Falcon Wing Doors, Range, Towing Cause Big Headaches, Delays for Tesla Model X

When it was unveiled some three years ago as Tesla’s second mass-produced car, the all-electric Tesla Model X crossover SUV promised to be as revolutionary to the automotive world as the limited-production Tesla Roadster was when it redefined how the world saw electric cars and as the Tesla Model S was when it redefined the luxury sports sedan.

Three years on, and the Tesla Model X still hasn’t reached production. Like the cars before it, it has been delayed multiple times, switching from a 2014 model year car to a 2015 model year car and now, a 2016 model-year car with an estimated launch date for Q3 this year.

Will the Tesla Model X reach market this year?

Will the Tesla Model X reach market this year?

For the most part, Tesla has been rather quiet about the delays it faces, but now our friends at GreenCarReports, thanks to some honest-to-goodness investigative journalism, think they have the three reasons for the Tesla Model S delay nailed down: those famous falcon wing doors; range concerns; and towing capabilities.

Those doors

Previously Tesla CEO Elon Musk had mentioned when questioned that quality control issues surrounding the Model X’s second-row ‘falcon wing’ doors — namely ensuring a good seal with the car’s body — was causing the Californian automaker some significant headaches. Unlike traditional car doors, the Tesla Model X’s second-row doors hinge upwards on the car’s roof like gull-wing doors, but fold in on themselves as they open, earning them the ‘falcon wing’ name.

This makes falcon wing doors far more practical for everyday use in tight parking spaces, since they require far less space to open than a gull wing door.

After speaking with some of Tesla’s suppliers off the record however, GreenCarReports’ senior editor John Voelcker says that those very same doors are causing Tesla some significant headaches. Creating a tight seal between the car and the door, a problem which is apparently now solved, is just the start.

The Tesla Model X's falcon wing doors continue to cause headaches.

The Tesla Model X’s falcon wing doors continue to cause headaches.

In creating a car body with such a large opening for the falcon wing doors, Tesla has been faced with a tough engineering challenge to ensure that the Model X retains its structural integrity in the event of a side impact. With such a large opening, Tesla’s Model X falcon wing doors have to correctly mate with the rest of the car body to offer occupants the very best possible side-impact production. This means engineering door panels which are as strong as the rest of the all-aluminium body, which in turns means using some pretty strong, heavy cross-beams.

That increased weight of course increases the total weight of each door, putting strain on both the door opening mechanism and the springs used in the falcon wing door hinges. Made worse by the choice of construction material — aluminium being strong and lightweight but more prone to stress fractures and tears when forces are exerted over a small area like a hinge — GreenCarReports’ sources suggest Tesla is working on a high-strength alloys to fashion the Model X’s roof, while a high-strength, titanium allow will likely be used for the door hinge mountings.

Range concerns

As Voelcker has reiterated many times during his regular appearances on the Transport Evolved panel show, the Tesla Model X is a much larger, heavier car than the current generation Tesla Model S with which the Model X shares its basic chassis.

In fact, the similarities between both cars and the development of the all-wheel drive motor layout for the Model X were what enabled Tesla to bring the dual-motor Model S sedan to market late last year.

The Model S sedan is relatively sleek, with an aerodynamic design and small frontal area. The Model X is larger and higher, with a larger frontal area and we presume, far more prone to suffering the effects of aerodynamic drag.

The larger frontal area on the Model X -- and its heavier weight -- could be causing some range headaches.

The larger frontal area on the Model X — and its heavier weight — could be causing some range headaches.

To counteract the effect of that larger frontal area, Tesla had hoped that the Model X would be given permission to use rear-view cameras mounted in each door instead of physical rear-view mirrors. Far more aerodynamic, these tiny cameras would have helped the Model X dramatically reduce its drag coefficient and help it achieve the magic 250-miles of promised range stated at its unveiling.

With the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration still mandating physical reflective door mirrors however, that’s unlikely to happen before the Model X’s promised launch date, so Tesla is having to work extra-hard to reduce weight and improve aerodynamic performance in every conceivable way. That, says Voelcker, is taking some time.

Towing problems

While Tesla has promised the Model X will be capable of towing as much as a mid-sized pickup truck, becoming the first all-electric car to receive towing certification, adding additional weight for the Model X to tow is having a negative effect on the car’s massive electric motors.

The more work you ask an electric motor to do, the hotter it becomes. When it comes to towing a heavy trailer, horse box or boat on a long journey, Tesla’s engineers have to ensure that the electric motors in the Model X remain as cool — and as efficient — as possible. That means developing a whole new refrigerant-based cooling system to keep the motors happy on long trips, say inside sources.

As Voelcker notes, Tesla has the reputation for solving the kind of engineering problems that many have already deemed impossible. But with Tesla maintaining its Model X launch will happen ‘on track’ for Q3 this year, some of its suppliers are less sure.

It's worth remembering though, that Tesla is known for its ability to pull metaphorical rabbits out of hats.

It’s worth remembering though, that Tesla is known for its ability to pull metaphorical rabbits out of hats.

“I personally think we are 18-24 months away from a general Model X release right now,” said one source. “I am just not seeing a company ramping up tooling and equipment to deliver a new vehicle in less than four or five months from now.”

With Tesla’s Q4 2014 and full-year 2014 earnings call due tomorrow evening after the stock market closes in New York, we’re going to be paying close attention to see if there are any hints that Tesla’s highly-anticipated electric SUV will hit this latest market launch date — or if it will yet again be delayed.

Watch this space.

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