Tesla S teardown reveals it's more like a smartphone than a car

Tesla’s virtual instrument cluster comes from the same company that supplies Apple with display tech for the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus.

Tesla model s digital panels
High-end electronics

IHS Technology is dismantling a Tesla S sedan, and started with the cabin and its electronics. IHS found an infotainment and instrumentation system custom-designed and built with state-of-the-art technology, as well as a supply chain methodology that more closely resembles Apple's build model for an iPhone or iPad than that of a traditional automobile maker.

"That’s a big difference between Tesla and, for the most part, the rest of the automotive manufacturer space. Most [car makers] turn everything over -- lock, stock and barrel -- to third parties," said Andrew Rassweiler, senior director of cost benchmarking services at IHS.

In the traditional model, a car maker would set certain parameters for its infotainment system, but then send it off to Panasonic, Alpine or Harmon to be designed and built using a long supply chain. Tesla, in contrast, designs the infotainment system and then sends it off to be built like Foxconn would build an iPhone for Apple, Rassweiler said.

Two NVIDIA Tegra processor modules are at the heart of the electronic components in the Model S, which "command a sizable price tag," according to Rassweiler. Here is a look at how they work.

tesla 2013 model s premium media control unit front view
Credit: IHS
Premium Media Control Unit - front view

Tesla's 17-in. center display is 10-in. larger than the average infotainment system (also called a head unit) screen.

IHS called the entertainment head unit "the most complex...design ever seen by the IHS Teardown Analysis Service."

The head unit has more than 5,000 discrete components, around 1,000 more than the highest-end infotainment unit IHS previously analyzed. Likewise, a bill of materials for the virtual instrument cluster and the premium media control unit is roughly twice the cost of the highest-end infotainment unit examined by IHS.

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, according to IHS.

tesla 2013 model s premium media control unit rear view
Premium Media Control Unit - rear view

The unit is built by Innolux Corp. in Taiwan. The separate audio amplifier module for the sound system is built by S1nn GmbH in Germany.

The DRAM and NAND flash used with the NVIDIA Visual Computing Modules come from SK Hynix.

The head unit also contains a field-programmable gate array from Altera Corp.

tesla 2013 model s premium media control unit interior view
Premium Media Control Unit - interior view

An interior view of the Tesla 2013 Model S Premium Media Control Unit.

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

Other microcontrollers used in the unit come from Freescale Semiconductor and Texas Instruments (including the assorted analog, logic and specialized IC content in multiple modules).

The wireless chipset module is built by Sierra Wireless and Qualcomm. Parrot built the Model S's combination BT and WLAN Wi-Fi hotspot module.

tesla infotainment system
Credit: Lucas Mearian
Bring on the infotainment

Tesla's Model S infotainment system has been highly rated by consumers. At the Detroit Telematics Show this past June, for example, automotive market research firm SBD presented survey results from 46 consumers who had purchased any new car over the past year. The owners overwhelmingly chose two primary functions that they wanted in a car's infotainment system -- navigation and music. Google search and Pandora also ranked high among the drivers.

The new car owners chose Tesla's infotainment system over similar systems in the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, the Porsche PCM, the Dodge Ram 1500, the Nissan Altima and the Honda Civic.

Those surveyed said they liked the Tesla S's infotainment system's large screen size, and the big, easy-to-find icons and intuitive interface that made it simple to use.

tesla rev2
Instrument Cluster - front view

Here we see a front view of Tesla's virtual instrument cluster, which contains functions such as the digital speedometer, tachometer and vehicle alert system.

Prior to the Tesla teardown, IHS dismantled Cadillac's virtual instrument cluster, which was similar in size, resolution and functionality.

Tesla’s version is a 12.3-in. diagonal, 1280 x 480-resolution LCD from Japan Display Inc., which is also a supplier for Apple’s iPhone 6 and 6 Plus.

As with the infotainment system, the virtual instrument display is among the single largest costs from an electronics perspective, according to IHS.

tesla 2013 model s instrument cluster rear view
Instrument Cluster - rear view

It's powered by an NVIDIA Visual Computing Module, which has "an unexpected and impressive show of computing power that features a Tegra 2 processor," IHS said.

"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," IHS stated.

tesla video
Teardown highlights

In this video, IHS's senior director of Teardown Services, Andrew Rassweiler, talks about the highlights of his team’s dismantling of the Tesla Model S.