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Sorry, Elon Musk — playing Steam games in a Tesla is totally unnecessary

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(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Tesla CEO Elon Musk is always announcing weird and wonderful features for his cars, and in recent years there's been a heavy focus on gaming. Not only do new Model S and Model X cars have the ability to run AAA titles, like The Witcher 3, Musk has announced Tesla is working on adding Steam support to its cars.

That's right. Someday soon Tesla owners may be able to load up their favorite Steam games from the front seat of their car. But, despite the fact Tesla and other car makers have been pushing in-car gaming, they're overlooking the practicality of playing games in a modern vehicle. Ultimately, it doesn't make much sense, at least for the immediate future.

Games and cars don't mix well

Playing games on a car screen is not a new idea. A number of smaller games have been available in Teslas for a while now, including retro classics and smaller modern titles that don't need so many resources. Likewise, Android Auto recently added support for GameSnacks, a collection of mini games that can be played while your car is parked.

More hardcore gaming is still relatively new in comparison. The Witcher 3 hit certain Teslas last April (opens in new tab), while cars like the Honda-e will let you plug in an actual console (opens in new tab) and play games on the infotainment screen.

Still, as it stands right now, you do not need video games in your car. Or, at the very least, you don't need them running on the car itself — rather than some dedicated device like a Nintendo Switch.

The point is that these games have to run in such a way that isn't distracting to the driver. Games would have to run on the center console, which is a driving tool and displays information the driver needs to be able to see without taking their eyes off the road.

While Tesla allowed games to run while the car was in motion, the company was subject to scrutiny from the NHTSA. Because it didn't take enough steps to ensure that the driver was not the one playing. To the point where that feature was pulled entirely.

This shouldn't affect any rear-seat displays, rare as they are, which admittedly could be useful for entertaining kids and passengers. However, this does generally mean gaming is limited to when the car is parked — and how often are you going to be in a position where that makes sense?

Comfortable as some cars may be, they're nowhere near as comfortable as gaming from your couch or desk. At the very least you're going to look pretty strange, sitting in a car by yourself playing a video game. 

At the very least a Steam-based gaming system should offer the ability to sync your save files to the cloud, something a standalone port may not. So you should be able to pick up your progress on a different system without issue.

Charging wait times matter, but there's a better way

One argument you can make for in-car gaming is so that you have something to do while your car is recharging. After all, recharging isn't as fast as filling up a tank of gas, even if the automotive industry is doing its very best to speed up the process.

A Tesla Model S can recoup up to 200 miles in 15 minutes, which doesn't seem so bad. However, that's reliant on using a 250kW Supercharger, and being able to maintain that charging speed consistently. In practice, a bunch of different factors affect how fast you charge, and how long you have to sit waiting.

The more you wait, the longer you can spend playing whatever game you're into at that point in time. That is, assuming, you're regularly using a Supercharger to top up your battery — which most people won't.

The vast majority of EV owners do their charging at home, where they can plug in and wait for the battery to fill up overnight. Unless you're regularly traveling long distances, there aren't going to be many opportunities for you to game while your car recharges. 

Frankly, you're better off spending your time doing more productive things. Or doing your gaming sessions inside, where it's more comfortable and you have easy access to the fridge and/or bathroom. Because who wants to hang out in their car when it's sitting in their garage?

Autonomous cars is where gaming comes into play

The whole concept of using cars is going to change. Or at least it will if the automotive industry can crack the problem of car autonomy and make human drivers completely redundant. Musk himself has gone on record (via Twitter (opens in new tab)) to point out that once cars are able to drive themselves, entertainment will be "critical."

And he's not wrong. Once a car can drive itself around, with zero input from a human driver, the people inside are going to need something to occupy the time they spend being driven about.

Being able to play games in your car is certainly one option. Provided you don't want to spend your drive engrossed in whatever you have installed on your phone or tablet.

The problem here is that self-driving cars are still a long way off. This is despite the fact Elon Musk keeps promising how close Tesla is to cracking the puzzle, and the automaker's CEO has a long history of overpromising and underdelivering where autonomy is concerned.

More recently he's claimed Tesla's Full Self Driving Autopilot will be "safer than a human" by the end of this year — something he claims is a pretty low bar to reach.

Just a reminder, Tesla's "Full Self Driving" software is nothing of the kind. It's a level 2 autonomous driving system that still requires full driver attention at all times. The name is just a name, and it's something that's caused legal trouble for Tesla on more than one occasion.

In other words, you can't just sit back and play a video game while the car does all the heavy-lifting yet. No car can offer that right now, and we're still a ways off in terms of technology and legislation to make that happen.

Of course, no company would wait for the autonomous revolution to arrive before considering what passengers will occupy themselves with. By developing various entertainment options now, Tesla and other automakers can be prepared for whenever the time comes.

Bottom Line

Tesla and other car makers likely have the best intentions when it comes to in-car gaming. After all those cars have pretty powerful computers inside, which is a key part of being able to make them drive themselves — however limited their current capabilities may be. 

That hardware might as well be put to good use, right? Especially if it can be turned into a selling point, to try and encourage more people to buy one of the cars in question.

In-car gaming may prove to be a godsend when you have to focus on something other than driving. But right now? Its usefulness is limited, and there are better options available. Because why spent almost $100,000 on a car for a feature that can be pretty-much replicated by a $300 iPad?

Tom is the Tom's Guide's Automotive Editor, which means he can usually be found knee deep in stats the latest and best electric cars, or checking out some sort of driving gadget. It's long way from his days as editor of Gizmodo UK, when pretty much everything was on the table. He’s usually found trying to squeeze another giant Lego set onto the shelf, draining very large cups of coffee, or complaining that Ikea won’t let him buy the stuff he really needs online.