Tesla on Thursday night showed off a new line of dual-motor, all-wheel-drive versions of its Model S sedans, the fastest of which will sprint from 0 to 60 miles per hour in a breakneck 3.2 seconds. That will put it in a class with the quickest production cars on the road.

"Dual-motor," as many suspected, is what the "D" stood for in CEO Elon Musk's cryptic tweet last week announcing Thursday's event. Tesla will introduce three new "D" trim lines for the Model S: the lower-end 60D, the 85D, and the top-of-the-line P85D. The latter will come with three performance settings, Musk said Thursday: "normal," "sport," and, um, "insane."

The front and rear motors, Musk explained, will allow a form of all-wheel drive that is more dynamic and sophisticated than the mechanical systems found in conventional, single-engine all-wheel-drive cars. The result will be a more efficient powertrain that can transfer power seamlessly between the front and rear axles, giving the car not only better handling and acceleration but a greater range and higher top speed.

Those who read Musk's tweet will recall that he also promised "something else." That turned out to be an "A:" autopilot mode. And it is already being added to the Teslas that are coming off the assembly line today.


The autopilot system, Musk said, includes a forward-looking radar and ultrasonic sensors on all sides that can sense "even soft objects, like a small child or even a dog." Among other things, the system will be able to tell "if there's a car in your blind spot, or if you've got a highway barrier on one side," he added.

The result will be a car that has the ability to stay in its lane, adjust its speed to match the flow of traffic, and slam on the brakes to avoid an obstacle-all without the driver's intervention. It will also be able to self-park, Musk said, so "you'll be able to step out of the car and have it park itself in your garage." At some point, Musk added with a twinkle in his eye, he'd also like to add a system that plugs the car into its charger automatically as well.

The autopilot features are on par with some of the most advanced on the road today, but they don't amount to a "self-driving" car, Musk admitted. "The car can do almost anything. But it is at this stage, it's still what we call autopilot as opposed to autonomous. So even though the car is capable of being autonomous ... it's not at the level of safety where you could just fall asleep and arrive at your destination."

Thursday's Tesla event, held at 7 p.m. Pacific time in Hawthorne, California, got off to an awkward start when USA Today published a story about it more than an hour before the event actually began-then unpublished it without telling readers what had happened. It appeared the paper may have inadvertantly broken the company's embargo on the news, which was supposed to lift only after Musk took the stage. The snafu came days after Tesla's vice president of communications, Simon Sproule, left the company after just seven months on the job.

- Slate