Is the Tesla a car or an iPad?
That’s the question engineers at the IHS automotive-research firm posed as they dissected one of the electric-car company’s pricey Model S sedans.
They found that the design, components and manufacturing process that went into the car’s infotainment and instrumentation systems have more in common with a tablet or smartphone than they do with a conventional automobile.
“It’s like looking at the components from the latest mobile device from an Apple iPad or Samsung Galaxy product,” said Andrew Rassweiler, senior director for materials and cost benchmarking at IHS.
He said the electronic architecture of the sporty electric car is dramatically different from the approach of other automakers and their parts suppliers.
“The cost structure of the electronics, the use of large displays in the cabin, the touchscreen-based controls, the mobile microchips — everything in this design makes the Tesla experience more like a media tablet or high-end smartphone than a traditional automobile,” Rassweiler said.
For its analysis, IHS is dissecting each subsystem in the Tesla, including the air-conditioning controls, safety systems and powertrain. The tear-down is continuing, but here are some of the findings that IHS says set Tesla apart from the rest of the automotive industry:
— The big, 17-inch display and touchscreen is much larger than the average automotive infotainment interface. It uses an NVIDIA Corp. Tegra 3, 1.4-gigahertz quad-core processor, which generates the same computing power as the latest smartphones and tablet designs. Typically, automakers lag phone-industry technology by years.
— IHS said the major module or “head unit” of the infotainment system is the most complex design it has seen in a car. It contains more than 5,000 discrete components — 1,000 more than the highest-end infotainment unit IHS has previously dissected.
— A review of the parts found that it also is the most expensive, roughly twice the cost of the highest-end infotainment unit examined by IHS.
— The display and touchscreen are the two most expensive subsystems in the system. Screens also are the most expensive part of an iPhone or iPad, Rassweiler said, adding that Tesla was using the pricey parts because it wanted to present a mobile-device-like interface for the driver.
“The company really wanted to do things differently, and employed virtual controls — rather than physical knobs and buttons — to take over the user experience,” Rassweiler said. “This approach required a major investment in big displays and touch panels.”
For example, the Model S display is 10 inches larger than the typical screen sizes seen in other cars. It is manufactured by TPK Holdings, which also has supplied touchscreens for Apple.
The tear-down of the car also gave analysts a peek at another unconventional approach taken by Tesla. The company clearly conducted its own design and engineering work on much of the electronics. Many of the printed circuit boards in the head unit and instrument cluster have the Tesla Motors label. Most automakers purchased similar electronic parts from suppliers such as Alpine, Harman and Panasonic, Rassweiler said.
He said Tesla’s approach provides more control over the costs and sourcing of parts. Tesla designs the circuit boards and likely has an electronic-parts contractor build them. This is a strategy employed by smartphone or tablet sellers. Apple, for example, keeps tight control over its iPad and iPhone designs, while outsourcing the assembly to EMS companies such as Foxconn, Rassweiler said.
Palo Alto-based Tesla Motors is continuing to add features to the Model S, which starts at about $71,000 and climbs above $100,000 depending on options.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently announced that the car will soon be available with an all-wheel-drive system and some automated safety features. The company also plans to offer a high-performance version of the car that will start at $120,000. With a combined 691 horsepower from two electric motors, Tesla says the car will surge silently from zero to 60 mph in 3.2 seconds.