Hands free: Tesla Model S P90D vs BMW 730Ld
We send our office humanoid to test Tesla's P90D against the BMW 7-Series
Fourteen miles – that’s the best I manage. Fourteen miles without touching the steering wheel or a pedal. Watching the car steer its way down the road is strange. I hover my hands, but the Tesla seems content getting on with things itself. It maintains gaps, waits for slower-moving cars to pull over before accelerating, and generally drives with better discipline than anything else on the road.
I know what you’re thinking – is this legal? Well, there’s nothing in the Highway Code that says you can’t. Rule 150 simply says: “You MUST exercise proper control of your vehicle at all times. Do not rely on driver-assistance systems such as cruise control or lane-departure warnings.” Nothing about keeping hands on the steering wheel or feet on the pedals.
This feature was originally published in the April 2016 issue of Top Gear magazine.
Photography: Richard PardonAdvertisement - Page continues below
Tesla is pushing the technological envelope. And it’s pushing it further than other companies. Try the same trick in the BMW 730Ld, and it’ll give you two seconds’ grace after removing your hands before the bonging starts. But now that the technology is there, and it works, it’s just a question of where each company chooses to draw the boundaries. That’s what this test is about – picking apart the technology on two of the most cutting-edge cars available today. They’re not, we should point out, direct rivals, although each illuminates the other in interesting ways.
Stripped back to basics, the all-electric Tesla is faster (it’s a P90D, rated at 762bhp), more efficient and super-simple to operate. The BMW is more luxurious and has bigger back seats.
Let’s have a look at the drivetrains of each first, because though I don’t want that to be the focus of this test, it is very interesting. The BMW sports an entirely conventional diesel engine mated to a gearbox with many speeds. Noise is well suppressed, pace is good, it’ll knock around at over 40mpg. But then you drive the Tesla and realise that for noise and smoothness, it blows the BMW away. Electric power makes so much sense for luxury cars.
Tesla has done a cracking job of sorting the Model S’s throttle modulation and response – there’s no lurch or surge in it at low speeds, which, considering the power on tap, is remarkable. There is a gearstick – it’s the right-hand column stalk (the switchgear is nabbed from Mercedes), but there is only one forwards gear, another for reverse. No starter button either, nor a handbrake. Everything is automatic, which makes the Tesla blissfully simple to operate: you get in, the electrics are already up and running, you slot it into gear and away you go. The most complex thing you have to do is fasten your seatbelt.Advertisement - Page continues below
Steer yourself towards a road with decent painted markings, pull the cruise control stalk once for radar distance cruise, or twice for full Autopilot, where it steers for you, too. You can nudge the speed up and down, increase or decrease the distance the car sits behind the one in front, but the whole ethos of the Tesla is to make the driving experience as effortless as possible. And it’s very good at it indeed: the graphics on the dash are simple and instantly understood, and you quickly feel confident that it knows what it’s doing.
And then you wonder if this confidence is misplaced. It can only see 160 metres up the road, and when all’s said and done, the technology is hardly that clever: it spots white lines and sits between them, and keeps you from crashing into the car in front. You compare the car’s sources of information to your own and realise just how basic its vision is.
Just because the BMW is more insistent that you keep your hands on the wheel doesn’t mean it’s any better. The opposite, in fact, chiefly as a result of the sheer amount of information the car insists on bombarding you with. There are orange and green stripes, speed readouts, stuff in the head-up display – you struggle to work out what’s important and what’s not.
The systems underneath are near-enough identical, and the same drawbacks apply to both: they are only reactive, not proactive. They can’t see that the car six ahead is braking and that the concertina effect will soon mean you will be too, or that the car in the inside lane will soon want to come out to pass the truck ahead of it. There is no anticipation, no prediction. Compared to a human, they are very simple indeed.
Yet they provide a service. How often do you see people drifting across lanes because they’re fiddling with their phones? All the time, right? People are more distracted than ever before and, as a result, not safe – Tesla’s Autopilot system has the potential to make them safer. Of course, they shouldn’t be fiddling with their phones at all, but some people are tempted, aren’t they?
So as technology tempts us to take risks, so it helps us to prevent accidents. And make no mistake, the driver control systems on these cars are just another step along the road to full autonomy. This is the line along which cars and driving will eventually separate. Those that aren’t interested will be able to get into their capsule or whatever and arrive where they need to be. Those that care about driving, will drive. In something worth driving.
Let’s get back to these particular cars. As a new start-up, Tesla has thought clearly about how you interact with the car. The central screen is wonderful and easy to navigate; the technology, accessible and simple. It updates itself overnight, just like any other bit of software. The car itself is not targeted at any other – it’s its own thing, different to anything else. The BMW occupies a much more regimented position. It must battle the Mercedes S-Class, Audi A8 et al – it must have the same equipment, the same abilities. This constrains the thinking, leaves engineers and designers little room to play with.Advertisement - Page continues below
The end result for the customer is a car that comes across as having had technology crammed into a conventional, familiar layout, the consequences being endless menus, baffling complexity, needless options. Take Gesture Control. It’s very clever, and it works well, but why do you need to adjust the volume by orbiting your hand under the mirror, when you already have a knob to do so on the centre console and buttons on the steering wheel? In total, this 7-Series contains six interactive screens, seven if you include the key. It’s just too much. It’s hard to operate.
I said at the beginning that these cars throw light on each other. The Tesla makes you realise how beneficial electric power is in luxury cars, and how a simple, clean approach to technology makes it more accessible. The BMW? Well, it highlights just how expensive the Tesla is. The BMW is far better finished and designed inside, yet, even with over £20,000 of options fitted, still costs less than a basic P90D. Of course there are cheaper Model S cars (the range starts at £57,335), but as far as value for money goes, the 730Ld has it licked.
But this test is about technology, and on that score Tesla is ahead. It has realised that the best way to integrate technology is to remove as much complexity as possible, to make it simple to operate. It’s done so brilliantly. The mainstream marques could learn from that.Advertisement - Page continues below