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Tearing down Tesla Model S: Is it a car or an iPad?

Posted: 16 Oct 2014     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:electric vehicle  Tesla  Model S  teardown 

Analysts said the cost structure of the Model S's premium media control unit closely resembles that of a smartphone or tablet because the display and touchscreen are the two most expensive sub-systems, the same as for an iPhone or iPad.

The Model S display is some 10 inches larger than the typical screen sizes seen in many automotive head units. The resolution of the display is 1920 x1200, again exceeding the norm for cars.

The touchscreen is made by TPK Holdings, which also was the first touchscreen supplier to Apple for the initial models of the iPhone.

Tesla Model S

Front view of the Model S instrument cluster. (Source: IHS)

Designed by Tesla

In another sign of Tesla's unconventional approach, the company has conducted its own design and engineering activity for the electronics: multiple printed circuit boards (PCBs) in the Model S's head unit and instrument cluster bear the Tesla moniker.

Automakers typically delegate the electronic design of items such as head units to major automotive suppliers, such as Alpine, Harman, Panasonic and others. By conducting its own design in this area, Tesla not only can deliver a highly differentiated solution, but also has much more control over the costs and sourcing of parts.

The automaker likely turns over its designs to an electronics manufacturing services (EMS) provider, which then conducts the assembly of the sub-systems, according to analysts.

With this model, Tesla once again is behaving more like a smartphone or tablet seller than a normal carmaker. Apple, for example, keeps tight control over its iPad and iPhone designs, while outsourcing the assembly to EMS companies such as Foxconn.

An example of how Tesla performs its own custom engineering can be found in the Model S's touchscreen controller. The large size of the touchscreen requires additional electronics, when compared with smaller touchscreens. The teardown indicates that Tesla apparently has developed its own touch-controller PCB to manage this task. With smaller smartphone and tablet touchscreens, in many cases the touch control sub-system will be provided as part of a turnkey solution from the touchscreen vendor.

Module multiplicity

The Premium Media Control Unit also employs an unusual modular approach that leverages solutions from semiconductor makers and other suppliers.

These modules include the visual computing module, featuring the Tegra 3 processor; a Sierra Wireless HSPA wireless module with a Qualcomm solution; an audio amplifier module from S1NN; and a Wi-Fi/Bluetooth module from Parrot.

Virtual reality

Virtual instrument clusters replace the traditional array of dials with a liquid-crystal display (LCD), giving automotive designers more options.

While still uncommon, the Model S is not the first car torn down by IHS that features a virtual instrument cluster. Just before the Model S, the IHS Teardown Analysis Service conducted a teardown of a Cadillac instrument cluster.

Tesla's virtual instrument cluster is c entered on a 12.3-inch diagonal 1280 x 480-resolution LCD from Japan Display Inc., one of Apple's iPhone 6 and 6 Plus suppliers.

This is the core of the design and—just as in the head unit—it is the single largest cost driver. The Cadillac system has the same display size and resolution display, but from another vendor.

Computing muscle car

The virtual instrument cluster features the NVIDIA Visual Computing Module, an unexpected and impressive show of computing power that features a Tegra 2 processor. Considering there is also a Tegra 3 in the premium media control unit, this is a notable array of computing horsepower in a single automobile.

While some other automakers are using the Tegra 2 in their head units, Tesla is bringing the prodigious chip to bear on the instrument cluster, which is a less demanding application.

"The mobile device-like approach to the Model S's user interface represents a very deliberate choice by Tesla," Rassweiler said. "The company really wanted to do things differently and employed virtual controls—rather than physical knobs and buttons—to take over the user experience. This approach required a major investment in big displays and touch panels, similar to the approach Apple took when designing the iPhone and iPad."

- Jasmine Solana
  EE Times India

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