Old School joins new school paving the way for the future of the automotive industry propelled by emission free cars as the German manufacturers show their iterations of what promises to be tough competition for Tesla. It is a clash of titans all wanting to succeed.
Five years ago the Roadster became the first model launched by Tesla and the first step to change the perception of the EV car the way we knew it. On the 29th of September of 2015 Elon Musk delivered the first units of the Model X to six eager customers and allowed some test drives to selected media. In the ceremony held near its assembly plant in Fremont (California) he proudly and ambitiously summed up what the first world EV SUV aspires to be: "more functional than a minivan, more style than a SUV, better performances than a sports car". While these claims can be partly conceded, what is hard to deny is that the X builds on the virtues greatly responsible for what Tesla delivers today: emission free driving vehicles with greatly expanded driving range per charge, with mind blowing performances and the added convenience of quick charges. The exact same recipe behind the two embryonic vehicles with each the VW Group awed the world at the Frankfurt motor show 2 weeks before one day before the Konzern lost its innocence and the "Diesel gate" took over any headlines written about cars from Albania to Zimbabwe.
Audi e-Tron quattro and Porsche Mission E are the confirmation that Old School automotive industry is keeping two eyes and even concerned with Tesla´s progress in these five years. And with its promise of more to come, along with the X Model which once again proved the agile automotive start-up could beat the heavyweight century old establishment. Once again by getting to market with a technologically capable EV SUV at least 3 years before the world will see the first real applications of what Porsche Mission E (targeting the Model S), Audi e-Tron quattro (a wannabee rival of the Model X) and something still unknown from Mercedes-Benz (as confirmed by R&D boss Thomas Webber) promise to be.
The X Model is a pure Tesla vehicle but improved some of the flaws recognized on the Model S. The lower than accepted quality of the seats and trim & finish on a 100 000 euro plus car have now been clearly improved as Tesla is fully aware that it will not be alone on the market battlefield of 100 000 euro plus high performance EVs before the decade comes to an end. Although the basic exterior design of the Model X has hardly changed since it was unveiled over 3 years ago (a secret revealing practice that would never happen with Audi or Porsche) it features eye-popping technology like the falcon-wing doors and motorized second-row seats which allegedly pushed forward the market introduction originally scheduled for 2013.
Strange as it may seem to the rest of the world and to most automotive Old School manufacturers, Model X is a legitimate son of the Silicon Valley way. The fast forward start-up cluster region of the Planet where it is perfectly fine to work on the development of a project without exactly knowing what it will become and where adjusting the product along the way is not only possible but also accepted as a standard procedure. Speed, Risk and Agility are the motto here regardless of whether an iPhone or an automobile are being cooked as I was able to witness in my last month´s visit to the area.
A quick look at the tech sheet of the Model X informs you that there are two electric motors (one per axle) producing 263 ps each on the 90D version and 263 + 510 ps on the P90D version, both fed by a huge lithium ion battery which takes the whole space between each set of wheels and serves as the car´s underfloor (helping to lower the center of gravity and to reinforce the overall stiffness and crash performance). The driving range tops 400 km (promised under US homologation rules, different from the European ones) and the X can accelerate up to 250 km/h, while dispatching the initial 100 km/h in brief 3,8 seconds (or speed lightning 3,2 s when in "Ludicrous Speed" mode. Elon Musk is very proud of the interior roominess, flexibility and capability to transport up to 7 occupants – rumor has it that he used his 5 kids (a pair of twins born in 2004 and a set of triplets born two years later) to test proof whatever needs a large family could possibly have while on the road – but it is clearly the fast factor that positions the "X" as a USP: fast in the way it drives, fast in the way it can be recharged. Along with extended driving range, of course.
Porsche and Audi are aiming for the same goal but the way they get there is totally different from the New School method. The e-Tron quattro is Audi´s first electric model designed for series production and will most likely be on the road by early 2018 while the Mission E is Porsche´s first ever full EV concept car promising to morph into a buyable car by late 2018.
The two cars have some aspects in common: the large lithium ion battery placement – with 95 kWh capacity in the Audi which means 5 kWh more than the most powerful version of the Tesla rival –; the all wheel drive (Porsche uses the same electric motors of the Le Mans 919 Hybrid each linked to one axle and Audi employs one motor in the front axle and two propelling the rear wheels); all wheel steering; OLED panels adding to the sci-fi look of the interiors; super fast "fueling" thanks to the 150 kW charger (120 kW in Tesla), high voltage systems to achieve lightning fast recharge times and wireless induction charging to make the process as convenient and hazard free as possible.
Although neither of the technical bosses of Audi and Porsche are around to be asked some of the tech data which has not been disclosed – both Ulrich Hackenberg and Wolfgang Hatz were swept away in the VW "Diesel Gate" scandal – some specifics which differ from one vehicle to the other are still worth noticing: the Mission E works on 800V in order to achieve the promised 500 km driving range, the maximum output of the propulsion system is 600 ps making it possible for the 2 tone car to blast into 100 km/h in less than 3,5 seconds and to 200 km/h in under 12 s. But probably the most jaw-dropping figure is the mere 15 minutes it requires to boost the electric content of the battery from 0 to 80%. Now that is rocket science... especially since there will be hardly any public charging stations capable to handle and benefit from such high voltage... as the now gone with the wind Prof. Hackenberg noted when presenting the e-Tron quattro which works with 480V (there will be 400 charging stations in the German autobahn network by 2018). The Audi EV SUV also announced 500 km of driving range in one battery charge and offers 435 ps/800 Nm with a temporary boost capability of 503 ps ultimately leading to some remarkable despite less impressive performance figures (4,6 s sprinting to 100 km/h and a 210 km/h top speed).
Coming from tech savvy brands such as Porsche and Audi one could only expect some astonishing attributes from either car. So how about the instrument panel controlled by eye tracking and gesture or the holograms to adjust the displays to the driver´s position featured in the most important Porsche since the launch of the 911 half a century ago? Or the adaptive air suspension that lowers the Audi at higher speeds to improve dynamics and efficiency or the advanced charging system that enables DC and AC charging?
Some of these features sound somewhat like rocket science but this is hardly something that might scare away Tesla´s leader, Elon Musk who in the past has risked everything but his life to save the company´s future: in 2008 the development costs of the Roadster model went out of control and Musk signed a 40 million dollar check in front of the stakeholders to convince them to support him in a last effort to save the troubled company. On his other big venture – Space X – things were not getting any easier after two rockets exploded during launching procedures (in one occasion sending the ashes of actor James Doohan – Scotty from the Star Wars series who is immortalized by the "beam me up Scotty" line – to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean rather than to Earth´s orbit as specifically stated by his testament) but eventually he pulled it off. As those were the last dollars on his personal bank account (after which he would have to rely on family and friends to pay for the supermarket bills) the stakeholders were convinced and Tesla gained another chance to have a future.
The tide changed. A 465 million dollar US government grant, technological and financial backup from Mercedes-Benz, joint projects with Toyota and their sympathy (Akio Toyoda sold the discontinued Fremont factory worth a fortune for a mere 42 million dollars in 2011) paved the way for a viable future (Tesla became the first American car maker to go public since Ford Motor Company had its IPO in 1956, while Space X turned into the provider of the first ever private space rocket to be launched by NASA.
It was not an easy journey but Tesla is becoming more and more credible after the Model X launch which along with the Model S will ramp up annual production to over 50 000 units which by 2019 will again be increased by the promising Roadster II (said to be able to blast to 100 km/h in 2 seconds) which, again, will force Old School to look up to see what the disruptive non-orthodox New School company is up to.
European Car of the Year Jury Member