There has been a long-standing argument about whether Tesla is a traditional automaker or a technology company such as Apple or Google. However, with the cutting-edge in-house technologies that Tesla has developed over its many years of operation, it is undeniable that they have been incredibly successful in making both great cars as well as great software and hardware to boost.
It is no secret to anyone that Tesla has been successful in overtaking the traditional automakers in terms of convenience delivered through onboard technology and often performance delivered through their in-house electric motors and powertrain. Henceforth, it is our opinion that Tesla has reached that delicate balance of integrating two different technologies and creating an incredible symbiosis where each technology works in perfect symphony with each other, bolstering each other’s efficiency in the process while remaining imperfections are continuously fixed through over-the-air software updates.
Technologies that Tesla has developed and perfected through its many years of operation can be divided into five broad categories namely Battery, Motor & Powertrain, Software & Hardware and Solar & Glass. Starting it off with the technology that has probably been the mainstay in terms of focus and effort from Tesla:
Lithium-ion has been the mainstay of the battery industry for an incredible amount of time, powering everything from the phone you are probably reading this on, to an 1800 kg electric vehicle. Tesla has an in-depth understanding of the Achilles’ heel of electric cars – batteries, affecting the power and range that a given capacity can deliver at a given cost. Staying ahead of the competition, Tesla has invested majorly in attempting to increase the total number of charge-discharge cycles per battery, total capacity, safety, reliability, etc.
Tesla has recently filed a patent for “Additive mixing battery technology”, to build a longer-lasting battery pack, both for automotive as well as domestic uses, such as in a Powerwall. It achieves said objective by having additives mixed in the electrodes, which for some chemicals doubled the number of charge-discharge cycles than a single cell can presently endure. This translates to a “million-mile battery pack” which can potentially see the light of day in future products.
In supplying energy to said batteries on-the-go, Tesla has also built numerous supercharging stations which can supply upto 250kW of power, where one can charge one’s car to 100% capacity in little over an hour. Tesla had also quietly launched the destination charging network back in 2014.
While infrastructure and technology are on the development highway, costs per cell have also seen a much-appreciated drop. Thanks to rapid developments in battery technology and higher manufactured volumes, cost per kWh from 2016 to 2020 has dropped to half its initial price, i.e. from 230$ in 2016 to 114$ in 2020 according to Forbes estimates.
Motor and Powertrain
Nikola Tesla, in the 19th century, developed the induction motor, to be used with AC power, which could achieve incredible efficiency figures, even when compared to the DC motor. Ingenious, as his designs were, the same concept with minor changes is in use even today for efficiently converting electrical energy into mechanical work.
The 3-phase 4-pole AC Induction motor with a copper squirrel-cage rotor was used as the rear motor of the older Model S and Model X. Today Tesla has shifted majorly to the use of permanent magnet motors, such as in the Model 3, Model Y and Tesla Semi. However, the centuries-old basic design of a fixed ‘stator’ and a rotating ‘rotor’, making up the only two parts of an induction motor remain largely unchanged.
The motor, connected to a single-speed gearbox, a highly efficient inverter and the battery pack, results in a powertrain capable of delivering over 400 HP in a Model S. Click here to learn more about Induction motors, their design and working principle.
Software and Hardware
The software/hardware suite that is preinstalled in every Tesla acts as the controller or a coordinator of all that raw power, multiple complex feedback systems, features, etc. that is quintessential in setting a Tesla apart. No discussion, however, of what sets a Tesla apart is complete without a discussion about its autopilot system.
Autopilot is designed to be more alert, sharper, more precise and in every way, safer, than its human counterpart, making driving in roads computer-aided (or completely autonomous) and much safer than the current state. That endgame is some years into the future, however, the implementation that we see today is by no means a paltry affair. Tesla autopilot today already includes highly advanced and complex features such as adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, emergency braking, Autosteer (semi-automated steering), Autopark (parallel and perpendicular parking) and Summon (recalling the vehicle from a parking place).
All of this is done real-time. Information is gathered through its vast sensor array, consequently, using a highly complex neural network, Tesla’s indigenously developed processor technology makes sense of all that raw sensor data and produces corrective outputs in steering the vehicle.
Data is gathered through eight surround cameras, twelve ultrasonic sensors and a forward-facing radar. The main forward camera offers the greatest sensitivity in terms of range (250m). The radar is limited to 160m and the other cameras have a range of 50 to a 100m. The ultrasonic sensors are intended for sensing objects in the immediate proximity and have a range of 8m. The sensor array and the processor itself constitute the tangible part of the autopilot system.
Other hardware and software features include the distinctive touchscreen, the independent smartphone app, the infotainment system, etc. The thermal monitoring and regulating system for the battery pack also help in regulating the battery operating conditions, thereby increasing range, durability and ensuring overall optimum conditions for the same.
Solar and Glass
After Tesla’s acquisition of SolarCity, the company has launched multiple products aimed at capturing solar energy and converting it to electrical power to be used in domestic environments. An energy source with an average power density of 1000 W/m2, requiring no prior energy expenditure to procure, is as close to free energy as it gets and hence provides an excellent way of cutting down on the electricity bill at the end of the month.
The main technology that Tesla offers in this domain is the Solar Roof and the Powerwall. Answering homeowner’s main concern of unappealing aesthetics of installing a solar panel on the roof, Tesla has integrated the roof and the solar panel into one single tile that serves as both at the same time. The glass technology these tiles integrate are cutting-edge and have incredible resistance to damage and wear as was demonstrated by Tesla themselves. It also comes in multiple patterns namely, slate glass, smooth glass, Tuscan glass, textured glass, etc., Elon Musk going as far as to state that they have ‘quasi-infinite warranties’ due to their incredible durability and static nature.
The Powerwall is an integrated technology that comes with the solar roof and each Tesla Powerwall 2 has a total usable energy of 13.5 kWh @60Hz AC. The Powerwall can work both with a Solar Roof or by directly pulling electricity from the grid. When it is working without solar, and if your electricity rates vary throughout the day, Powerwall charges when electricity is cheaper and discharges when it is more expensive, generating automatic savings.
Powerwall and Solar Roof working together, as is the ideal configuration can charge during the day when the sun is up and discharge during the night, essentially cutting the total electricity consumption by a typical home on a typical day by half. Click here to learn more about the structure and working of a solar panel. Both Solar and without-Solar setups can automatically detect power outages and start discharging and as estimated by Tesla can give 6hrs to 7+ days of backup based on your chosen configuration.