Electric carmaker Tesla will commandeer the Hawthorne airport tonight, and much of the Internet’s attention, to reveal ... something.
Exactly what, neither the company nor its media-savvy chief Elon Musk is saying, other than it will involve the letter D and “something else.”
But analysts at Barclays Capital think they have it figured out.
“Based on previously announced Tesla product plans, we believe the announcement will be around two ‘Ds': driver assistance systems and a dual motor Model S (to provide all-wheel drive capability),” Barclays said in a statement Monday.
Both expectations make sense. Nearly every high-end luxury car that is in the price range of the Tesla Model S ($72,000 to $95,740 before tax credits or rebates) offers all-wheel drive: Audi’s Quattro system, BMW’s xDrive or Mercedes-Benz’s 4Matic.
“All-wheel drive is a mainstream feature that many of today’s luxury shoppers expect,” said Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book. “The technology is now seen as a premium feature, and luxury buyers will pay extra for the increased confidence it provides.”
Fitting all-wheel drive to the Model S would be an easy proposition for Tesla. The company’s forthcoming Model X crossover will be all-wheel drive. Like the Model S, it will have one drive unit powering the rear wheels, but then add a second unit on the front wheels.
And the Model S has the physical space to fit a second unit, considering there’s no engine up front, only another trunk Tesla calls the “Frunk.” And a second drive unit could be where Tesla is getting the new D designation from.
Then there is the prospect of the “something else.” Both the analysts at Barclays and Kelley Blue Book see Thursday’s announcement addressing the lack of automatic collision avoidance features on the current Model S.
“I think the D probably stands for automated driving, and I think that’s where Musk sees an opportunity for Tesla to separate itself from the rest of the pack,” said Matt DeLorenzo, managing editor of Kelley Blue Book.
Similar to the conspicuous absence of all-wheel drive, Tesla notably doesn’t offer collision avoidance technologies like pre-collision braking or lane-keeping assist, nor does it offer radar-based cruise control.
Such features are becoming widespread on a growing number of vehicles including a host of non-luxury brands. The $27,000 Subaru Legacy we tested in August had these features.
Making them available on the Model S would be a critical safety update that luxury customers expect. It would also help reinforce the company’s earlier claims that the sedan was the safest car ever tested.
Without a heavy engine full of combustible liquids sitting in front of the passenger compartment, the entire front section of the Model S can absorb the energy from a crash better than cars with gas engines. This setup helped the Model S earn a five-star crash rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in August 2013.
Tesla, aided by Musk’s characteristic braggadocio, made headlines when announcing the crash test results by calling the Model S the safest car ever made. But the move earned a quiet reprimand from federal safety regulators, who said that in fact seven cars since 2011 had earned the same highest rating in all categories.
What’s more, NHTSA doesn’t crash test most high-end luxury cars that compete with the Model S. And since many of those cars feature collision-avoidance technologies, they are arguably safer if they prevent the crash from happening in the first place.
By bringing the Model S in line with the addition of these tech-based safety features, Tesla would render that shortcoming moot.
“Also, it’s interesting that Tesla has a technical relationship with [Mercedes-Benz parent company] Daimler, which is pretty much on the forefront of autonomous systems,” DeLorenzo said.
We’ll find out how accurate these predictions are later tonight. The event -- held for Tesla owners and the media -- starts at 7 p.m. PST. Stay tuned.