Tesla Model X: Just How Do Those Falcon Wing Doors Work?

Opening gracefully skyward, granting easy access to both second and third row seats, the famous falcon wing doors of the  brand-new Tesla Model X electric SUV are certainly unlike anything we’ve seen before.  Designed to make it easy for adults to gain access to the rear of the vehicle, even when there are child seats in the second row, the Model X’s falcon wing doors are fully automated and can operate in the type of tight spaces where even traditional automotive doors would struggle.

Just how do those majestic doors open? Read on to find out.

Just how do those majestic doors open? Read on to find out.

Unlike gull wing doors, which consist of a single, rigid door panel on each side of the car which hinges upwards to grant access to the inside of the vehicle, Tesla’s falcon wing doors use a double-hinge mechanism, allowing the doors to not only rise upwards, but fold as they do so, reducing the space that’s needed to allow them to safely open.

At last night’s launch event for the Tesla Model X, Elon Musk demonstrated that the Model X can open its doors in a variety of environments without hitting either the roof of the parking garage or nearby parked cars or walls. Even when there’s barely enough space for someone to exit the vehicle, the doors happily rise and fold without a fuss.

So just how do those incredible falcon wing doors work? And how does the Model X seemingly know how to fold its doors perfectly in every situation?

The key, as we discovered last night while watching the Tesla Motors [NASDAQ:TSLA] live stream from the Model X launch party, lies in an elegant combination of sonar sensors, software algorithms, and fully-independent motor drive units for each part of each door.

As Musk detailed, Tesla’s engineers were given a tough task with the Model X: to make it possible for the falcon wing doors to open in any situation with a minimum of one foot of room either side of the car.

Even in tight spaces, the Model X carefully adjusts its door arc to ensure nothing gets damaged.

Even in tight spaces, the Model X carefully adjusts its door arc to ensure nothing gets damaged.

With just that criteria to worry about, the problem would have been easy to solve: program the servo motors used to open the massive doors to coordinate the raising of the top half of the door while simultaneously adjusting the bottom half to stay parallel to the body of the car, only raising the bottom half to be perpendicular to the ground after the roof line of the Model X had been reached.

But with the fully-raised doors adding somewhere between a third to a half of the Model X’s closed-door height, Tesla’s engineers needed to ensure that the falcon wing doors wouldn’t hit the ceiling of a parking garage every time they opened.

The solution? A brand-new type of sonar developed exclusively for the Model X which is capable of passing through metal. Traditionally, vehicular sonar — such as the ones used in parking sensor systems — cannot work effectively through metal. In the case of the Model X however, Musk said a series of sonar sensors on each door would have looked unsightly, so Tesla’s engineers set to work to develop one which would work through the Model X’s body panels.

With sonar sensors measuring both the distance to the nearest objects on each side of the car and ones on the roof detecting vertical clearance, the Model X then calculates the correct opening arc for each and every situation where the doors are opened, controlling each motor independently to ensure the falcon wing doors never hit another car or another object. If the car detects vehicles are close by to the side but there’s plenty of room above, it raises the upper portion of the door while keeping the lower portion close to the body of the vehicle. If the opposite is true, it opens more to the side and less to the ceiling.

The Model X falcon wing doors are fully automatic, as are the front doors.

The Model X falcon wing doors are fully automatic, as are the front doors.

In everyday use, we’re sure most customers won’t even think twice about how the Model X’s massive falcon wing doors open and close, but given the number of times we’ve seen the falcon wing doors blamed for delays to the Model X production, it’s good to know just how much hard work Tesla’s engineering team have put in to make sure the doors behave perfectly every time they’re used.

And if that wasn’t enough, it’s worth mentioning that the Model X’s front doors are a pretty impressive piece of engineering too: doors which automatically detect where you are, and open as you approach.

The technology here is slightly less complicated: using multiple sensors on the body of the car, the Model X can triangulate the position of someone approaching the car with their Tesla smart keyfob in their pocket. When the car determines that the approaching person intends to get inside the car, it automatically opens the front door for them — and closes it when the occupant is safely sat inside.

There was a time when we thought that Tesla would change the way cars drove on the road. Now it seems the Californian automaker is changing the way we use doors too.

Prepare to geek out.


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