Everyone knows that Tesla Motors Inc. doesn’t do things the same way as other automakers.

However, the company’s unique approach to automaking runs far deeper than the Model S’s electric drivetrain, battery packs and futuristic body. In fact, the company’s unconventional approach extends all the way down to the electronics behind the car’s infotainment and instrumentation systems, according to the Teardown Analysis Service at IHS Technology.

A physical dissection of the Model S reveals that in terms of design, components and manufacturing, these user-oriented subsystems have more in common with a tablet or smartphone than they do with a conventional automobile.

“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,” says Andrew Rassweiler, senior director for materials and cost benchmarking at IHS. “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.”

(Watch Andrew Rassweiler discuss the teardown with Electronics360 Managing Editor Dylan McGrath.)


IHS is in the process of conducting a complete teardown of a Model S, 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 analysis has generated a list of outstanding features and superlative 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.

Tesla 2013 Model S instrument cluster - rear view. Source: IHSTesla 2013 Model S instrument cluster - rear view. Source: IHS
“The mobile device-like approach to the Model S’s user interface represents a very deliberate choice by Tesla,” Rassweiler says. “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.”
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.

Unconventional Approach

Significantly, 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.

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.

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.

Custom Engineering

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.

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 company’s 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 Clusters

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.

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 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.

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; and motor drive/inverter.

Additional Resources: IHS Technology