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Tesla drops 'D' bomb: Highs and lows of all-wheel-drive

14 Oct 2014  | Junko Yoshida

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Soon after Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk unleashed the "unveil the D" tweet, speculations immensely built towards how the company's all-wheel-drive (awd) Model S with semi-autopilot will look like. But many were disappointed after learning that the "D" meant something different.

Those who guessed that "D" meant "driverless" were way off the mark because according to Tesla, the "D" actually stands for dual motor. With the D series, the company is offering, in essence, its own version of advanced driving assistance system (ADAS). Indeed, some featured in the D line are more like ADAS on steroids.

After the announcement, some in the investment community were quick to judge, calling D a disappointment.

The supposed let-down is that Tesla's Model S P85D only offers "the predicted level of performance, and little more." Further, the continuing slippage in Model X deliveries is a big concern. Model X, unveiled in 2012, won't get to reserved buyers until summer 2015. Model X, about which Musk bragged to Tesla shareholders in July, calling it "amazing car that will just blow people away," is an all-electric vehicle, supposedly more stylish than a minivan, offering more performance than an SUV.

Dual-motor all-wheel-drive

Elon Musk shows off a dual-motor all-wheel-drive

But of course, the event wasn't about Model X. So, first, let's consider the D.

The dual-motor Model S comes with a second electric motor mounted above the forward axle to power the front wheels. It teams with the electric motor that sits over the rear axle in all current Tesla's EVs.

The dual motors provide quicker acceleration, better grip and longer range, according to Musk. The second does add weight, but Tesla claims that it automatically adjusts its use of the two motors to maximise efficiency.

The second motor is tuned in the P85D for faster acceleration, said Tesla, so that the car races from zero to 60mph in 3.2s, compared with 4.2s for the current P85. Tesla offered a test drive at the media event last night, which prompted one giddy reporter to gush that it "feels like being in a rocket ship."

The second motor is said to be tuned toward greater efficiency in the lower-trim models. Tesla said the 60D will get 225 miles on a charge, compared with 215 miles for the base model. The 85D will also get an extra 10 miles, maxing up to 295 miles. Not a huge difference, but nonetheless an improvement.

As for the ADAS features, Tesla is clearly playing catch-up with competitors. Features such as lane-departure warnings are commonplace. But beyond this, Tesla offers a few gimmicks that other premium rivals, Mercedes-Benz and BMW, haven't yet introduced.

The Model S, for example, changes lanes automatically when the driver flips the turn signal. It doesn't require drivers to keep hands on the wheel (although drivers are legally required to pay attention all the time).

The car will read speed-limit signs and adjust to match the posted speed.

And it does park itself, but not in public lots, only on private driveways. Musk said that drivers can get out of the car in their driveway and watch it nose right into the garage, assuming that the garage isn't already full of other stuff.

It gets even better.

The car can also drive itself to the driver, just like a Batmobile, when it's time to leave. It will adjust its temperature and the stereo system to the driver's preference.

The Model S will come with forward-mounted radar, cameras and a lot of sensors. Tesla's production line started equipping the Model S with these devices since last month, according to Tesla. However, they can't be retrofitted to older models.

During the media event, Musk said, "Once we upload the software over the next two or three months, the Model S will have the most sophisticated driver assistance or autonomous functions of any [production] car on the road."

Musk added, "We're going to push the limit of what's safe with this level of hardware and what's allowed by regulations."

All-wheel drive Model S

Tesla introduces autopilot and dual motor all-wheel drive Model S

Considering the glitzy media blitz that has become a Tesla staple, it's tempting to be an Elon Musk sceptic, especially in light of past Detroit-based dog-and-pony shows.

Is a dual-motor all-wheel drive car really big news? Other makers already have them. Are ADAS features new? Many of the features are becoming downright ordinary.

Will things like "turn-signal lane-changing" be a stepping stone to autonomous driving, as Musk said? Maybe.

But here's the thing. The practice of updating firmware over the air into your car in a timely fashion is something only Tesla is doing today.

Remember, Tesla sent out an update to every Model S, enabling it to ride higher at highway speed, to reduce the likelihood of highway debris impacting the vehicle undercarriage and penetrating the battery compartment.

Tesla's quick response to customers is said to be unparalleled. (Of course, Tesla has a lot fewer cars on the road and a limited number of models, compared to other automotive giants.)

The world needs a young company to blaze the trail, to think differently, challenge conventional wisdoms and to ask if old practices and regulations make sense.

After all, let's not forget that Tesla is the youngest U.S. carmaker. We haven't seen a new car company since DeLorean. Tesla has already beaten the odds that crushed the dreams of companies such as DeLorean Motor Co., Tucker Car Corp. and Fisker Automotive Inc.

Tesla is popular and it deserves the fanfare, because everyone loves an underdog story. And there's nothing wrong with fresh thinking. The D may not be all that fresh, but some of the ADAS features in the Model S, if they work, will nudge all automotive designers in new directions.

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