On an conference call after Tesla reported second-quarter earnings on Wednesday, CEO Elon Musk explained that one of the problems that the company is having with the launch of it Model X SUV is that the back seats have become a struggle.
“I don’t want to sort of name specific suppliers,” Musk said, “but our biggest challenges are with the second row seat, which is, it’s an amazing seat, like a sculptural work of art, but a very tricky thing to get right.”
But wait, isn’t a seat a seat? And this is the back seat, not even the all-important driver’s seat. How hard could it be to get right?
It could be pretty hard.
As it turns out, on Wednesday morning, I attended an event held by Lincoln, Ford’s luxury brand, to showcase a new 30-way seat that’s a feature of the company’s revamped Lincoln Continental. It’s an amazing piece of engineering, but it took quite a while to create.
Lincoln’s Johnathan Line, a seat specialist, was on hand to go over all the cool new things that the seat can do. So we reached out on Thursday to find out how difficult it is to design and build an entirely new seating concept, something that Tesla is apparently trying to do.
“With any new development, there are obstacles to overcome,” he said. “Those are inevitable.”
He pointed out the new Lincoln seat, from start to finish, took 5-6 years to design, engineer, test, and build. That’s half a decade for one of the biggest car companies in the world. You can imagine what Tesla, in business for only about 10 years and currently trying to build two cars on one assembly line, is up against.
“A seat not only has to be something that people have to be able sit on, you have to have an architecture that helps meet all legal and public-demand requirements,” he said. Also, seats contain various mechanisms and are made from assorted modules. Anyone who has owned a car knows that seat components can fail. They’re far more complex than they were when a simple bench of metal and vinyl got the job done.
Line thinks Tesla is doing some great things but isn’t surprised that there have been some production issues with the Model X. The electric car startup will figure it out, however. “[W]e’re always able to find the right balance of factors,” he said. “I’m confident the solutions are out there.”
He also isn’t surprised that Tesla is attempting to make the lowly back seat something spectacular.
“I totally agree that there’s a ton of opportunity,” he said about the upscaling of vehicle interiors. At Ford/Lincoln, according to Line, the concept that the company pursues is “occupant-centered design” and has come up with an entire “comfort DNA” to improve the in-vehicle driver and passenger experience.
“It’s a person driving the car, not the car driving the person,” he said.
No one has actually seen the production Model X’s seats yet, although some photos of prototype seating are available around the Internet. We won’t see the “sculpture” that Musk is talking about until the car launches in late September, and Tesla isn’t yet sharing official media images.
Interestingly, few expected the Model X to have back-seat problems. Scepticism about the vehicle’s design had instead focused on the exotic, upswinging “falcon wing” doors. But according to Musk — who in addition to being the CEO is also the company’s main and most important road-tester — they’re working well.