Tesla Model S P100D

From the Tesla press release:

The Model S P100D with Ludicrous mode is the third fastest accelerating production car ever produced, with a 0-60 mph time of 2.5 seconds. However, both the LaFerrari and the Porsche 918 Spyder were limited run, million dollar vehicles and cannot be bought new. While those cars are small two seaters with very little luggage space, the pure electric, all-wheel drive Model S P100D has four doors, seats up to 5 adults plus 2 children and has exceptional cargo capacity.

The 100 kWh battery also increases range substantially to an estimated 315 miles on the EPA cycle and 613 km on the EU cycle, making it the first to go beyond 300 miles and the longest range production electric vehicle by far.

It is incredible that the fastest accelerating vehicle you can currently purchase is not an exclusive, multimillion dollar sports car, but a practical family sedan with spacious luggage storage and comfortable seating for five. I can't think of a car where the phrase 'you can have your cake and eat it too' is more apt.

It's noteworthy that, with only a decade of development, a small, startup-like company is producing vehicles that have all but overtaken combustion engine powered cars not only in terms of performance, but in practicality and safety as well. This, more than anything, is evidence that the internal combustion engine is on its way out. We're only just getting started with electric vehicle development, and it's already obvious that the fundamental technology is an order of magnitude better than any fossil fuel powered car before it.

Having said that, electric vehicles will not sell on the virtue of being electric cars alone. Why has Tesla succeeded when other electric vehicles, such as the Nissan Leaf, despite being thousands of dollars cheaper, have failed? Because the Tesla is a great car, a product the consumer aspires to own. The Nissan Leaf, on the other hand, is a showcase of the potential of electric vehicles. But is it a great car? No.

Manufacturers must ensure that electric vehicles, first and foremost, are great cars. The design must take full advantage of the electric powertrain, and the company must also go to the effort of providing supporting infrastructure to alleviate any perceived shortcomings such as range anxiety. To this extent, the electric vehicle cannot be sold as a 'trophy' car used to demonstrate a company's or the consumer's ostensible commitment to the environment, but rather must be a vehicle that is sustainable, livable, and is practical enough to be used every day (and of course is envrionmentally friendly). Tesla has done this by going to the effort of developing an extensive network of 'Supercharger' fast charging points, and by using the extra space offered by the electric motor to substantially increase luggage space and safety via a 'front boot' and a much larger crumple zone.

Every electric vehicle will be more environmentally friendly than its combustion engine counterpart. Of course it will, as that is the innate nature of the powertrain itself. But what will distinguish a successful electric vehicle is whether it is a great car. At the moment, only Tesla, and perhaps BMW with its i3 and i8, meet this standard.

An electric car being environmentally friendly will be as much of a selling point in the future as a petrol car having fuel injection is today. Effectively null.   

Thoughts on the fatal Tesla Autopilot accident

Tesla describes the accident on its official blog as follows:

The vehicle was on a divided highway with Autopilot engaged when a tractor trailer drove across the highway perpendicular to the Model S. Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied. The high ride height of the trailer combined with its positioning across the road and the extremely rare circumstances of the impact caused the Model S to pass under the trailer, with the bottom of the trailer impacting the windshield of the Model S.

Above: Tesla Model S instrument cluster showing that Autopilot mode is active. 

Contrary to certain media reports, it is important to remember that using Autopilot mode does not make the Tesla a self-driving car. Not only is the Autopilot software itself still in beta testing (i.e. not ready for widespread public use), the driver is required to ensure their hands remain on the steering wheel at all times, and to be prepared to resume manual driving at any moment. Enabling Autopilot does not mean the driver can take their eyes off the road or lose awareness of their surrounding environment.

The New York Times article linked above later quotes Karl Brauer, an analyst with the American automotive research firm Kelly Blue Book:

This is a bit of a wake-up call,” Mr. Brauer said. “People who were maybe too aggressive in taking the position that we’re almost there, this technology is going to be in the market very soon, maybe need to reassess that.

Karl Brauer's statement needs to be placed into context. The vast majority of car accidents are caused at least in part by human error. So there is no doubt that when used as intended (as an assistive feature that warns the driver of any potential hazards, but over which the driver maintains full control), Tesla's Autopilot can only improve road safety. Citing a single misuse of Autopilot as a justification to call for all autonomous driving technologies to be re-assessed in terms of their safety and viability on the road is, frankly, misleading.

Nevertheless, it is clear that true driverless cars in the near future will be a significant enough departure from current vehicles that they will require their own set of regulations and governing laws. Perhaps a safety and regulations agency, in the vein of the Global NCAP, but for driverless cars, could be created to consolidate and ensure uniform regulations for autonomous vehicles? 

As tragic as it may be, it is also plain that the introduction of such technology will have teething issues, as society adapts to driverless vehicles, and that the consequences of these teething issues could involve fatal accidents. What is important, however, is for regulators and the media to not lose sight of the overall view that autonomous technologies are not detrimental to, but instead enhance, road and driver safety and are beneficial to society.

Thus, any future regulations relating to driverless vehicles must not be knee-jerk, impulsive reactions to accidents such as the imposition of bans or other widespread restrictions, but should instead empower the development of this new technology.