Much of the attention around the Tesla Model X has focused on its unique vertically-opening Falcon doors. They are dramatic and exciting, but they’re also a pain to build. Now, in an attempt to make the doors work better, it appears Tesla may have quietly made them less safe. (Update: Tesla’s response below.)
The issue stems from the door’s sensor array. Being a powered door, the Model X relies on a set of sensors to determine if the door mechanism is in a position to damage the car or possibly hurt someone by crushing a body part in the door. But it appears a recent change to the car’s firmware to get the doors working properly could lead to objects, or hands, getting inadvertently crushed.
The firmware update was made earlier this month because the inductive sensors that prevent arm-crushing are also ones that tend to give false positives, making the doors not work and frustrate customers. It seems to have some unusual consequences now.
The issue was first brought to light by a Model X owner who runs the MEtv Product Reviews YouTube channel. He demonstrates the issue in this two-part video:
... and part 2:
The most dramatic part in that first video is likely where he uses the Model X as an $80,000 vegetable slicer, the door easily clipping a cucumber in half. The videos do seem to show that those inside door panel inductive sensors are no longer operating, and the result is that an object can easily be crushed in the door.
I know you could be thinking that you should just keep your hand away from the door, like you would with any car. But that’s not really the same thing. Those Falcon doors are powered, and as such need to have reasonable safety systems in place.
The possibility of injury here seems plausible. It’s very easy to picture how a kid might be in the car with an arm reaching out of the door opening and resting on the car when the closing door comes down on their limb. Kids can be incredibly unaware of their environment and easily not realize the door is closing. (As a former child and current child owner/operator, I can attest to this.)
Why is this happening? Again, it has to do with the car’s sensors.
To protect the door from striking an object on the outside, there’s a set of ultrasonic sensors in the lower part of the door—this should keep the door from smashing itself into, say, low parking deck ceilings. And to keep from crushing errant fingers, tongues, hands, and other body parts, the door has a set of pinch sensors in the weatherstripping to detect if something is, you guessed it, pinched.
There’s also a set of inductive sensors in the interior panel of the door that help keep it from crushing anything inside the car, or something or someone or someone’s something that may be in the doorframe, where the door would crush it before the object or limb made contact with the pinch sensors. You can see them in action here:
It’s that last set of ultrasonic sensors that appear to have been disabled in a recent Model X firmware update.
I reached out to the poster of the videos to confirm some of the information in the videos, specifically to confirm Tesla told him they disabled the inside door panel sensors, emphasis mine:
I was told they were deemed no longer necessary. They were turned off in v 7.1 2.32.100. I took it to mean that they couldn’t get the buggy inductive sensor to work properly, and since everyone was having issues with them removed them and didn’t tell anyone until I asked because I noticed the behavior had changed. You can see how they work in my previous videos. I don’t think there is any other video online that shows how the inductive sensors work. ...
Everyone’s had issues with phantom object detection which is caused by these inductive sensors. Take from this what you will, but it looks like they figured out a way to just remove them and use the motors in the hinges to detect. How it pinches, before with the inductive it stops on contact.
This recent Tesla firmware update, sent wirelessly to all Model X vehicles, seemed to take care of the phantom object issues. But, it appears that Tesla’s solution wasn’t really a solution at all; they just shut off the sensors that tended to give problematic data.
The pinch sensor won’t help here, because by the time it’s engaged, the damage is done; the thicker interior panels have already crushed the object in the door, as demonstrated with that doomed cucumber.
But crushed vegetables aren’t the most alarming thing about this whole story. This specific example with the doors and the cucumber and pressure gauges is attention-grabbing, but it’s the unseen part that has me the most perplexed: if this proves to be accurate, this suggests that Tesla disabled a crucial safety feature of their customer’s cars without informing anyone. That’s a big deal.
Here’s a screengrab of the Model X’s center stack screen showing information about the firmware update, release V. 7.1:
Here’s what it says about the update:
• Falcon Wing door closing behavior has been improved
• The Falcon Wing Door will stop and open back up slightly if it detects an obstacle
Okay, improved closing behavior is great, as is the opening back up a bit if it hits an obstacle. What’s not so great is that to get that improved closing behavior, some very crucial safety sensors have apparently been disabled. I feel like that should have been mentioned here.
The ability to adjust the parameters of a car remotely, to send new software that improves the car or unlocks new capabilities is an amazing thing. Tesla has used this ability more than any carmaker ever has, and it’s revolutionary.
They’re real pioneers here, but that also means they’re pioneers on the downside of this capability: a manufacturer has the power to remove features from a customer’s car remotely as well, and, as we’ve seen here, that feature could be a safety feature that many would consider crucial.
If Tesla can’t get these sensors’ behavior working the way they want, and they feel the only way to get there is by disabling safety sensors, at the very least they should be obligated to inform their customers, clearly and spelling out the possible dangers of what this change means.
I’ll update this story with Tesla’s response as soon as I get it.
UPDATE: We got a response from Tesla! It says almost nothing:
We adjusted Model X Falcon Wing doors via a software update in order to improve closure consistency and reduce false detection of obstacles.
Yeah, that part we knew.