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IHS teardown of Tesla Model S finds more commonality with smartphones and tablets than autos in user-facing electronics

An initial report from IHS’ Teardown Analysis Service finds that, in terms of design, components and manufacturing, the Tesla Model S user-oriented subsystems—i.e., the infotainment and instrumentation system—have more in common with a tablet or smartphone than they do with a conventional automobile.

IHS is in the process of conducting a complete teardown of a 2013 Model S acquired at auction, dissecting and analyzing each subsystem, from the air-conditioning controls, to the safety systems, to the powertrain. The initial analysis focuses on the car’s two most electronics-intensive segments: the virtual instrument cluster and the premium media control unit—aka the head unit—which is the main center stack and touch-screen panel.

The cost structure of the electronics, the use of large displays in the cabin, the touch-screen-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. It’s like looking at the components from the latest mobile device from an Apple iPad or Samsung Galaxy product. When it comes to the user-facing segment of the Model S’s electronics, the company has radically departed from business-as-usual in the automotive market.

—Andrew Rassweiler, senior director for materials and cost benchmarking at IHS

The analysis has generated a list of outstanding features and attributes, including:

  • A huge 17-inch display and touch screen, which is much larger than the average automotive infotainment interface;

  • The use of an NVIDIA Corp. Tegra 3, 1.4-gigahertz quad-core processor, providing computing power in the same league with recent smartphone and tablet designs.

  • The most complex automotive head unit design ever seen by the IHS Teardown Analysis Service, with more than 5,000 discrete components—1,000 more than the highest-end infotainment unit previously analyzed;

  • A bill of materials (BOM) for the virtual instrument cluster and the premium media control unit that is roughly twice the cost of the highest-end infotainment unit examined by IHS.

The cost structure of the Model S’s premium media control unit closely resembles that of a smartphone or tablet because the display and touch screen are the two most expensive subsystems, the same as for an iPhone or iPad. The high cost is due to the sheer scale and size of the display and touchscreen.

The mobile device-like approach to the Model S’s user interface represents a very deliberate choice by Tesla. 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.

—Andrew Rassweiler

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 1,920 by 1,200, again exceeding the norm for cars.

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

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’ 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, IHS noted.

Tesla likely turns over its designs to an electronics manufacturing services (EMS) provider, which then conducts the assembly of the subsystems. IHS understands that in some cases, Tesla is employing EMS providers to build these electronic assemblies.

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.

Tesla 2013 Model S Premium Media Control Unit. Left to right: front, rear and interior views.

An example of how Tesla performs its own custom engineering can be found in the Model S’s touch-screen controller. The large size of the touch screen requires additional electronics, when compared with smaller touchscreens. The IHS 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 subsystem will be provided as part of a turnkey solution from the touchscreen vendor. Click to enlarge.

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

Highlights of teardown
In this video clip, Andrew Rassweiler, Senior Director of Teardown services at IHS Technology, discusses the highlights of his team’s recent teardown of a Tesla Model S.

These modules include the Visual Computing Module, featuring the company’s powerful Tegra 3 processor; a Sierra Wireless HSPA wireless module, featuring a Qualcomm solution; an audio amplifier module from S1NN; a Wi-Fi/Bluetooth module from Parrot.

Virtual instrument cluster. 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 centered on a 12.3-inch diagonal 1280 by 480-resolution LCD from Japan Display Inc., one of Apple’s iPhone 6 and 6 Plus suppliers. This is the center/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 an NVIDIA 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, a less demanding application.

NVIDIA inside. NVIDIA controls one of the largest shares of the value of electronic components throughout the Model S. The two Tegra processors within turnkey embedded modules command a sizable price tag. The NVIDIA visual computing module with Tegra 3 processor on board, in particular—the first time IHS has detected this part in a car—represents a high-value portion of the design.

Major electronic component suppliers. Click to enlarge.

Comprehensive teardown. Beyond the virtual instrument cluster and the premium media control unit, IHS is conducting a teardown of all major subsystems within the Tesla Model S, including the following:

  • Heating, ventilation and air-conditioning controller
  • Thermal controller
  • Park brake controller
  • Power lift gate module
  • Body control unit
  • Sunroof control unit
  • Lift gate taillight
  • Passive safety restraints controller
  • Charger
  • High-voltage junction box
  • Electric vehicle inlet assembly and trim
  • Battery packs
  • Battery management PCB
  • Motor drive/inverter


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Today a Danish newspaper reported another type of Tesla Smartphone commonality. The day after Tesla announced its new Dual drive Model S and autopilot system the number of used Teslas for sale jumped 6 fold in both Denmark, Norway and Germany. http://energiwatch.dk/Energinyt/Cleantech/article7110574.ece?ref=epn

Apparently many Tesla owners want to sell off their old version of the car in order to buy the new one just like it happens each time Apple launch a new iPhone. Off cause with a Tesla it could become a fairly expensive habit but it does benefit those who are in the market for a used Tesla. They should be able to get it for somewhat less.


It seems crazy to do so much electronic engineering themselves, the design costs must be huge (even if they can get it built cheaply). Maybe they want to own all the IP so they can sell it on.

On the scandinavian used tesla market - there must be a lot of money floating about over there. It is one thing to write off a e700 phone, but an e80000 car is really tearing it.
It is still only an electric car - why such a big deal?


Tesla is a Battery Company that just happens to sell Space Transportation, EVs and solar cells through other divisions; all battery intense products. You just don't know they are a battery company yet; but, it will become clear over time, especially when they make their first trillion.

It could be humorous if it weren't so sad to watch the hydrocarbon companies, driven by Wall Street to make obscene profits, fighting to maintain the status quo when the wiser decision would be for them to embrace the whole idea of clean energy and invest in future energies and storage devices, just like Tesla. But, they are trapped by the current system that engenders a false sense of security through greed.

And, finally, the losers in all this are the American people because the fighting slows up the inevitable transition to clean energy.

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It is not crazy if you believe, as Tesla do, that the cars electronic systems are a crucial competitive factor and a major source of utility for the vehicle owner.

Sadly this study is too old to mention Tesla's new autopilot system which could evolve to become the most important of all its electronic systems. To see how extensive this is consider this quote from Tesla's enthusiasts blog. "The launch of Dual Motor Model S coincides with the introduction of a standard hardware package that will enable autopilot functionality. Every single Model S now rolling out of the factory includes a forward radar, 12 long range ultrasonic sensors positioned to sense 16 feet around the car in every direction at all speeds, a forward looking camera, and a high precision, digitally controlled electric assist braking system." http://www.teslamotors.com/blog/dual-motor-model-s-and-autopilot

Tesla believe they can evolve this standard autopilot system into a fully autonomous autopilot system in about 5 years time. It will be quite revolutionary if Tesla can make a fully autonomous car by, say, 2020. You would never need a taxi any more just use your phone to order your car to be at the location you need to travel from. Parking is not a problem either. The car can deliver you to the gate of your destination and drive away to find a free parking spot somewhere before it returns and pick you up as scheduled on your phone. If anyone can make this a standard car feature it would be Tesla.

Another bit of revealing info from Tesla's blog is that Tesla list other things that have been added or improved in the new Model S dual drive including "Electrically opening, self-closing charge port door on Dual Motor Model S (delivered with Dual Motor Model S)."

Now, why would Tesla add this presumably unnecessary feature unless it was because Tesla plans to soon offer a home charger with a robotic arm that can auto connect to Tesla's charging port. All of Tesla's supercharger stations could also get a robotic arm for automatic plugging. The new Tesla's can already use their autopilot to park themselves at home or at a supercharger parking lot so a robotic charging connector is a no-brainer in my opinion.

To be sure, inductive charging is an inferior alternative to plugged charging because it adds significant weight to the car, it is inefficient and is currently nowhere near the 120k Watt that Tesla's superchargers can handle.

PS Yes, many Norwegians are loaded (small nation with lots of oil and gas for export and many other natural riches like inexpensive hydropower and fish). A lot of ordinary Norwegians can afford a Tesla. Danes are not that lucky but we are nevertheless mostly a happy and relaxed people.


I certainly hope their software engineering and management is up to snuff, and that they can quickly take advantage of upgrades in the ARM platform ecosystem. I also wonder if power-hungry NVidia is a culprit in the whole vampire loss problem Tesla's been dealing with for several firmware versions now. Tegra 3 is something like 2 processes back at 40nm, state of the art is 22nm or smaller now...

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