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

21 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…..

  7. Sorry Sean but you clearly think this door works like a standard gullwing door if you voice the concerns you have… It is double hinged which makes all the difference. Also it has radar sensors embedded within to sense adjacent cars and garage roofs and it will open in a way to avoid both BECAUSE it is double hinged.

    Watch the launch video where Musk clearly showed how with about 300mm between two cars you could easily get into the Model X but NOT into a minivan with sliding doors since the sliding door filled the 300mm of space.

    Long version here:

    1. Johann. Fair enough calling me out on suggesting you can’t park tight against another car and maybe the one I nearly hit my head on was set in ‘rain protect’ mode, but my other criticisms remain. Plus the fact I didn’t mention that you can’t fit a ski rack for that trip to Aspen. The radar might sense the garage or car park roof, but it can only stop the top part of the door from rising, it can’t make the height restriction disappear.

      As for the falcon vs sliding door scenario, this really does remind me of the sort of Victorian inventions that answered very specific needs. “Do you fear spilling soup down your shirt at important social functions? Never fear, with Poulson’s Patent Chin Gutters this will be a thing of the past”. Yes, you can address that 300mm gap problem with hinges, servos and radar, or you can alight from the sliding doors, step forward, close them, then pass back unimpeded. In a variant of the technique that the Tesla driver with their conventionally hinged doors will need to do anyway.

      Actually, regarding the ski rack, someone has ‘proved me wrong’. Well, maybe. Sort of.

  8. I and many others have said this before, but Tesla’s car making operations are a sideline. Their biggest plays are in the battery manufacturing game. Punditry tends to focus upon Tesla’s potential as an OEM battery supplier to other manufacturers, but again this is a too car-centric reading of the company’s ambitions. Tesla is thinking bigger than the car. Much bigger.

    Wind and solar may be free energy, but the major issue has always been ensuring continuity of supply. In essence, there has been no way to time-shift peak generation to meet peak demand. When the wind doesn’t blow, our current solution is to fall back on conventional generation, usually fossil fuels or nuclear. This has major environmental and cost implications: we must still pay for power stations, even if they spend half the time idle.

    The answer to closing this loop, Tesla thinks, is batteries. They have already launched Power Wall, a domestic energy storage solution, but as we speak, the company is ramping up to offer much bigger solutions for commercial applications.

    This is potentially a much bigger market for Tesla than the domestic side, as both the capital spend and the demand already exists. Most large developments (offices, supermarkets, industrial sites) already have some sort of power backup system, usually a diesel generator with some instant-on battery provision. Tesla wants to replace these systems with a battery of batteries, the huge cost being swallowed within the total cost of the build.

    Such an installation also has the effect of burnishing the environmental credentials of the development, enabling the storage of renewal energy generated on site by wind and solar. It also enables further savings by shifting off-peak priced energy to meet peak demand. It’s a win-win-win situation for end purchasers and will be huge business for Tesla.

    1. Accepted Chris. But as long as Tesla remain a car manufacturer, and with a new model imminent, surely they want to be successful and profitable. Otherwise the car manufacturing is just an excessively lavish testbed and/or publicity machine for their batteries. Actually, from looking at other sites, I’m surprised my (very modest) criticisms haven’t attracted the full wrath of some of the Tesla Fanboys out there. Obviously DTW’s lack of influence is now universal.

    2. The results may be questionable but I like the thought-chain that led them there: how can we make a minivan cool? I know my four year old son would love those doors, which explains why they are AND where they are.

    3. I suppose it’s a bit mean-minded of me to single them out as frivolous, when so much of the auto industry’s product is frivolous. And certainly people who drive in Cube-shaped vehicles probably shouldn’t throw stones. And they look good on the videos, so I was surprised when I saw them in the metal (and glass, and plastic, etc) how clumsy and inelegant they seemed.

    4. I’ve been in Hong Kong this past weekend and have never seen as many Teslas as there. They were everywhere. And for the first time I saw many Type X ones in various colours. In isolation it looks like an S. But when you them side by side you see how tall it is. Or see the videos I posted where it is as tall as an Audi Q7. But that rounded roof and the way that curve hits the boot is just wrong, on what is supposed to be an SUV.

      I’ve been inside many a Tesla too and have yet to get in one that didn’t have a very basic, low rent interior. There is just ZERO design to the door cards, the centre console, cup holders or anything pretty in there unless you like the Macbook Pro stuck sideways on the dash. Which I don’t. I’ve not been in one with an actual centre console yet. It at least starts to look a bit better having that.

      My bone with Tesla is more that they use the actual buyers as test dummies for some safety critical stuff like their autopilot system. And they get away with it! Shudder. Though there’s a lawsuit against them about that that started just now:

      https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/cars/2017/04/19/teslas-autopilot-self-driving-system-slammed-lawsuit/100670104/

    5. There are a couple of Model X’s close to me that I frequently walk by and, from the outside, they give off a feeling of quality. The door handles are a clever touch to help give that feeling, deserved or not.

      Car & Driver’s recent long-term Tesla report concluded that, impressive though their achievement is, there were certain things about it that showed that this was a manufacturer that didn’t have a full understanding/history of making cars. Also, compared with the subtle and gradual decline in performance as an ICE car gets old, it is an irritation (my words not theirs) to read that performance can disappear overnight with a software update should Tesla decide.

    6. Sean you are right in that they have little understanding of car making. I mean they can’t even do a Google search of cars from 10 years ago (the first Astra with the panoramic windscreen) to see how to do a sunvisor properly. The pathetic little visors they gave the Model X doesn’t cover the upper part at all and owners have to resort to aftermarket tinting (which defeats the point of the windscreen) or get aftermarket blinds to clip in!

      This is what they provide!

      And this is what owners have to resort to:

      https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0196/5170/files/HSUpper1_large.jpg?1847793124383872830

      Pathetic.

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