Amid much fanfare, Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors finally unveiled its Model X last week. The $132,000 electric crossover SUV sports falcon-wing doors, a number of state-of-the-art safety features, and a “ludicrous mode” that allows the vehicle to accelerate from zero to 60 miles per hour in three seconds. It is, by all accounts, a James Bond car designed for soccer moms.
But the Model X has one especially peculiar feature that even Bond might not need: a “Bioweapon Defense Mode,” and it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It’s a button that activates a filter that Tesla claims will protect occupants from pollen, bacteria, viruses, and pollution up to 800 times better than normal air filters.
“This is a real button,” Musk said at the car’s unveiling. “We’re trying to be a leader in apocalyptic defense scenarios.”
According to Tesla, the filter is the “first true HEPA filter system available in an automobile allowing medical-grade air to fill the cabin, no matter what is going on outside.” HEPA refers to “high-efficiency particulate arrestance,” a US government standard that requires a filter remove at least 99.97% of harmful particles that are 0.3 micrometers or less.
Some experts are skeptical that the filter is as effective as Musk says it is. Michael Buchmeier, a biodefense expert, told Gizmodo that the Model X would probably work against most bacteria, but could have trouble keeping out viruses like smallpox or influenza, which are much smaller. The influenza A virus, for instance, is only about 80 nanometers (0.08 micrometers) and is hundreds of times smaller than the diameter of a single strand of human hair.
Musk, for what it’s worth, was very quick to respond:
Model X Bioweapon Defense Mode definitely filters viruses btw, even the small ones. Has hospital operating room level filtering.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 2, 2015
There’s no reason to doubt that it’s an extremely effective filter and complies with the HEPA standard. In fact, it may very well be the best car filter ever made (it’s also 10 times larger than normal car filters). For germophobes, that’s not an insignificant feature.
But marketing it as something that could actually help someone in an “apocalyptic scenario” might be a bit of a stretch.