An Evergreen Novelty Resurfaces, Yet Again

At Easter, DTW came across a Tesla Model X parked in a field in France.

Elon’s Alphabetic Masterplan – Models S & X – Image : autoexpress.co.uk

From the start I was always very open-minded about Tesla, and generally feel that attitude has been vindicated. If, as I’ve been informed on various websites, it is just a scam, designed to relieve hard-working Americans of their ‘tax dollars’, it turns out to have been a remarkably long-running one that has cost Elon Musk an awful lot of money. Yes, it’s a pity that the Model S appeared rather mainstream and didn’t make more of its difference, but it looks reasonably imposing , well-proportioned and well-detailed, with a bit more presence to my eyes than a Jaguar XF. From reports, there are some things that, as a start-up manufacturer, they have overlooked and I am not sure how much I’d enjoy a car whose controls are so dominated by a huge touchscreen, bearing in mind the various glitches I’ve encountered with iPads and their like. Nevertheless, as viewed from afar, Tesla’s progress has been hugely impressive. The sight of two Model S’s plugged in to the Superchargers at Folkestone Eurotunnel the other week was testimony to the owner’s confidence that they were up to a long-range trip. But then I saw a Model X close up.

From my youth, I remember car magazines running articles about backyard inventors who had ideas to improve on the products of the established industry. In hindsight most of these were crude and clumsy answers to questions no-one was asking. Who wouldn’t like an electric hotplate built into every car dashboard allowing hot snacks on the move? Tesla’s first ‘first’ is a production car with rear gullwing doors. Its second ‘first’ is in renaming gullwings, falcon wings. In the photos I’d seen I admit that the Model X‘s falcon wing doors add distinction, though not elegance, to a reasonably ordinary shape. Beyond that it was hard to see exactly what their advantage was and my first encounter close-up the other day did not endear me at all.

Sophia Loren and her Gullwing

The term “Gullwing Doors” is, for some reason, hugely evocative to certain people. Does no animal rights lawyer want to take up the case of the elegant gull (or falcon), whose efficient, light and streamlined wings are compared with 50 kg or so of clumsy welded metal and glass? The original Gullwing Mercedes 300SL was a product of expedience. Its huge structural sills made a conventional door impossible and, of course, in the look-to-the-future 1950s, it was a great selling point. Since then others, including Mercedes themselves, have tried to emulate, but it never really works. Yet, even being linked with that automotive butt of jokes, DeLorean, never seems to have discredited the roof-hinged door.

These are Falcon Wings

As street theatre the Gullwing Effect obviously does the trick. Park your new Model X in the driveway and neighbours will watch in good-natured amusement as the doors purr up and down, at least the first couple of times. But what else do they offer? To me nothing. They are indiscreet, you can’t park in a tight space next to another car, or a wall, or in a low garage and, if you aren’t careful and are tall, you will hit your head on them. They look clumsy, all the more so grafted onto a reasonably conventional looking car, and they reveal too much of the car’s inner architecture. They belong in a 1960s episode of The Outer Limits. If I had ever wanted a Tesla X, they would be a total deal breaker.

Image : slashfilm.com

So should we be concerned for Tesla, or at least should its shareholders be concerned? As I pointed out a fair while back, you dismiss General Motors as dinosaurs at your own risk. The Silicon Valley community tends to think that it can solve most problems better that the hidebound status quo. And in many cases, some deservedly, some less so, they have proved themselves successful. But the Bolt shows that Chevrolet can match, or beat, the Tesla on range. No, it doesn’t have a ‘Ludicrous’ acceleration mode, but that is a novelty that wears off pretty quickly. What GM has in its favour is the size, patience and cynicism to stand back and let someone else do the groundwork, and the good sense not to piss away engineering budgets on producing something as physically substantial yet conceptually insubstantial as a pair of novelty doors to please low attention-span owners for a couple of weeks. Also, doesn’t Elon Musk’s supposed idea that his first four models be named S, E, X and Y hint at an Achilles Heel of smartarsedness – a self-unawareness of when you cross the line of frivolity and just become irritating? Even new, alternative, blue-sky, car companies need to generate customer loyalty for something that takes years to develop and will be in production for several years and the IT generation is notoriously fickle.

You got the doors, so pimp it up – Image : electrek.co

If Tesla decides that its ‘Ludicrous’ mode has become a tired joke, it can just disappear with the next software update. Unfortunately a door mechanism is not so easy to re-engineer. Tesla have tried leading the way and, in many respects, successfully so. Without Toyota and then Tesla, it’s unlikely that GM would have got off its gargantuan arse and bothered to re-investigate the EV. But, on the too-rare occasions when management has deigned to let them loose, GM has proved to have some of the finest engineers. And that’s just one of the established companies. So I wish Tesla well, but maybe they should concentrate on putting a lot more depth into their products.

Image : vampifansworldoftheundead.blogspot.co.uk

10 thoughts on “An Evergreen Novelty Resurfaces, Yet Again”

  1. Surely those doors must add quite a bit of weight and cost while potentially weakening the structure. They have built in sensors to stop taller people getting their bonces walloped and to prevent car park/garage scrapes but that just adds to the complexity. Why not use tried and trusted sliding doors like a Mazda 5? As for the touchscreen; at least Tesla keep it updated. The touchscreens fitted in myriad Fords, Fiats and Nissans won’t be working so well ten years down the road I suspect.

  2. I applaud Tesla’s and Musk’s derring-do attitude, which certainly helped push an uncertain/complacent industry in the right direction.

    But all those gripes typically associated with start-up/Silicon Valley businesses remain present, as well. The ‘don’t be evil’ front, for example, is immensely irritating. Tesla is just as prone to cut corners and do what sells cars, rather than what’s ‘right’. The Model X is a case in point: it’s immensely overweight and therefore benefits from tax incentives originally intended for actual utility vehicles: that’s stereotypically cynical Detroit thinking.

    Sean already mentioned the penchant for headline-grabbing gimmicks that offer little of actual value. The worst one of those cases would have to be Tesla’s autopilot, of course. In terms of hardware, the Mercedes E-class is actually more advanced than current Teslas. It’s just that Daimler AG’s engineers – in a rare case of putting thoroughness ahead of headline grabbing carelessness- didn’t dare to allow drivers to use those quasi-autonomous functions before all technical and legal considerations had been tackled. Simply branding a not fully developed feature that’s potentially putting its user’s life at risk as ‘beta version’ isn’t just too casual, it’s plain negligent.

    It’s not that Tesla is more cynical than the traditional car industry. It’s just the cocky self-righteousness that’s so extremely aggravating. As well as those gullwing doors. In heavy rain, they’re a significant nuisance.

  3. I think Tesla’s achievements have been stellar. How Lexus and Infiniti must weep at seeing a start up come from nowhere a decade ago to being the best-selling luxury segment sedan in many countries. Up until then, the industry assumption was that electric vehicles should be compact and as cheap as possible – Tesla realised that zero emissions was something you could charge serious money for.

    But, yes, the falcon doors are a bit of a gimmick and probably make an already obese car even heavier. Then again, Model X is a relatively niche proposition – probably a maximum of 50,000 units a year in a large global market. Tesla probably thought it was worth taking a risk and giving their model some extra wow factor.

  4. Sean, while in general I agree with your reasoning, I’d like to challenge the notion of millenials being “fickle”. While that might be true with regards to single items, the Apple story, for example, appears to prove the counterpoint: They appear to be extremely loyal (beyond reason) to a brand, if only the marketing is clever enough. Something similar seems to happen with Tesla, although judgment is still out whether it’s possible to achieve something Apple-y for the automotive world as well in the long run.

    1. Daniel. I take the point regarding loyalty, but then Apple (and all others) look after their loyal disciples by ensuring there is a constant run of new distractions. Each time one reactionary like me gets pissed off that the bottom swipe on their iPhone now does something else since the last update, 10,000 Apple Fanpersons are in ecstasy. And in terms of hardware, Apple ensures that you only have to wait a year to 18 months before something new is on offer. Automotive engineering doesn’t allow that flexibility, so that’s why I’m questioning how directly you can apply that sort of thinking.

    2. Don’t fall into the lazy trap of dismissing good marketing as being responsible for loyalty to Apple. Undoubtedly some people are attracted to “new shiny”, but they generally make high-quality products and their support is excellent. Although IMO recent products such as the MacBook Pro have suffered in the seemingly never-ending quest for thinness uber alles.

      Back to cars: has anyone else noticed how much the latest Audi A5 looks like the Model S at the front now Audi have tweaked the shape of the headlights compared to the outgoing model?

  5. Considering that Musk himself has admitted to falling prey to hubris in regards to the tech in the X and the articulated-gull/Falcon wing doors in particular I find your critique to be mild and well balanced. As for myself I think they are idiotic.

    The first time I saw them my thought were of what it would be like to open those suckers in a driving rain storm. The open close/cycle on launch was 15 seconds! They have since spend up the motors for a 12.3 second timing, which in turn just puts more stress on the components and is an eternity in comparison to the speed one can achieve with a traditional car door. My second thought was the nightmare to maintain and costs to repair them once they start to age a bit. My third thought was to monitor their resale values and see if they fall off a cliff the way a BMW 760 will.

    “2017 Tesla Model X, 135k miles, runs well, ice cold A/C!, still gets almost 200 miles per charge, rear doors won’t open, make offer.”

    1. Dinger. I was trying to say they were idiotic, absolutely so, but in a mild and well-balanced British sort of way. Like we used to do things here. Once upon a time.

      Credit to Musk on a personal level if he’s admitted his mistakes. But on a business level, maybe not so wise. If I had bought a Tesla X I’d feel awfully resentful. One customer lost forever.

      One of the basic rules of EV design is to avoid any unnecessary items that are electrically powered, so will reduce the range. I guess the argument is that you often won’t open the doors until the next Supercharging station, but that is pretty ropey.

  6. Spooky. I featured another vehicle from Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons in a post last Wednesday (and a Mercedes 300SL on Friday!). Question is, which had the most impractical doors – the gullwinged Maximum Security Vehicle pictured above or the Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle with its door that slid outwards and lowered its occupant to the ground? Would have been rather disastrous opening the latter in the garage…..

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