection can be annoying if you're an e-mail addict, but if you were counting on Google Maps and your phone's GPS, the lack of a consistent cell signal will be a bigger issue. (Note that since that trip, Google Maps now has the ability to use the app in offline mode. More here.)

We invested in a handheld DeLorme GPS unit that came with a Spot Communicator, a satellite-based emergency beacon in case we were ever somewhere we needed immediate assistance. I'm ambivalent about both, as the DeLorme's interface feels like it was built by people who've never seen a modern phone UI (pretty sure this was their next project after creating the VCR clock), and the Spot is expensive for something we use once/year. That said, the combined safety and functionality are valuable, and they are not reliant on cell service. (I just noticed Spot has a new product, a satellite receiver that can pair over Bluetooth with your phone; let’s you signal an emergency as well as handle short data transmissions from your phone, which sounds like it might be a better option.)

Entertainment

When we're moving, the kids are always belted in. They may not need to be, but don't tell them I said that. I like that they can be spread around the RV – each layout will differ, but in general they can either be at a table, in a captain's chair or on a couch. They've each got their own area to spread out, can play games, talk with each other, or throw headphones on and play a video game or listen to their music. Unlike a car trip where they're on top of each other, this feels much less confining. And that's good for all involved! (I'll repeat: the convenience of the always-there bathroom is another thing to love about the RV.)

When we're driving, we have the option of running the RV's generator. That makes electricity accessible while you're moving, which means they can watch the RV's TV, their gadgets can be plugged in, etc. We generally don't drive with the generator on – fortunately for us the kids like to watch the world go by (that is, after all, one of the real benefits of traveling in an RV). But there's almost always some point in the trip when everyone needs the downtime, and it's a nice backup.

Our first RV didn't have a TV at all; each of the last several have had a TV and a DVD player. For as much TV as the kids watch, we don't actually watch much TV while on these trips. There was one point last year that it was raining at night, so we watched the Muppet Movie as a family. Made for a great night.

Maintenance/rental quality

Our experience with Cruise America was that the vehicles were in decent shape but a bit on the basic side. We are fortunate that El Monte's Bay Area location is just a few miles from our house, so it was easy to visit their building and see the various models first-hand. While we generally liked the vehicles we rented from El Monte, each of the last two years produced unwelcome maintenance issues.

With a slide-out, you have a section of the RV that extends from the main chassis. It makes sense that you'd want that section sealed so that nothing from the outside can get in. Much to our dismay, both of the vehicles we rented in successive years from El Monte had faulty seals, which meant that we ended up with water in the main cabin when we drove through rain. That made for a bit more excitement when driving than we would've liked, but in the end it meant that we used some towels to keep the floor dry. (And to El Monte's credit, they deducted a bit from our rental fee as compensation for the trouble.)

In addition to El Monte being local, we have a large RV showroom that's in the same town. In one of our visits there on a Saturday afternoon, we saw the Thor ACE – ACE stands for A/C Evolution, or a hybrid between a Class C and a Class A. The floorplan is a lot like a Class C (in particular the over-cab bunk where the kids sleep) but it has the overall design and approach of a Class A. We loved it.

Problem is, they're relatively new, and they aren't a popular rental model. Thanks to a Google search, I found SF Bay Area Private RVs. Curt runs the show there, and acts as a property manager for a bunch of private RV owners who rely on him to rent out their vehicles when they're not using them themselves. I like that we get an RV more suited to what we're looking for with less wear and tear, though it goes without saying that we're paying more as a result. (One benefit of going with El Monte or Cruise America: they're often located near airports, so you can fly to where you want to go, and then drive to your ultimate destination.)


You should try it

What we found once we took the plunge was that this was a wonderful way to get family time. It's definitely different and not without its own challenges, but the relaxed approach to travel, the convenience of better food, predictable accommodations, and space all make for a great experience. Though we have been fortunate to see some truly amazing destinations (and I expect both national parks this year to be equal to past trips), some of our fondest memories of these trips are from the journeys themselves. America still has some great road-side diners, and every once in a while there's a breathtaking vista that just materializes in front of you. Nothing beats pulling over and breaking out a meal to celebrate getting away from it all.

What did I miss? Anything else you want to know about the experience? I'll add to this if needed; thanks to everyone who asked for this!