Tesla CEO Elon Musk introduced the company's latest supercar on Tuesday: the Model X. It's an all-electric SUV that accelerates like a sports car.
Musk spent a lot of time touting the safety features of the Model X, arguing that it has dramatically better crash safety than competing SUVs. Advanced sensors and software can detect an impending crash and automatically apply the brakes. And Musk says the car has the industry's best air filters, including a "bioweapon defense mode" to prevent bacteria, viruses, pollen, and other pollutants from entering the vehicle.
The most visible innovation in the Model X is the falcon-wing doors. Instead of swinging outward as they do on most SUVs, the rear passenger doors on the Model X swing upward.
But before you get too excited, the Model X has sports car pricing to go with its sports car acceleration. On Tuesday, Musk unveiled a 90D model for $132,000, a P90D model with a "Ludicrous Speed" acceleration mode for $142,000. A tweet from Musk indicates that "lower cost versions" are "coming later."
Tesla will be targeting the same class of wealthy customers that bought the company's previous models, the Roadster and the Model S. If you want to own a Tesla car and you're not rich, you'll likely need to wait until 2017. That's when Tesla claims it will release the Model 3, an electric car that normal people will be able to afford.
Electric motors provide unique advantages
Major car companies like Ford, GM, and Toyota build their vehicles around gasoline-powered engines. Tesla cars are built around batteries and electric motors. And that gives Tesla unique advantages — and a few big disadvantages.
The biggest downside is that batteries are expensive, and you need a lot of them to get reasonable range and performance. The Model X can go an impressive 250 miles on a single charge. But the batteries required to deliver that kind of range are a big reason the car is so expensive. Tesla is investing billions of dollars in a Nevada battery factory in hopes of bringing these costs down.
Driving an electric-only vehicle also means you need a network of electric charging stations to enable people to make long trips — a network Tesla is slowly building. Tesla claims its superchargers can provide the Model S enough charge for 170 miles of driving in as little as 30 minutes — a figure that should be similar for the Model X.
But all-electric design also has some huge advantages. Gasoline engines are complex and heavy, and they take up a lot of space. Using smaller and lighter electric motors has allowed Tesla to rethink how to use the space inside a car.
For example, the electric motors in the Model X are so small that they leave room for a trunk in the front of the vehicle where the engine would be in a conventional car. That not only provides more room for groceries, Musk says, it's also a safety feature.
In a head-on collision involving a conventional car, the engine gets pushed back toward the passenger compartment, increasing the risk that the driver's legs get crushed. The trunk space at the front of the Model X provides a larger crumple zone to absorb the impact of a front-end collision, increasing the chances that a passenger will avoid injury.
The batteries that power the vehicle are mounted under the floor of the vehicle. This gives the vehicle a low center of mass, reducing the risk of rollovers.
Finally, the electric motors provide great performance. Gas-powered engines have to shift gears to maintain maximum acceleration, but Tesla says the electric motors in the Model X can smoothly and rapidly accelerate from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 3.2 to 3.8 seconds, depending on the specific model.
The Model X has "falcon-wing doors" that look cool and might even be useful
Unlike normal car doors that swing out to the side, the rear passenger doors on the Model X swing up. In the past, this kind of door has had a big problem: If there's an obstacle next to the car — like another car — it can block the door from opening.
Tesla solved this problem by adding an extra set of hinges to the middle of the doors. That allows the doors to swing upward without swinging out very far:
Of course, this approach could lead to another problem: the doors hitting the ceiling if the car is parked in a garage. To avoid that, the car is equipped with sensors that measure the distance to surrounding objects. It automatically adjusts the path of the doors to avoid hitting objects either beside or above the vehicle.
The front driver's door also has a convenient innovation: It detects the driver's approach and opens automatically. Then when the driver steps on the brake, the driver's side door starts to close.
The Model X has a "bioweapon defense mode" and a panoramic windshield
Musk made a big deal about the air filters in the Model X. He says that standard cars have relatively small conventional filters — around a foot square — for taking in air from outside. The Model X has a more advanced HEPA air filter that can catch particles conventional air filters can't catch. However, HEPA filters work best when air flows through them slowly, so the air filters in the Model X are dramatically bigger than those in other cars.
Musk claims that the larger filter, along with advanced filtering materials, allows the interior of the car to be as sterile as a hospital operating room. The car even has a "bioweapon defense mode" that creates a slightly higher air pressure inside the car, ensuring that no outside air can seep into the vehicle.
The Model X also has one of the industry's biggest windshields, stretching up over the head of the driver and front-seat passenger, allowing them to look up at the sky as the car drives down the road. Musk claims this more expansive view can help people who are prone to carsickness.
The Model X is a car for rich people
Overall, the Model X sounds like a great product. But don't expect to see a lot of them on the roads any time soon.
Tesla's stated business strategy is to start at the high end of the market and work its way down. Its first two cars were the Roadster, an electric sports car that cost more than $100,000, and the Model S, a luxury sedan that could easily cost more than $100,000 with all the bells and whistles.
The Model X has a more family-friendly design, but the $132,000 price tag on the first model makes it no more accessible to ordinary families than other Tesla cars.
Musk has signaled that later versions of the Model X will be more affordable. In a tweet, he pointed out that Model X versions cost $5,000 more than corresponding Model S versions. The cheapest Model S versions cost $70,000, suggesting that Tesla could eventually offer a version of the Model X for $75,000.
Of course, that's still a lot of money. Tesla has only sold around 80,000 Model S vehicles in the life of the product. And that's a problem because economies of scale are crucial to making profits in the car business. Musk has said that Tesla needs to sell 500,000 vehicles a year by 2020 to turn a profit, and right now the company is nowhere near that goal.
Supposedly, that will change in 2017, when Tesla plans to release the Model 3 with a much more accessible price tag of around $35,000. (Musk wanted to call it the Model E, so his three car models spelled S-E-X, but that plan ran into trademark problems). But given Musk's a reputation for missing deadlines, ordinary consumers might have to wait even longer to join the electric vehicle party.