Tesla Motors’ mission is to bring high-quality electric cars to the masses. But before it releases the much-anticipated Model 3, the company is making sure to leave its mark on the luxury vehicle segment.
Last night, CEO Elon Musk unveiled an improved version of the Model S with all-wheel drive and semi-autonomous features. The so-called Model D (for dual) has two electric motors -- one in the front and one in the rear -- that boost both safety and performance. It’s also more efficient. Despite the added weight of the second motor, Musk said the car will achieve a 10-mile range increase on a single charge over the rear-drive models due to efficiencies built into the system.
“Two drive units where we can shift the power and constantly be at the optimal efficiency for each motor means we can overcome the extra mass,” Musk said at the launch event in Hawthorne, Calif., according to reports. “Everything improves about the car with dual motors. It is like having your own personal roller coaster you can use at any time.”
Three new dual-motor versions of the Model S were showcased yesterday: the 60D, the 85D and the P85D. The top-end P85D model has been tweaked to achieve zero to 60 miles per hour in just 3.2 seconds -- a speed that rivals the McLaren F1. The Model S with its 85-kilowatt-hour battery, by comparison, can get from zero to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds.
But it’s not all about brawn. The “D” cars also have brains. The new Model S has been equipped with optical cameras that can read road signs and automatically adjust their speed to match the speed limit. The system can also make the car change lanes when the driver flicks on the turn signal, and it can park itself automatically on the street or in a garage. When the driver wants to leave, the autopilot-equipped Model S can navigate to the driver’s location already set to the perfect temperature, playing the driver’s music of choice.
It comes with more conventional driver assistance tools, too, like lane-departure warnings, adaptive cruise control and automated braking. These features are starting to become standard on all high-end vehicles.
“When you look at where Tesla is positioned right now in terms of the luxury market, these are the kinds of technologies people are coming to expect from the Mercedes S class and BMW 7-Series,” said Matt DeLorenzo, managing editor at Kelley Blue Book. “So certainly it behooves Tesla to offer these types of systems on the Model S, because it’s clearly positioned in that segment.”
All-wheel drive and semi-autonomous features are not groundbreaking. But surely Tesla isn’t going to stop at self-parking. Musk told CNN in an interview last week that he wanted Tesla cars to the 90 percent self-driving by the end of next year. Tesla could benefit from autonomous driving research at Daimler, one of the company’s investors, in exchange for intel on Tesla’s battery technology, said DeLorenzo.
Still, the features announced yesterday fell may have fallen somewhat short of expectations. Musk’s cryptic tweet, “About time to unveil the D and something else,” had technology and automotive experts, and the general public all throwing out guesses ranging from a production version of the Model 3, to a revamped Tesla Roadster, to a Model S with full autonomy.
The hype dominated social media sites and imaginations ran wild. This author was hoping for something to do with 3-D printing or perhaps an electric DeLorean.
Baird Equity Research gave a positive review of the new Model S, but added: “With the hype [and] the massive speculation ahead of the event about what TSLA could unveil, we believe the stock may face pressure despite the new technological features and options.” Tesla’s stock peaked at nearly $265 yesterday. As of this writing, it's hovering around $241.
Brian Johnson, analyst at Barclays Capital, wrote in a note ahead of the launch the he was struck by the amount of publicity Tesla was generating around the launch of all-wheel drive and semi-autonomous features that most luxury cars already have. While Tesla alone will modestly increase demand for advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), “The media attention is likely to lead buyers of other brands to opt for ADAS, and to accelerate the semi-autonomous rollout efforts of other OEMs,” Johnson wrote.
It makes sense for Tesla to pursue autonomous features, because preliminary research shows they can incrementally increase efficiency, which would allow the company to extend the range of its vehicles, said Matthew Stepp, executive director of the Center for Clean Energy Innovation, a part of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.
In the best case, driverless cars platooned together like a train have been shown to achieve a 20 percent to 30 percent reduction in fuel burn. Technologies that exist today, such as advanced highway driving cruise control that sets the car at its most efficient speed, have been shown reduce fuel consumption by up to 5 percent. In Tesla’s case, this translates to longer range, which has arguably been the greatest challenge for battery electric vehicles to overcome.
“Tesla is relying on lithium-ion batteries, and there’s only so much they’re going to be able to get out of that technology, and advanced next-generation batteries are tough to come by,” said Stepp. “My guess is they’re going to try other technology fixes to squeeze efficiency and range out of those vehicles.”
“They’re not going to bring out Google’s technology tomorrow -- I don’t think Tesla’s going to put a camera on top of their vehicle to make it a full driverless car,” said Stepp. “But in the short term, the business case makes a lot of sense to squeeze out any efficiency from their vehicle while they wait for better batteries.”
Of course, Tesla isn’t sitting idle. As with automobiles, the company intends to disrupt battery technology, too. It’s critical that Tesla produces a car with a better battery and superior range if it’s to succeed in making an electric vehicle for the masses, said DeLorenzo. In order for Tesla to dominate the mass market, where there’s more competition and cost is a big concern, “Musk’s going to have to build a better mousetrap.”