Last week Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk taunted us with a vague tweet about showing us his D, and on Thursday he made good on that promise. In front of a packed crowd in Hawthorne (near Los Angeles), Elon Musk unveiled the Dual Drive Tesla Model S (the ‘D’), and a highly advanced autopilot system for the Model S (the ‘something else’). Together these features take what’s already seen as the best car ever made, and takes it to the next level.
The dual drive system is borrowed from the Tesla Model X, the electric SUV the company plans to launch in mid-2015. Instead of just one electric motor powering the rear wheels, it has a second electric motor up front driving the front axle. When delivered it will be the first all-wheel-drive (AWD) production electric car. The highest performance version of this, the Model S P85D, will have a 0-60 time of about 3.2 seconds, matching the acceleration of the McLaren F1 supercar.
There will be the Tesla Model S 60D, 85D and P85D variants of the dual drive system.
The dual motor feature delivers not just raw speed, but improved safety. Because these are electric motors the power can be ramped up and down more rapidly than with a gasoline powered AWD system. This means the control system can precisely shift torque between front and rear wheels for better handling in corners, and on slick roads.
What’s perhaps far more interesting is the autopilot system. This area was a big lack for the Tesla Model S, because all other luxury cars and many cars for regular folk have driver assist features while the Model S had none. In August 2013, Tesla Motors began advertising for engineers to start up development of autonomous driving features. By September 2013, Tesla Motors had acknowledged they were developing “auto-pilot” features and not targeting full-on autonomous driving features, hoping to deliver something by 2016-17. But two weeks ago we learned that Tesla Motors had quietly begun shipping sensor systems and driver assist features without any fanfare.
That Tesla Motors is shipping driver assist and autopilot features now means they not only beat their original estimates, but are beating other automakers to the market with similar features.
The system uses a variety of sensors including RADAR, SONAR and Cameras to detect objects in the vicinity of the car. These objects range from other cars, trucks or motorcycles, to walls, buildings, trees, and even soft objects like pedestrians. The system is also integrated with data from navigation and GPS systems, as well as traffic data.
The system doesn’t provide full autonomous driving – the kind where you can fall asleep and the car takes you to the destination. The auto-pilot system instead actively assists the driver with more information, warnings of impending danger, and a few automated actions that it will take.
Some features are automatic lane keeping, automatic cruise control, automatic braking in emergencies, self parking (step out of the car and it parks itself), and even an ability to summon the car from a distance. The latter feature can even be integrated with your calendar, meaning that the car can recognize you have an appointment and have to leave at a certain time, and the car will automatically take itself to the front door, turn on the air conditioning systems, and be fully ready to go.
The autopilot features rely on the driving and control systems being fully computer controlled. This means the on-board computers can direct speed, steering and braking automatically and more quickly than can a human.
The autopilot sensors are now shipping in the Model S, but not all the features have been turned on yet. During this evening’s announcement, Elon Musk said the features would be enabled via over-the-air updates.
Availability and pricing for these features were not announced this evening. We believe the autopilot features will be free, given that the sensors are already shipping. The dual drive system is going to be costly, however.