The Tesla Model X might just be the best car you can buy ... if you can afford it.
Watching the doors of the Tesla Model X open instantly brought memories of the "Back to the Future" movies to the front of my brain. You see, my current car has four doors that swing open, on hinges located at the front edge when you pull on a handle. The odds are good that your car has doors that work that way, too.
But not so with the Model X. The doors open up and high, like a bird flapping its wings in super slow motion — or the DeLorean DMC-12 of Doc Brown fame. Like the famous gull-wing doors of that stainless steel wonder, the Tesla Model X is a time machine. These insane falcon wing doors are incredibly cool — and maybe on the third or fourth coolest thing about the Model X. The only explanation for it is that it must have come from the future.
And it'll get you to 88 mph in one hell of a hurry.
Sticker shock and the early adopter tax.
It helps to know where Tesla's coming from and where they're going.
The Model X is Tesla's third vehicle and is very closely related to the Model S sedan. The two share many components, most of the drivetrain, a visual design, and even manufacturing space at Tesla's Fremont, Calif., factory. Tesla calls the Model X an SUV, but it is far from it. It's a CUV at best, or perhaps just a tall sedan. In essence it is a tall Model S.
In so many ways the Model X is a normal car. It's got four wheels, a steering wheel, a pretty standard seating configuration, and all the usual creature comforts. But somewhere between the fancy doors and the electric drivetrain and the advanced semi-autonomous features, it becomes far more than a normal passenger vehicle.
It's also not a cheap car, starting at $88,800 in base 75D trim and running up to $157,750 for a fully optioned P100D. I tested the Model X P90D, with performance and interior upgrades that brought the sticker price to nearly $150,000. And while the technology in the car might easily justify the price, it's hard to justify paying that much for a car. It's nice, but it's not that nice. But the exorbitant price tag is quite literally the cost of the future — Tesla's taking every bit of profit from sales of the Model S and Model X and pouring it into development of the consumer-priced Model 3 and the enormous Gigafactory battery plant in Nevada needed to make affordable electric cars a reality.
It's the early adopter tax that we've long seen in the consumer technology world: a fancy new technology is expensive to produce at first and hard to justify producing in mass quantities to reach economies of scale. So the first products with that new tech are high-priced — and over the years as the factories are paid for and research and optimizations make the tech cheaper to make, then the price comes down. The first flat screen TVs just over a decade ago were hilariously expensive. Now you're lucky if you can find and old-school tube TV because flat screens are so cheap to make and buy. There's even a 17-inch HD display in the Model X.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk has never hidden that fact. The company's end goal has never been to produce $150,000 cars. There's a limited market for cars in that price range, but they've helped move forward the progress for the Model 3 and other affordable (even competing) EVs. Tesla's goal is simple: get as many electric cars in as many driveways as possible. They want to compete with the Fords and VWs and Toyotas of the world, not Ferrari and Bentley and Mercedes. Though they won't be upset if they can make a Ford-priced car that shames a Ferrari on the drag strip.
So it's important to view the Model X through that early adopter lens — you're paying to own a piece of the future. It just so happens to be a piece of the future that's incredibly cool and a serious amount of fun.
Driving on electrons
Tesla Model X P90D Performance and Handling
The first defining characteristic of the Tesla Model X is its powertrain: this car is 100% electric. Open the hood and you'll find no gas-powered internal combustion engine, nor will you locate one in the back. Nope, electric only.
Unlike many of its electric-only predecessors, the Tesla Model X doesn't offer a paltry around-town range that demands you keep a gas car around for long-distance trips. With a fully charged battery, the P90D version can drive for up to 259 miles. (The P100D stretches that to 289 miles). After that you'll have to stop and recharge, but that's still a solid 4 hours of driving.
P means Performance, 90 is the 90kWh battery, and D is dual-motor all-wheel drive.
Unlike the alphanumeric branding soup you'll find from Tesla's high-end German competition, the letters and numbers that make up the Model X packages actually mean something direct. Take our P90D as an example: P means Performance, 90 means there's a 90kWh battery, and D means dual-motor all-wheel drive. The P100D upgrades that to a 100kWh battery, while the 75D drops the performance motors for more pedestrian drivers and has a smaller 75kWh capacity.
90kWh is a massive battery pack. To put that in perspective, the average American home uses about a third of that on an average day — and that's powering lights and air conditioning and refrigerators and TVs and everything else. To store that much charge meant that Tesla had to rethink the entire structure of the car. Your typical gasoline-powered car will have an internal combustion engine mounted up front and a fuel tank in the rear. A battery of the size that Tesla needs is both huge and heavy, so instead of just aping the layout of gas cars Tesla opted to make the battery part of the structure of the car.
Made up of thousands of cylindrical lithium-ion cells, the battery essentially makes up the floor of the Model X. It stretches from axle-to-axle and side-to-side, enhancing the rigidity of the car and lowering the center of gravity by placing the heaviest component as close to the ground as possible.
Further messing with traditional vehicle layout, Tesla placed the dual electric motors in the Model X right on top of the axles. They're far smaller than you'd expect — each is roughly the size of a carry-on suitcase — and they deliver their power to the wheels through a simple gear reduction transmission. There's no shifting in the Model X; all you do is press down on the accelerator and the car goes.
It takes some mental recalibration to get used to the driving dynamics of a Tesla. Slam on the accelerator and it will rocket forward.
And boy does it go. A benefit to the all-electric drivetrain is the instant torque it provides. Press the
gas accelerator pedal in a P90D and there's an instant maximum 713lb-ft of torque at your command. Coming from a traditional car, it takes some mental recalibration to get used to the driving dynamics of a Tesla. You can slam on the accelerator and it will rocket forward.
The Model X P90D is rated for a top speed of 155 mph. The motors are quite easily capable of going much faster, but the electrical demands of going that fast are so great that Tesla caps the cars at 155 mph. What's more impressive is the acceleration getting there — a P90D will hit 60 mph in 3.7 seconds. Even the Model X 75D will get up to 60 mph in 6 seconds flat.
That'd be incredibly impressive for any vehicle of this size and shape — that quickness puts the Model X in rare and even-more-expensive company. But it's almost mind-bogglingly quick when you factor in the weight that's being hauled to that speed. Remember the big heavy battery? It's almost single-handedly responsible for the 5,381-pound curb weight of a Tesla Model X. Load it up with passengers and you've got a car that's hitting 3 tons with ease — and ridiculous acceleration with ease.
While it's crazy to think that the mass of that giant battery is actually holding the Model X back on acceleration (it takes a lot of power to bring that much weight up to speed that quickly), it's actually a huge benefit for the handling. The P90D has an upgraded motor on the rear wheels, giving it a 48/52 weight distribution between the front and rear. Most of that is the battery, and its low positioning and spreading of the weight over such a wide area makes the Model X feel incredibly planted even in spirited driving. Never once in throwing it into a corner did I feel like the I was about to lose control — certainly not in the way that a smaller and lighter car might.
The adjustable air suspension certainly helped with keeping the ride stable and comfortable. In day-to-day driving there was little discernable difference from a standard spring transmission and it did an admirable job of absorbing minor bumps and breaks in the road (along with the dampening effect that you get from a 5,000 pounds of sprung mass).
The real benefit for the air suspension is in its smarts: it can adjust on the fly and lower the car at high speeds for improved aerodynamics, and you can raise it on demand when you want extra clearance with steep driveway entrances, speed bumps, or what have you. When you tell the car to rise, it will automatically remember where you were in the world and do it again the next time you're there. Have a steep driveway? Every time you come home, the car will raise itself up without you having to say a thing.
When it comes to bringing the 3 tons of the Model X to a stop, you've got options. Sure, you can hammer the brake pedal and it'll do its thing with the disc brakes at all four corners, but in everyday driving you'll be touching that pedal very infrequently. The Model X employs a feature that's been on hybrid cars for some time: regenerative breaking.
An electric motor, at its most basic level is a magnet surrounded by a coil of wire. Run electrical current through the wire and it will generate its own magnetic field and start the magnet spinning. Reverse that by spinning the magnet instead and you'll induce a current in the coil around it. Teslas use that same principle — instead of braking, it can use the natural resistance of the motor to slow the car while putting a bit of charge back into the battery.
Tesla Model X Ludicrous Speed
What, you thought 3.7 seconds to 60 mph was fast? Pfft. You want the Ludicrous Speed Upgrade. No, you need the Ludicrous Speed Upgrade. Both the battery pack and the motors are capable of faster speeds, but everything between them isn't so much, at least not in the standard configurations. That's where the Ludicrous Speed Upgrade comes in.
A standard P-configuration Tesla has the acceleration options of Sport or Insane (just because it's a $150,000 car doesn't mean you can't have fun). But Insane apparently wasn't insane enough, so Tesla rolled out the Ludicrous Speed Upgrade. This $10,000 option installs a new wiring harness and fuse between the battery and the motors, bumping the maximum power draw from 1300 amps to 1500 amps. The new harness swaps out the standard steel contacts for superalloy inconel — pushing more than 1,300 amps through the steel contacts apparently made them melt.
A Tesla Model X P100D with Ludicrous Mode will do 0-60mph in 2.9 seconds!
The new fuse is an electronic pyrotechnic affair; a standard fuse just melts when too much amperage goes through it, but that's not exact and decisive enough here. With 15% more electricity coursing through these wires, Tesla's not taking chances that the fuse might not fail as intended right when its needed — so the Ludicrous Mode fuse actively monitors the electrical flow to the millisecond and includes a tiny pyrotechnic charge that forcibly cuts the power.
All of this means the car can accelerate even faster: Zero to 60 mph in 3.4 seconds. Yeah. And the P100D with Ludicrous Mode will do it in 2.9 seconds. Hell, yeah.
Ludicrous Mode is undeniably awesome. A 3-ton vehicle has no right to accelerate that quickly without rockets strapped to its side, but it does. It's almost too fast — it's brutal and visceral in a way that few cars are, and the electric drive is so quiet it's almost disconcerting. Wind noise is a greater auditory concern than the medium-pitched electronic whir of the electric motors.
It's almost best to first experience a Ludicrous Speed launch as a passenger, simply so you know what to expect when you're behind the wheel. The instant torque means instant acceleration and instant G forces pressing you back into your seat. It is so quick that the force pulling your head back into your seat (and the blood out of your face into the back of your skull) is greater than the force of gravity holding you to the ground.
Unless you drive like an insane person every day, you'll rarely be able to take advantage of Ludicrous Mode. But it's so damn fun.
Unreasonable is a good way to describe the Ludicrous Speed Upgrade. It's $10,000 more on top of an already incredibly expensive car, and a marginal acceleration improvement on top of already impressive acceleration. Unless you intend to drive like an insane person every day, it's also something you'll rarely be able to take serious advantage of. Sure, you're faster off the red light line than just about every other car on the planet, but to what end? The speed limit's still the speed limit, and a 0-60 time of 3.4 seconds means you're blowing past that speed limit sign before you've even processed that you're there.
But ... it's just so amazing. There's no rational reason to pay that much for something that's that small of an improvement that you'll rarely use. It's something you spend the money on because you simply want it, and you will want it.
Tesla Model X Charging
Yes, the fully charged 259-mile range in the Model X P90D is significantly less than the 500-plus miles than you can get from a fully fueled gasoline-powered luxury SUV. And, yes, it will take significantly longer to recharge a Model X (even with the fastest chargers) than it would to dump 18 gallons of gas into the fuel tank of a Lexus RX.
Along with the early adopter tax, range and charging times are part of the tradeoffs one has to make when driving electric. It comes with benefits ranging from the car's structure and performance to the environmental impact of electric drive versus exploding liquified dino remains. And, yes, electricity is frequently produced by a fossil-fuel power plant, but that's still notably more efficient than gasoline power. And cheaper, too, at around $10 per full recharge versus the $40-plus of a full gas tank.
Tesla knows this is possibly the strongest arrow in the EV critic's quiver. And yeah, charging can be inconvenient in comparison to refueling at a gas station. But on a day-to-day basis, that's only if you're doing it wrong. So the Model X can take an electrical charge from multiple sources, be it a standard household outlet, public EV charging stations, or Tesla's own Supercharger stations.
The same charging port is used on the Model X regardless of your electrical source. It's hidden at the front of the driver's-side tail light and can be opened with a tap (so long as the car's unlocked), from a button on the center screen, or with a long press on the back of the key fob. You can also hold a Tesla charge connector near the port and press the charger's button to trigger the port to open.
120v household outlet
Let's start from the slowest charge: pulling power from a standard three-prong household outlet. Rated at 110 volts and 15 amps, the NEMA 5-15 outlet supplies enough current to charge a Model X at 3 miles per hour of charging. From empty, this P90D model will take 3-1/2 days to fully charge.
That's a long time, yes. You might be one of the small portion of people that does drive hundreds of miles a day, and that would not do. But the vast majority of people do not. In America the average driver puts roughly 45 miles/day on their car, which can easily be recharged if you plug in when returning home and unplug when leaving in the morning. In day-to-day driving the average Model X owner will be able to charge entirely at home by taking 10 seconds to plug in the car. That's far more convenient than having to stop for gas on the way home from work once a week.
Household outlet charging is accomplished through the Tesla Mobile Connector, a charging cable solution bundled with the car. The charger itself — the thing that converts the AC power from the outlet into DC current for the battery — is located in the car, so mostly what we're looking at is a tool to bring that power into the car. It's a highly-adaptable tool, though, supporting several styles of plugs, but the next-most likely outlet is the NEMA 14-30, or the standard household dryer outlet. At 240 volts and 30 amps, it'll charge at 15-17 miles per hour — enough to fully top off a 90kWh battery in under 15 hours.
NEMA 14-50 and the Tesla Wall Connector
Stepping things up a notch is the NEMA 14-50 outlet. Long the domain of RV hookups and electric stoves, this 240-volt 50-amp outlet is seeing a lot of attention due to EVs. Plug in the Model X and you'll get around 25 miles' range per hour of charging, for a full battery pack in just over 10 hours. There's nothing exotic about this outlet, but if you're driving a lot every day you'll want this as a charge option in your garage.
The 240v line can be so much more, though. Upgrade to a higher amperage breaker and install the Tesla Wall Connector instead of an outlet on the end and you can get even faster charging. The current iteration of the Wall Connector can draw up to 90 amps, which will charge the Model X at a speedy 46 miles per hour. Full recharge time: 5 hours, 38 minutes.
Tesla has a program to provide free Wall Connectors to businesses that want to offer Tesla charging to their customers, and thus far the "Destination Charger" program has led to the installation of more than 5,000 Wall Connectors around the globe. Many of these are at hotels and restaurants that want to attract the generally wealthy Tesla owner, and quite a few are "guests only" affairs (after all, they are paying for the electricity).
Go to dinner, plug in, leave with a full belly and an extra 50 to 100 miles in the battery.
Public EV charging stations
The "standard" EV charging connector is called the J1772 (such a sexy name, that one). You'll find receptacles for it in practically every electric vehicle and the vast majority of public charging stations. But Tesla does not use the J1772; instead they have their own proprietary Tesla connector that's pretty much better in every way. It's easier to use, smaller, can deliver more power, and is simply better looking. I know that the aesthetics of a charging connector might not seem like a selling point, but there's something simply elegant about the Tesla connector versus the engineering-first design of the J1772 connector.
That said, Tesla knows that J1772 chargers are far more prevalent than their own chargers — around six times as many globally. If you're out and about, a public charger is most likely to sport a J1772 connector than a Tesla connector. So Tesla did the smart thing — in addition to the Mobile Connector Cable that's included with every Model X there's also a J1772 adapter.
The rate of charge you'll get out of a J1772 charger is, alas, hard to predict. Though the connector is universally the same, the current flowing into any given charger is not. It could be as little as 5 miles per hour of charging or up to 20 miles per hour for a "Level 2" charger (i.e. one on a 240v 30a circuit).
The other public EV charging standard that Tesla supports is CHAdeMO (CHArge de MOve), a fast-charging DC system developed by a consortium of Japanese automakers. By virtue of opting for DC over AC, CHAdeMO can put even more current into the battery even faster. We're talking up to 50kW faster — or up to 150 miles per hour of charging — though most CHAdeMO stations run between 15kW and 30kW, which is still significantly faster than even the most powerful J1772 chargers. The only hitch to using CHAdeMO with a Model X is that you have to buy a big $450 adapter (which like J1772, looks a whole hell of a lot better than the CHAdeMO connector itself).
Tesla does not offer adapters for the SAE Combo/CCS charging standard, which is essentially J1772 with an added pair of connectors for fast DC charging roughly on par with what CHAdeMO offers.
Further complicating public charging is payments. While a good number of public charging stations are free to use, a large portion require payment to charge, and that payment often puts the rate on par with what you'd pay for the equivalent amount of gasoline. Some support on-site payment, but the vast majority of pay chargers require that you set up an online account for payment and go through a whole song, dance, and incantation to make it work — and there are several different companies doing this, so if you intend to use public chargers you'll have to accept the disjointed nature of the system.
There's one other thing to consider about public charging: they're often just one or two plugs per station, and frequently poorly maintained. I made the mistake once of planning to stop and charge a Tesla in Denver while I got dinner. Having passed a Supercharger on the way into the city, I got to my intended CHAdeMO charger only to find it was out of order. There was another CHAdeMO station a mile away, so I went up there, only to find the single charger occupied. My third try was for a pair of Level 2 J1772 chargers, which should have been able to provide enough charge while I got dinner for me to make it to the next Supercharger on my trip. One was occupied by a gasoline car with too short of a cable to reach the next open parking spot, the was other broken. I ended up wasting enough range that I had to backtrack to the passed Supercharge to continue my journey — that's the real lesson of living the EV life.
120v, 240v, and J1772 are all good for around-town driving. Most people could get by daily with a 100-mile-range EV or with slower charging. But if you need to drive a few hundred or a few thousand miles, hours-long recharge times simply will not do. Driving for four hours, stopping for five, and then driving for four more hours would be simply unacceptable when a gasoline-powered car could refuel in just a few minutes. So Tesla created the Supercharger network to enable rapid recharging for long-distance travel.
The whole point of Superchargers is to complement home and destination charging, making it possible to drive your Tesla to the next city or state.
A Supercharger is a fast DC charger that utilizes the same small connector as the standard Tesla charger, dumping up to 120kW of current directly into the battery. This can put up to 170 miles into the battery in just 30 minutes, and a full charge in 75 minutes. The charging rate does taper dramatically as it nears full to avoid damaging the battery, but for most trips a 30-minute stop at a Supercharger will be more than enough to provide enough juice to get you to the next charger.
Unlike many public chargers, using a Supercharger is free to use — at least for current owners. And each Supercharger station contains several individual charging spots — usually 6 or 8, around larger metropolitan centers there are sometimes more. Tesla's built more than 700 Supercharger stations around the globe with nearly 4,500 individual chargers among them.
Superchargers are a key part of Tesla's navigation. Your car knows how much available range there is in the battery pack and if your destination is further than your charge state would allow, you'll be routed through a Supercharger first, and when you get there you'll be told how long you need to charge in order to continue your journey — either to your destination or the next Supercharger. The network is nowhere near complete, and today exists primarily in the United States, Western Europe, Scandinavia, the UK, China, Japan, and south eastern Australia. But it's possible today to drive a Tesla from the United States, from southern Spain to northern Norway, and up the eastern coast of China, all on the Supercharger network.
The whole point of the Supercharger network is to complement home and destination charging, making it possible to drive your Tesla to the next city or state. While you could use a local Supercharger, Tesla strongly discourages that. Right now, with the exception of a handful of inconsiderate jerks in the San Francisco area, that's not proving to be a problem and most Superchargers have plenty of open stalls on arrival. But that will change when the Model 3 starts arriving in mass numbers. One of the great benefits of driving an EV is that you can charge it at home, and if we're being brutally honest here, if you're paying $70,000 or more for a car, you can afford the $10 in electricity for a full charge.
I've personally made extensive use of the Supercharger network in driving a Model S up and down and across the United States. Even with the rapid DC charging it is still nowhere near as fast or convenient as the ubiquitous gas station, but it's also nice to be able to take a break from the drive. But it does mean that you can expect to add 25-50% to the travel time for any trip that exceeds the range of your battery.
There is a big change coming for the Supercharger network, however. Starting in 2017, new Model S and Model X purchases will still come with Supercharging hardware enabled for free on their cars, but they'll only receive 400kW (~1000 miles) of free Supercharger credits per year. This change will likely mean Supercharging will still be free for most drivers that charge at home, but those that rely on the charging stations for regular charging will have to start paying up. Tesla's not announced exactly how much it'll cost when the new program goes live, but they're adamant that it will be a small fee that costs less than the equivalent amount of gasoline and that Superchargers "will never be a profit center" for Tesla.
EV style in a conservative way
Tesla Model X Exterior design
Being a full EV provides more than just handling and performance benefits — it opens up new options for the exterior design of the car. With no need to cool a fire-breathing internal combustion engine, there's no massive radiator up front and no grill opening to let air flow over said radiator. On the first design for the Model S and the concept design for the Model X the front end of the car was dominated by a big black plastic nose cone that aped the aesthetics of grille-equipped internal combustion cars.
But by the time the Model X actually launched, that nose cone was dropped in favor of a closed and continuous body-color front fascia. It's a modestly attractive look on the Model X, and subtly stating that this is an electric car by the omission of the grill. This stands in stark contrast to other electrified vehicles, such as the plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt with its faux-futuristic etched metallic grille inserts.
The Model X is modestly attractive, subtly stating that this is an electric car by the omission of the grill.
An emphasis on aerodynamics was placed on the Model X design — the less drag it generates, the less electricity it takes to go forward and the more range you'll get from a charge. And so you end up with a car that while attractive, is kind of plain. There's nothing wrong with a conservative look — it's pretty in its own right — but it's not a real eye-catcher rolling down the street the way the supercars it shames on the drag strip are.
I think the design language works a lot better on the shorter Model S, which takes on a more muscular and aggressive stance with the same styling cues spread over a shorter vertical space. As with any car, whether or not you like the design is a personal matter, but the general consensus has been that "it looks nice enough".
But then you open the doors.
Spreading your wings
Tesla Model X Doors
Wait, am I really talking about doors?
Yes. Yes I am.
The fanciest thing about the Model S's doors were that the handles retracted when locked or in motion. Safety/aesthetics and aerodynamics, respectively. But other than that they were pretty traditional car doors. There's very little that's traditional about the doors of the Model X.
Falcon wing rear doors
Let's start with the rear doors. You've no doubt heard of, or at least seen, gull-wing doors — they're hinged at the top center of the roof and swing up over the car. Examples include the famous DeLorean DMC-12 and the Mercedes-Benz SLS. The Model X doesn't have gull-wing doors, no, it takes them to their next step: falcon wing doors.
The two rear doors are hinged at the center top, and also the edges of the roof. This enables the doors to unlatch and lift up for around the first 2 feet, keeping the vertical portion of the door close in to the body, and then swing out once it's to the point where it'll clear neighboring cars. The idea behind the doors was to make the back half of the Model X easier to access — you don't have to crouch down when getting into the car. Additionally, by hugging the car for the first portion of the opening process, the doors can be open fully in tight parking spaces in a way that a traditional hinged door cannot.
Because the action of these doors is entirely motorized, Tesla embedded numerous proximity sensors into the doors to stop them from banging into neighboring cars or overhead obstacles. Early owners found that this didn't always live up to the promise of not hitting things once the doors were put to the test in the wild, but by and large they work as designed. Though those that saw their doors smack into overhead beams and other obstacles that were missed by the sensor were understandably miffed.
That's not even including the cool factor, because the falcon wing doors really are seriously cool. They instantly grab the attention of anyone around as soon as they open because they're so nontraditional. Even controlling the doors is super neat: you can open from the outside by just pushing on the metal strip on the door that masquerades as a door handle or by pressing the button on the side of the key fob. Or you can open and close every door from the driver's seat with the center display.
As cool as the falcon wing doors are, their real world practicality comes up short.
But as cool as these doors are — and they are cool — in the real world the practicality argument comes up short. Low-ceilinged parking structures and garages are either going to be nerve-wracking, or force the doors to not open as high, requiring crouching to get in and out. And while the tight clearance argument holds true when compared to a swinging hinged door, a sliding door like those found on vans for the past few decades would have performed just as well without the overhead issues.
And then there's the small problem of the front doors in tight spaces. Sure, the back seats will be able to empty with ease, but the front seats still have doors that are hinged at the front and need horizontal space to open. Some have made the argument that Tesla should reengineer the Model X to have traditional doors front and back, but that'd both be an enormous engineering and logistical challenge and it'd take away am eye-catching feature for the car.
Auto presenting front doors
Then there are the front doors. They're more traditional, with hinges at the front edge and a normal swinging-open fashion to them, but there's still something crazy going on here.
Just as with the falcon-wing doors, Tesla built motors and sensors into the front doors. Press on the chromed switch and the front door will swing open, halting a few inches short of any obstacles thanks to the sensors under the skin. Get in and press the brake and the driver's door closes (the passenger door requires at least a slight tug on the handle). Getting out? Just tug on the handle and the door will swing open to its limit.
As if that weren't already cool enough, the driver's door will also open itself unprompted when you approach that side of the car with the key fob, and it'll close when you walk away. Which is kind of a cool feature, but it can also be annoying any time you're near the car but not intending to get in and the door keeps opening and closing and turning on the rest of the car.
Walk up to the front door with the key in your pocket and it just opens. It's like something out of Star Trek.
Now if you're picturing one of those motorized handicap-accessible doors that are loaded with motor-induced resistance, don't worry. If you decide that you want to take manual control of the door and pull it open or close with more force or speed than Tesla offers, or to open it further or stop it from going too far, it only takes a modicum of force to disengage the motors and put the door into a free-swinging state.
Like the falcon-wing doors, the auto-presenting front door is really neat, but raises questions of practicality versus value. They're complicated inside and out and solve very niche problems while creating new potential problems. But they're cool, right?
All four of these passenger doors contributed to the inflated cost of the Model X and the 18-month delay it faced in making it to market. Certainly there were unique engineering and manufacturing challenges to solve here, and CEO Musk even admitted that they'd had a case of hubris in trying to shove in this much insane and marginally-more-useful technology. Especially when this was only Tesla's third vehicle and the company was still struggling to turn a profit and ramp up capacity for the upcoming Model 3. Musk says they've learned lessons from each car they've built and will be applying increased engineering discipline to design and manufacturing the Model 3.
The key fob
You didn't think the Model X was going to have some ordinary notched-blade key, did you? Far, far from it. In fact, it even goes a step beyond the standard keyless entry system. The first thing you need to know about the Model X key is that it is shaped like a highly streamlined version of the car itself, about three inches long and an inch wide. It's a glossy black plastic, and the only obvious buttons are strips along the sides where the windows would be.
Walk up to the Model X with the key fob and the car unlocks. Walk away and it locks. Get in, press the brake to close the door, and press the brake again to turn on the car. That's it. No push button, no slot to stick it in, none of that. Just a key in your pocket, purse, or whatever.
Beyond that, the key actually has embedded buttons that you can use to control various aspects of the car.
- Press the roof once: lock the Model X (if any doors are open they will close)
- Press the roof twice: unlock the Model X
- Press the front twice: unlatch the frunk
- Press the back twice: open or close the trunk
- Press and hold back: open the charge port
- Press a side twice: open or close that rear door
Tesla has recently started shipping key fobs with Bluetooth 4.0 LE built in, but they've yet to offer any features that take advantage of the tech.
Tesla Model X Interior Design
The interior of the Tesla Model X, like the exterior, borrows heavily from the Model S. Perhaps even more so — without laying eyes on the enormous windshield you'd be forgiven for mistaking the dash of one for the other. It's a modern look, with clean and simple lines. It's the opposite of the fussy aesthetic you'll get with many luxury competitors.
The closest you'll find from a traditional automaker is in late model Volvos like the XC90, but even the Tesla seems to better embrace the tidy Scandinavian aesthetic with more vigor. On the dash you'll find all of two buttons: one for the glove box, the other for the hazard lights (a switch that is required by law to be physical).
This uncomplicated aesthetic, however, exposes Tesla's lack of luxury bonafides. At this price point customers have expectations about refinement and quality that Tesla simply is not meeting with the Model S or Model X. They are presently the nicest electric vehicles out there, but with competition like Nissan and Ford that's not a high bar.
This is a $150,000 car — the interior is nice, but it's not that nice.
Normally I wouldn't fault an EV for having a ho-hum interior, but this is a $150,000 Tesla. At that price I shouldn't be saying that it's roughly equal in quality to an entry-level Lexus or a top-trim Chrysler. The "Premium Seats" are more comfortable than in any previous Tesla, but they're still lacking in features. The cabin looks nice, but at various touch points, like the door handles, are unforgivably hollow plastic. This interior really looks nice, and much of the time it is relatively so, but it falls far short of the quality anybody should expect at this price.
Our Model X was equipped with the Premium Upgrades Package, a $4,500-option that adds the auto-presenting front doors, additional leather touch points, interior ambient LED lighting (white only), ventilated front seats, and an advanced air filter system. Also present were the Ultra White seats in a seven-seat configuration and carbon fiber interior trim.
The electric drive system means that the Model X is conspicuously absent engine noise. Tooling around town it's really quite quiet. Many modern luxury cars employ heavy amounts of sound deadening material in the doors, wheel wells, and floor to, well, deaden sound — both from the engine and the road. So while the Model X's engine barely peeps even under heavy load, the noise from the road more than makes up for it. I'd put the interior volume roughly on par with a Lexus RX.
Just as I spent more time talking about the doors than you might expect from a typical car review, I also need to spend some time talking about the windshield. Of course Tesla couldn't just make a normal windshield.
The Model X is equipped with a so-called panoramic windshield. It starts at the back of the hood and follows the A-pillars up, just as in a normal car, but instead of stopping after a few feet, it continues all the way to the B-pillar at the back of the front doors. It's expansive in a way that few cars are.
If you're thinking that that's a lot of glass, it absolutely is. Like the falcon wing doors this wasn't necessary in any way, but it's still darned cool. This vast expanse of glass opens up the front of the cabin in a way that's hard to describe. It's not quite convertible levels of openness, but it also makes the car feel far roomier than even a Model S with its optional opening panoramic glass roof (which for obvious reasons isn't an option on the Model X).
The top half is pretty well tinted with several inches of fade-in transition zone right where you'd expect a traditional windshield to end. It's dark enough that I could look directly at the sun through it and not have to squint, but also still light enough that I could easily see the light of an awkwardly-positioned stoplight through it.
This tint is a solar tint, meaning that it's designed to let through at least some light, but block most of the heat-causing infrared wavelengths that beat down from the sun onto the car. In my experience of driving the Model X around for several days in hot, sunny Florida, the tint does its job quite well. Never once did I feel like I was getting even remotely hot, in spite of hours spent in the driver's seat. Granted, the air conditioner always seemed up to the task.
Like the falcon wing doors, the enormous panoramic windshield wasn't necessary, but it's still darned cool.
Regardless of my own generally experience with the Model X's enormous, sunny windshield, enough owners complained that the company felt obliged to send free overhead mesh shades to all Model X owners. These easily-installed screens block an additional two-thirds of the light coming into the cabin.
The only obstruction to the windshield is the mount for the rearview mirror and forward camera, both sitting in pretty much the center of the glass. It's a small enough unit that it's far from distracting, though the narrow cabling tunnel that stretches back to the top of the windshield is amusing.
The mirror mount also serves as the center magnetic connection point for the sun visors, which are stowed up along the side of the A-pillar and pivot down to block the sun below the tinted upper half of the windshield. The A-pillar is relatively thick (it has to be to maintain rigidity and impact strength without the usual crossbar at the top of the windshield), but it's still not full-sun-visor thick. So the visors fold in half when stowed, but even at their full unfolded height they're not particularly tall, though they are really quite wide.
Compared to the vast openness of the front seats, the back two rows of the Model X felt claustrophobic. It's certainly some combination of the smaller windows on the sides and in the overhead of the falcon wing doors, the very thick crossbeams and center beam needed to support the falcon wing doors and compensate for the panoramic windshield, and the mandatory black headliner that comes with the white seats. It's roomy enough, but a starkly closed contrast from the cockpit.
The seats in the Model X are Tesla's third generation of seat design, the so-called "Premium Seats." Compared to the "Next Generation Seats" in the Model S and the first generation of Tesla Seats, these are the most comfortable and advanced seats that Tesla's ever made, making significant strides from the adequate previous efforts.
The base option for the seats are the "multi-pattern" black seats, a combination of black fabric with faux-leather bolsters and headrests. But for a $2,500 fee you can upgrade to black or tan leather seats or the "ultra white" seats in my tester. The white seats really are quite white, and that's owed in part to their not being leather. They're a vegan-friendly synthetic hide that's just as comfortable and resilient as leather.
Opting for the Premium Upgrades Package adds ventilation to the seats, a welcome upgrade in the Florida heat. The front seats have seat heaters at for all configurations, but opting for the Subzero Weather Package puts butt warmers in every seat — not so useful in Florida, but certainly welcome elsewhere.
Tesla offers three seating configurations for the Model X:
- 5 seats: 2 captain's chairs in the front and a 3-wide bench in the second row.
- 6 seats: 2 front chairs, 2 separate second-row chairs, and a 2-seat bench in the third row.
- 7 seats: 2 front chairs, a 3-wide second-row bench, and a 2-wide third-row bench.
Getting to the third row takes less effort than in most SUVs though, for multiple reasons. First off is the falcon wing doors: for all their cool-but-why nature, opening up part of the roof means there's less immediate stooping required to get into the third row. And second is moving the second row forward: each second row seat, even in the 3-wide bench configuration, sits on a single post mounted to a deck rail. Press the switch on the side of the glossy black back and it slowly motors forward several inches to open up additional clearance into the rear.
Between the front seats you'll find a center console that seems like an afterthought. When the Model S first shipped, Tesla skipped the center console altogether, with just a shallow tray on the floor running between the dashboard and the column that held up the center armrests and ventilation for the rear seats. On the Model X and newer Model S cars, there's a center console slotted into that space.
The cheap and poorly designed center console seems like an afterthought.
It offers a large forward storage bin with adjustable dividers and a cheap-feeling sliding lid, and a raised dish at the back with a docking point for your phone and a glossy plastic door that swings over top. The dividers in the front are curved so you can use them to make overly large cupholders, though they're significantly more useful than the narrow and shallow cup holders hidden under the sliding armrests. There are notable gaps and spaces in the console, making it far too easily to lose something into a space that's impossible to access without getting out of your seat. The whole cheap affair only furthers the not-luxury narrative around the Model X's interior.
Rear passengers are even more at a loss for storage. For obvious reasons there are no bins or cupholders built into the falcon wing doors, though there's a pair of pop-out cuoholders and a pair of USB ports on the backside of the center console. Third row dwellers will find a pair of cupholders and a single USB port in the center of their bench. The hard shiny black plastic backs of the seats also mean you won't find any storage pockets on the seats.
While I'm on the subject, I honestly can't explain why Tesla opted for glossy black plastic to back these seats. It's hard, prone to scratching, and impossible to keep clean if anybody getting in or out of the back touches them.
As comfortable as the seats are and as expansive as the windshield is, it's the positively enormous 17-inch display in the center of the dashboard that instantly draws attention the first time you sit inside the car. It's an HD touchscreen turned onto its side —vertical — filling the entire space you'd normally see occupied by a screen a third the size and a whole slew of buttons. In fact, there are two buttons: one on the right to open the glove box, the other on the left to activate the hazard lights. Everything else is controlled via the giant touchscreen.
Because this is a tremendous amount of screen real estate, Tesla was smart about how to utilize it. Across the top are a few system shortcuts and icons like you'd expect on a smartphone (even including a battery charge icon and cellular signal bars), and then a taller row of "app" shortcuts. At the bottom is a button to open the car's settings and controls, climate controls, and the volume.
But between these two rows of on-screen buttons is a vast expanse of space to be filled by those apps: Media, Navigation, Energy, Web, Camera, and Phone. These apps can either fill the entire space or just half of it, with a second one filling the other half.
The enormous 17-inch display in the center of the dashboard instantly draws your attention the first time you sit in the car.
Media is, for all of the Tesla's high tech wizardry, something of a disappointment. You can access any music on an attached USB drive, stream from Slacker or TuneIn Radio over the LTE connection, use traditional AM/FM radio, or connect to your phone over Bluetooth. All work well enough, but the phone connection in particular was confoundingly basic. In spite of having a USB drive option, there's no software in the Model X to access the music files on an attached smartphone, leaving you to broadcast audio from the phone over Bluetooth — and controlled from the phone.
Navigation is simultaneously a strong spot and a sore spot for the Model X. Utilizing Google Maps for the actual maps with routing provided by Tesla in order to make Supercharger hopping a reality, the navigation system is a step beyond what most competitors offer. The spoken directions are quite good, the future turn-by-turn list is exceedingly useful, and the map scrolls by smoothly as you drive.
But as soon as you try to manipulate the map using the same multitouch gestures as on your phone or tablet, it becomes a pain. The whole interface is slow to respond to swipes and pinches; occasionally it was bad enough that I overshot my intended scroll or zoom position and had to backtrack by the time the screen caught up. With a NVIDIA Tegra 3 processor powering the screen — an older processor, but one that performed admirably in the first Microsoft Surface and Nexus 7 tablets, this kind of lag is frustrating. But it's still miles better than most of the competition — only a few newer systems like Ford's Sync 3 have surpassed the Tesla's responsiveness.
In typical day-to-day driving, the Energy app might not see much use, but on longer drives where you're hopping between chargers it'll prove useful. In the instrument closter screen there's a small battery icon with the remaining miles listed, but that's an optimistic "ideal" mileage indicator and rarely in my time driving a Tesla has it been accurate.
Open the Energy app and you get a graph of your recent energy usage by the mile and an indicator of how much further you'll be able to drive based on how how you've been driving. When you have a trip programmed into the navigation app, you'll also be able to see your energy history and projection for the trip so you'll know what kind of charge you'll have when you get to where you're going. Normally you'll just see a line that goes down down down to your destination — but if you've got a large hill you'll be going down during your journey, you might actually see that line tick up if there's enough regenerative braking to put a significantly amount of charge back into the battery pack.
The backup camera app is, well, the backup camera. The Model X does have typical side door mirrors and a windsheild-mounted rearview mirror, but that last one is conspicuously small and looking through a narrow and short rear window. So if you want a wider view out the back, you can get it by flipping the backup camera on all the time. The camera also automatically activates as a pop-over window any time you put the car into reverse.
For reasons that are still unknown to me, there's a web browser in the Model X. It is terrible. It renders any moderately advanced website poorly, gets bogged down instantly, and is even less responsive than the laggy navigation system. While I can question the utility of the browser — the only time I've found it even remotely useful was when putting a Tesla through a car wash and leaving open a webpage that tells the attendant how to work the car — I can and do question shipping the car with such an abysmally bad experience. It'd be better not to include it at all.
For reasons that are still unknown to me, there's a web browser in the Model X. It is terrible.
Further infuriating is that this bad browser is the only way to browse using the car's built-in LTE connection. Cars acting as Wi-Fi hotspots is not anything new, and the Tesla has Wi-Fi capability (it'll connect to your home Wi-Fi to download updates, for example). Normally I wouldn't mind if there were no browser and no Wi-Fi hotspot capability, but offering such a horrendous experience — and having it occupy a top spot in the apps bar — is inexcusable.
Oh, and there's a phone app. It does phone things, if that's a thing that you do with your phone.
Perhaps the most under-appreciated aspect of the Model X's center screen software is the settings app. Through it you can easily customize so many options, from how the doors open to how aggressively the car brakes to whether or not the car opens your garage door when you pull into the driveway. It's cleanly laid out and no option is more than three taps away. Heck, you can even open every door from the screen — try that with any other car.
As neat as it is to have a giant touchscreen in place of the center console buttons, it's not without its faults. The absence of buttons means you can't do things like change a radio station or adjust the temperature simply by muscle memory without taking your eyes off the road. It's also not as reliably stable as I'd like; you'll have to remember that pressing and holding on both steering wheel dials will reboot the center screen.
There's also the issue of smartphone connectivity, or the lack thereof. We carry so much of our lives on our phones, and seemingly every car these days offers at least some basic interaction with our phones — even if it's just a button to activate Siri on an iPhone. Tesla cars offer none of that: no Siri, no Android Auto or Apple CarPlay. Further disappointing is the lack of additional in-car apps — Tesla said early on that they were working on an SDK so third-party developers could make Tesla apps, but that plan's been scrapped. Supposedly they're now working on phone display mirroring, which frankly sounds like a bad idea.
And the sound system in a Tesla? It's okay. My Model X was equipped with the Ultra High Fidelity Sound upgrade, a $2,500 option that adds a few additional speakers and a subwoofer, and it was good enough. While I don't necessarily expect top-end sound in a car, especially with all of the noise that's inherent to being in a car, I expected better from a $150,000 car. The trebles and mids were decently well-balanced, but the subwoofer was woefully muddy. At least the speaker upgrade also brings SiriusXM satellite radio into the mix.
Instrument display and steering Wheel
Behind the steering wheel you'll find a second screen, this one in place of the entire traditional instrument cluster. No dials or gauges, just pixels. If you've not enabled Autopilot on your Model X you'll get a big round speedometer in the center; if you have enabled Autopilot you'll instead get your speed as a numeral above a real-time representation of what the car's seeing around you (more on that later).
To either side of that speedometer/autopilot block are two customizable blocks. You can pick from options like trip stats, a small navigation map, a tiny version of the energy graph, your current music, and a few other options. These are all selected via the steering wheel control buttons, which are forgivingly basic: each side has a dial between two large buttons. The left controls are slaved to audio, while the right side can be configured to control the climate, phone calls, and more.
Where many car companies are tempted to load up their steering wheels with controls — I drove a Ford that had 22 buttons on just the steering wheel — Tesla's opted for simplicity.
Because a Tesla doesn't have a transmission, there's also no need for a traditional gear shifter. Instead there's a basic steering column-mounted stalk to "shift." Press the brake and push down one click to Neutral, down all the way to Drive, up all the way to Reverse, and the button on the end to Park. That's it.
Under the ordinary turn signal lever/wiper controls on the left you'll find the Autopilot/cruise control stalk. Once you get used to it it's easy to control without looking. Pull once to engage Traffic Aware Cruise Control, twice for Autopilot, push out to disengage either system, tap up or down to adjust your speed, and twist the cap on the end to adjust your follow distance.
Where many car companies are tempted to load up their steering wheels with controls — I test-drove a Ford Escape several months back that had 22 buttons on just the steering wheel — Tesla's opted for simplicity. Once I had it set up the way I liked it, there was no mental questioning how to work it. I had the Ford for a week and still never got used to the system.
Bioweapon Defense Mode
Part of the Premium Upgrades Package is a set of advanced HEPA filters meant to keep the cabin clean. These filters pull out 99.97% of particulate matter in the air, effectively eliminating dust, bacteria, and allergens. That air is also pushed through a pair of carbon air purification filters that take care of any noxious odors from other vehicles. And for the ultimate in in-cabin air quality, you can ramp the fans up to 11 and essentially pressurize the car, forcing air to leak out instead of in.
All of that is well and good, but the name is silly: Bioweapon Defense Mode.
Tesla's no stranger to silly names. The Performance cars all have Insane as an option, and we've already gone over Ludicrous Mode. But Bioweapon Defense Mode wasn't pitched as a fun name — Tesla CEO Elon Musk was deadly serious in presenting it as an option that will help protect the car's inhabitants from an actual chemical or biological weapons attack.
Bioweapon Defense Mode pressurizes cabin air through a HEPA filter, but it probably won't save you in a real bioweapon attack.
The actual reality of that ... not so much. First there's the nature of biological attacks, which are far more likely to utilize viruses than bacteria. A virus is typically far smaller than a HEPA filter will catch, so any in the air stand a good chance of making it through the filter. And they tend not to just be floating about in the open air. And the odds of you knowing that you're under a biological weapons attack before it's far too late are slim, so you're probably not going to stop the next engineered contagion with your Tesla.
That said, in spite of the silly name and premise, these filters are useful. They clean the air that's fed into the cabin to the point of making the exhaust fumes you'd encounter on a crowded highway breathable. Or, as I encountered in my drives with the Model X, the stinky air wafting out from behind a garbage truck.
If your daily commute has you passing by the local dump or sewage treatment plant, Bioweapon Defense Mode could do your nostrils and lungs some good.
Just don't expect it to save your life from an actual bioweapons attack.
Rear cargo space
SUVs have a couple of benefits that the Model X also carries over, in spite of not being a true SUV. It picks up some of the taller ride height and head room, but it got none of the offroading capability or a capable tow rating (a mere 5,000 pounds). But you'd think at least the taller interior might also mean better internal cargo space. You'd be wrong.
The third row seats in the six- or seven-seat configuration fold down with relative ease. Slide the second row forward, open the back hatch, press the button embedded on the seat's outside shoulder once to fold the headrest, again to unlatch the seat back and fold it forward. Do that and you pick up about 5 feet of cargo space to the back of the second row seats.
"What about with the second row folded?" you ask. I'm sorry to tell you this, but the second row doesn't fold. All it does is slide forward several inches. That 5 feet is all you get. If you opt for the 6-seat configuration you'll have a 15-inch gap in the second row through which you can pass up to 80 inches of cargo, but otherwise the rear space is limited to around 77 cubic feet — roughly a 5x5x3-foot box — though that is including a 15-inch-deep well at the very back of the trunk area.
In a 6- or 7-seat Model X, the third row folds and the second row slides forward a bit. Rear cargo space is a whopping 5 feet.
While this isn't a large amount of storage space, it falls short of not just the Model X's competition, but also the Model S sedan. The Model S's large hatchback and flat-folding second row open up to a very spacious 75 inches. The Model S doesn't have as much overall cargo volume, thanks to its shorter height, but it wins in fitting large objects like a table or TV.
The hatch into the rear cargo area is full motorized, up and down. Double clicking the rear of the key fob will open and close it, or you can use the buttons on the hatch or the center screen controls to do the same.
It's worth noting that the 5-seat interior, an option that took several months after initial deliveries started to become available, sticks a single-piece bench in the second row and drops the third row entirely. The new second-row bench back folds onto the seat, opening up a class-leading 88 cubic feet of cargo space and a flat (though sloped) load floor. So you can have it one of two ways: five seats and oodles of cargo space, or more than five seats and a pitiful storage area.
Up front in the frunk
In just about any other car, opening the hood would reveal the engine, complete with tubing and belts and plastic covers and caps to access all manner of fluid reservoirs. While you will find one fluid access port under the hood (windshield washer fluid), you won't find an engine. The compact front engine of the Model X sits right down by the axel, opening up a huge amount of space under the hood. This space needs to exist as a crumple zone should a front-end impact occur, but without an engine what should that space be used for?
The Model X's frunk is big enough to fit carry-on bags, groceries, or smaller items like your charge cable.
It's a frunk. Tesla's not the only company with a frunk — Porsche had them forever with their rear-engined sports cars — but it's still a nice touch. The frunk in Tesla cars has steadily shrunk over the years — the original 2012 Model S had a spacious frunk that filled almost the entire front end of the car, but the addition of dual motors and now HEPA filters has cut into the frunk space (even if you haven't opted for those upgrades).
The Model X's frunk is big enough to fit a carry-on bag or two, your groceries, or other smaller items. It's a handy place to store something you want out of sight (and don't mind having exposed to the heat or cold of the outside), or just someplace to stash your mobile charge cable and any adapters you may have.
While you can unlatch the frunk with a double click of the front of the key fob, it's not motorized like every other hatch on the car (it's not allowed to be by law, which is a shame), so you'll have to open it with your hands like a common plebe.
The frunk isn't enormous, but it's there. And it's always a surprisingly effective wow factor for people that haven't encountered a Tesla before.
Tesla Model X App
It seems like everything these days has an app. Sometimes such apps make little sense, but the Tesla app? It makes all the sense in the world. Available for iPhone and Android, the Tesla app enables charging and climate management, and even keyless control of the car.
The single best feature of the app is in tracking your car's charge state. And the single best use of that feature is when you have to charge on your way to a destination. Open the app, wait several seconds for it to connect to your car, and then there's your car's status, complete with current charge level, charge rate, and the estimated time until you'll have enough charge to continue your journey.
Except you don't even have to open the app — you can simply wait for the car to send you a notification on your phone that it has enough charge to drive on. So you don't have to be actively monitoring your charge level, just plug in and go grab a bite to eat and wait for you phone to ding.
On your way back to your car, pull out the app and swipe over to the climate control tab. It's there that you can start the Tesla's heating or AC — and it'll run on full blast until you get there. Even after sitting in the Florida summer heat and sun for an hour charging, it took fewer than 10 minutes of cooling on a walk back to the car for it drop from over 110 degrees inside to around 70 degrees.
It's worth noting that if you have a regular commute — leaving for work in the morning and driving back home in the afternoon, for example — the car will actually discern that pattern on its own and get the climate control system running before you get to the car.
The app also can serve up the GPS location of your car. Forgot where you parked at the mall or the game? It's in the app. Of course, there are limitations to this — the car needs to have cellular connectivity (it's AT&T, in case you're wondering) and parking structures will wreak havoc on getting a precise GPS location.
Now, none of this is exactly unique to Tesla — just about every EV has an app with similar features — there is one Tesla-unique feature that stands out: misplaced your key? That's fine, you can start the car with your phone. Yep, your phone can do just about everything these days.
While Tesla makes an official app for iPhones and Android phones, enterprising developers have figured out the API behind the app and built their own unofficial apps that enable a few additional features and platforms.
A self-driving future, now
Tesla Model X Autopilot
Let's be clear right from the start: the current implementation of Autopilot does not make a Tesla a self-driving car. That's coming in due time on new Teslas, but what we have right now can best be described as "super cruise." The car can maintain its lane on a well-marked highway, follow curves in the road, take highway interchange ramps, park itself, and change lanes when you tell it to. Autopilot cannot drive you from point A to point B, operate without a driver's input and attention, or recognize and act on most road signs and signals.
All of that is why Tesla classifies Autopilot as a "driver assist" technology, not autonomy. If you want to get technical about the level of autonomy, I'd place it right around Level 2.5 — it can take over some critical tasks, but the driver needs to be paying attention and prepared to take over in case something goes wrong or the car encounters a situation it can't handle.
Tesla classifies Autopilot as a "driver assist" technology, not autonomy. You need your hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.
In fact, the car will tell you that every time you engage Autopilot: keep your hands on the wheel and be prepared to take over at any time without warning. It determines your attentiveness by measuring resistance on the steering wheel from your hands, and it doesn't take much. If you're not providing that resistance the car will periodically nag you to pay attention, ignore those warnings and it'll disable Autopilot until you bring the car to a stop and put it in park. If you completely ignore the nagging, Autopilot will assume that you must be having a medical emergency and will actually bring the car to a complete stop.
The Model X P90D that I tested was equipped with Tesla's Autopilot 1.0 hardware: 12 ultrasonic sensors around the car with a range of around 12 feet, a forward-looking camera, and a forward-looking radar. This gives it awareness of its immediate surroundings and neighboring lanes as well as what's going on in front of it visually and through radar.
All of these inputs are brought together to build a picture of what the world around the car looks like. Tesla takes things a step beyond other manufacturers by actually showing you what it sees on the instrument cluster display: there's a digital reconstruction of your car, the lane markings, and sensed vehicles, all displayed in real time. A Tesla will even tell you which set of lane markings it's using for guidance (highlighted in blue) and which vehicle it's using for follow distance (highlighted in white).
Autopilot is currently classified by Tesla as a "beta" technology and will be for some time. Tesla cars have already driven some hundreds of million miles on Autopilot and collected hundreds of millions more miles of data when the system's not engaged.
Tesla's autonomy system is dramatically ahead of the curve compared to its competitors due to one critical advantage: fleet learning. Data from the Autopilot system is being constantly uploaded to Tesla's servers (you can opt out) to be analyzed. This is being used to build more detailed maps of the world's roads for Autopilot driving and to improve the Autopilot system to be smarter and safer.
When one human gets in an accident, just that one human learns. When an autonomous car gets into an accident, every car in the fleet learns.
When Autopilot isn't engaged it's still running in the background, making calls on what it would do and comparing that to the action the driver took. When there's a wide divergence in that it's something that system learns from, and those learnings are distributed to all Tesla cars. The same happens for when a human takes over from Autopilot, both when Autopilot hands over control or when the human takes command — something went wrong so there's another datapoint for Autopilot to improve. Car driving on Autopilot gets into a wreck? More data.
When one human gets in an accident, just that one human learns from it. When an autonomous car gets into an accident, every car in the fleet learns from it. The more Autopilot-equipped Teslas there are on the road, the smarter they'll all be.
Already the Autopilot system is touted as being safer than humans. As of this review only two deaths have been reported to have occurred during Autopilot driving, and only one has been thoroughly and publicly vetted — and it was laid at the feet of an inattentive driver.
The safety of systems like Autopilot will only continue to improve, and even now it has distinct advantages over humans: it cannot tire, it has constant 360-degree awareness, and it has the instant reaction time of a computer versus our slow human brain's processing and reflex delays.
Engaging Autopilot is dead simple: pull twice on the lower left stalk on the steering column. The car beeps twice and takes over throttle control and steering.
It's a disconcerting feeling the first time. Instincts and muscle memory built up over years of driving come to the forefront in a mental struggle of what you've always done versus letting the Tesla do its thing. Think of it like the first time you tried cruise control: you got the car up the speed you wanted, flipped the stalk or pushed the button, and then lifted your foot off the gas pedal as your eyes darted between the road and the unmoving speedometer. Now multiply that feeling by ten.
It's a wonder of technology to be able to take your hands off the wheel and watch as the car turns the wheel itself to follow curves in the road. And yes, you're not supposed to take your hands off the wheel, but the only way to really experience what even this first-generation autonomy system is capable of is to do just that.
The main components of the Autopilot sensor suite at play here are the radar and the camera. They're working in conjunction to build a picture of the environment in front of the car, focusing mostly on the lane markings (camera only) and vehicles (camera and radar). The system's sensitive enough that it can tell the difference between passenger vehicles (displayed as a sedan), large boxy commercial vehicles (displayed as a box truck), and two-wheeled transports like bicycles and motorcycles (displayed as the motorcycle).
The radar unit has taken on a significant role in Tesla's Autopilot ambitions, thanks in part to its resilience. The camera can only manage so much — it's blinded by the low morning or evening sun and it can't see through inclement weather like rain or fog or snow. Radar, on the other hand, doesn't care about the sun and can easily see through all but the absolute densest of weather conditions.
Additionally, the radar isn't constrained by such human frailties like "line of sight." You and I, with our feeble human eyeballs, can't see through or around things. When there's a wall, we have to walk around it to see what's on the other side. Unless there's an advantageously positioned mirror, which is how the radar looks at everything on the road. While some radar signals immediately bounce back to the receiver, others leave the Tesla's radar unit, bounce off an object — be it the road, a barrier, or another car — hit another object, and then reflect all the way back to the Tesla. By bouncing radar around the road the Tesla can actually see around the car immediately in front of you, seeing two or even three cars ahead. This makes the automatic emergency braking even safer — not only can it react faster than you can, it can now see that the car in front of you has dramatically slowed, even if you can't.
Radar isn't constrained by such human frailties like "line of sight" — it can see under and around the car in front of you, seeing what you can't.
The camera does still have some important roles, some that Autopilot just can't fulfill: like reading signs. While the software is no doubt capable of much more thorough reading, the current Autopilot system is limited to speed limit signs, which are displayed on the left side of the environment reconstruction on in the instrument cluster. The reading is smart enough to disregard ancillary speed limit signs you might encounter, like minimum speeds or a maximum speed for semi trucks.
When you're driving at highway speeds all it does is tell you the speed limit, it's up to you to set the speed. If you're on an undivided roadway (e.g. oncoming traffic is only separated by a painted line), Autopilot will be capped to a top speed of 5mph over the posted limit. Adjusting the Autopilot speed is simple: tapping up or down one click on the stalk will adjust the speed by 1mph, while the full two clicks will change it by 5mph.
As you're cruising down the highway you'll inevitably come up on another vehicle that's going slower than you. Autopilot uses the radar to gauge the distance to that car and will slow down your car to match that speed. So long as you're behind that car and it's going slower than you've set your Autopilot speed, you'll stay put right behind it. You can adjust how close that distance is by turning the dial on the end of the Autopilot stalk, and that distance scales based on the speed.
Disengaging Autopilot is simple: you can tap on the brake pedal, push out on the Autopilot control stalk, or take an assertive steering action. In my thousands of miles on Autopilot I've had to correct the steering a few dozen times. Only a few of those instances were because the system got obviously confused by poor lane markings (and once by the flickering of bright sunlight filtered through trees). The rest were because my human instincts demanded I take over even though the car hadn't yet put me in immediate danger.
Autopilot has one more cruise control speed function: rush-hour traffic. We've all been there, stuck in a highway turned into a parking lot, growing more and more frustrated and on-edge from the stop-and-go traffic. Autopilot can completely eliminate that irritation because it can bring your car to a complete stop behind the car in front of you and then resume forward driving once that car's begun to move. I drove a Tesla on Autopilot through downtown Atlanta during its notorious evening rush hour and it took was would have been an incredibly stressful two-and-a-half hours and turned it into 150 minutes of boredom.
A Tesla on Autopilot takes grating rush hour traffic and turns it into a sublimely boring experience.
That rush-hour analogy can be stretched out over the rest of Autopilot, too. While driving has become an automatic task for most of us (think about backing out of a driveway — there are a dozen discrete and critical tasks involved that we do without thought), the constant subconscious processing it demands can be incredibly taxing for long drives. I drove a Tesla from Ohio to Nevada and back, almost entirely on Autopilot, and it was far less mentally taxing than shorter drives I've taken with cars that demanded my full attention.
When Tesla calls Autopilot a driver assistance technology, they mean it. It's not yet ready to completely take charge of the wheel and at the end of the day you're in charge, responsible, and liable. But by taking over the more mundane functions (maintaining speed, keeping the car in the lane), it opens up the driver's attention for other things. It's easier to observe the road and maintain better awareness of your surrounding vehicles when on Autopilot. It's far less draining to drive long distances when on Autopilot. And it's simply safer when on Autopilot.
This doesn't come cheaply, though. While the hardware for Autopilot is built into every Model X that Tesla builds, it's not activated by default. Activating Autopilot 1.0 was a $2,500 charge on order, or $3,000 after delivery.
So you're on Autopilot and you've come up behind that slow-moving car mentioned earlier. While you could just peter along behind them and let Autopilot do its thing, you want to get around them. Up to this point what we've described is essentially advanced forms of technologies that most other vehicle manufacturers have implemented: adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist. But the Tesla has another trick up its Autopilot sleeve: lane changing.
Just push up or down on the turn signal stalk and the Model X will move into the next lane. It can do this thanks to the camera's detecting of not just the lane you're in but also adjacent lanes, and the ultrasonic sensors awareness of the 12 feet to either side. If there's no lane seen in the direction you tell it to shift, or the sensors pick up an obstruction, then the car won't change lanes.
While I rarely encountered issues with lane keeping or speed control, lane change was far more finicky.
If the super cruise aspects of Autopilot are beta, then lane change definitely is a beta. While I rarely encountered issues with lane keeping or speed control, lane change was far more finicky. Perhaps a quarter of the time I tried to activate an automatic lane change it would fail, either not seeing the adjacent lane or sensing phantom obstacles in that lane. This usually passed if I gave it a few seconds, but it detracted from the magic somewhat.
I'd rather the car be overly cautious about lane changes, though, and that comes down to the limitations of the current Autopilot hardware suite. With only long-range awareness to the front, my Model X only had a 12-foot envelope of awareness to the front and side. If somebody is approaching fast from behind in the target lane, these sensors simply won't see them until it's too late. The new Autopilot 2.0 hardware suite's additional side and rear-view cameras will likely take care of this blind spot (more on that in a bit), but for now you still have to check your mirrors before hitting that turn signal stalk.
Beyond lane keeping, lane changing, and speed control, Tesla vehicles are also capable of automatic parking — both parallel and perpendicular. Unlike the systems of some other manufacturers, Tesla's automatic parking is working in the background, ready to do its thing and to do so in a more seamless manner.
If you roll past a parking spot at up to 10mph, the side-facing ultrasonic sensors will scan for gaps in the cars to your side. If it sees such a gap, a "P" symbol will appear in the instrument cluster. Stop the car, tap the shift lever into Reverse, and the center display will show a large diagram of the sensed parking spot with a blue "Start" button. Tap it and away it goes — steering, shifting, and braking as it needs to; no input required from the driver.
Like with the Autopilot lane change, auto parking happens with a level of machine confidence that's unnerving. It puts the rearview camera on the center screen so you can see just how close it's easing in to the cars around the spot. On the flip side, auto parking in a Tesla can be painfully slow; it drives at a slow and steady pace instead of the accelerating/braking like of human because we just want to get out of the driving lane and parked.
Perpendicular parking is a fairly standard driving maneuver for a human, one that we accomplish on a regular basis without issue. So why have a car take over this basic task? There are a few reasons. For one, backing in is safer because you don't have to back out blind when you leave. And you'd want assistance in doing it with the Model X, because the blind spots are fairly large. And then there's putting the tail light-positioned charge port at the end of the parking spot where most EV chargers are located, including Tesla's Superchargers.
There's actually one more thing your phone can do: you can remotely drive your car. Well, to a point. In a straight line. At a very slow speed. Tesla calls it Summon, and it's essentially an easy way to get your car into or out of a tight parking spot, your garage, or just to show off.
With the Model X, you open the app, wait for it to connect, tap the Summon button, and then press and hold on forward or reverse to drive the car forward or in reverse. You can customize how far the car will move and how close it'll get to obstacles through the center screen, but it'll still only move in a straight line.
In addition to control via the app, you can also activate straight-line Autopark before getting out of the car. Just double press the Park button on the end of the gear shifter, specify a direction via the center display, and then get out of the car.
Future of Autopilot
This is all relatively advanced already, but the future of Autopilot is looking positively sci-fi. Every new Tesla, including the Model S and X and the upcoming Model 3, is now rolling off the assembly line with a full suite of sensors, radar, and cameras that should be capable of full A-to-B autonomy.
The upgraded forward-facing radar has improved range and there are now three cameras facing the front plus five more cameras around the car to provide 360-degree visual awareness. All of this is piped into a massively-upgraded computer that runs a neural network processing system capable of full autonomy.
This enhanced Autopilot hardware is built into every Tesla right off the line, but activating it is now even more expensive — $5,000 for the "Enhanced Autopilot" that's said to be more capable on more roads (but still not able to handle intersections and city driving) and enhanced Summon capable of navigating parking lots and driveways.
As for the full self-driving capability? That's something you can pay for now — at $3,000 on top of the $5,000 for Enhanced Autopilot — but the ability to handle urban navigation, intersections, and self-parking on its own is still in the future. But at least a new Tesla ordered today will have the hardware necessary to support it when it's ready in the months or years to come.
Worth every cent
Tesla Model X: The Bottom Line
The most remarkable thing about the Model X is how unremarkable it is as a daily driver. For all the power that the P90D can put on the the tarmac, it's still a competent car for driving every day. The other cars in this speed class are almost universally designed for speed and speed alone — 7 passengers and their luggage? Not happening in a Lamborghini. And you'd be in a special class if you're taking a Aston Martin Vantage to the grocery store.
But the Model X is just as capable on a drag strip as it is ferrying kids to soccer practice. It drives just like any other car, though certainly a bit more punchy when you mash the accelerator. At $150,000, it's certainly not an affordable car, but for what you get in terms of every-day utility and uncommon performance it's actually a relative bargain. "Relative" being the operative word there. That doesn't mean it's within reach of the average consumer. Even the base price of the five-seat Model X 75D, with nary an option box checked is $88,000. This is not a cheap car by any measure.
The Model X is the smartest car you can buy, and worth every penny.
Some features of the Model X, like the falcon wing doors and bioweapon defense mode, seem fairly superfluous. Electric drive is great — it's quiet, it's snappy, and it's environmentally friendly — but the charge times and range can be a drag for long distance travel. Then again, you don't have to visit a gas station ever again, and you can just refuel at home most of the time. Autopilot is the truly revolutionary feature, and even it is simply a superior implementation of combining a number of existing technologies under one banner.
This fully-optioned Tesla Model X P90D tips the scale at over $150,000. It's not a remotely cheap car by any measure, but that doesn't mean it won't put a smile on your face every time you drive it — be it managing itself smartly in stop-and-go traffic or blasting down wide-open country roads or cruising through town on your way home from work.
A Model X is not the fastest car you can buy. It's not the most capable, the most spacious, the most versatile, or even the nicest. But it is the smartest car you can buy, and for that it's worth every penny.