The four innovations that set Tesla apart
You know times have changed when braking performance improves with an over-the-air software update
Tesla delivered more than 245,000 electric cars and SUVs last year — nearly as many, claims Bloomberg, as the year before. More astonishingly, the company sold no less than 146,000 Model 3s in 2018, making it the top-ranked entry-level luxury sedan in the United States and the fifth best-selling four-door overall, a feat made all the more remarkable given that the rest of the Top 10 are all far less expensive family sedans and econoboxes.
Now a cynic — who, me? — might contend Tesla’s biggest advantage remains the devotion of its flock to leader ElonMusk.
And the fact a luxury sedan is the best-selling electric vehicle in North America might indeed be a sign of success for Tesla, but it also points to a general weakness of the EV segment as a whole.
Take the Model 3 and California sales out of the equation, and there’s not much of an electric revolution going on. But, and this can never be diminished, part of Tesla’s market-changing success has been the result of some bold engineering. Here, then, are the Top 4 innovations that have, in less than a decade, turned an inconsequential California manufacturer of quirky little roadsters into the industry’s most emulated automaker.
THE SUPERCHARGER NETWORK
It might seem obvious now, but when Elon Musk proposed building his own charging network, it was a huge gamble. Automakers have long eschewed taking any responsibility for their products other than manufacturing, leaving sales of their cars to franchisees and refuelling to completely independent conglomerates.
Using the same business model, they decided to wait around for government entities to build the requisite recharging infrastructure. That, as has been proven many times over, was a fool’s errand. Now that Tesla has, according to its own website, 11,583 Superchargers in 1,386 locations — mainly in North America, the Far East and Europe — the company’s lead over its competitors seems almost insurmountable.
Now, one can question Mr. Musk’s decision to go with a proprietary electrical connection and whether that decision will come back to haunt Tesla as state-funded infrastructures begin to catch up, but one can’t discount the bravery of such a decision. Risking investor capital — I’d have said “hard-earned” except Wall Street has been throwing money at Tesla like it’s so much confetti — on a business model that flies in the face of accepted business practice takes nerve.
If the benefit of the Supercharger network seems obvious in hindsight, Tesla’s gamble on Panasonic batteries still seems more the benefit of luck than far-sighted engineering. Nonetheless, I must admit my original evaluation of Tesla’s use of AA-sized batteries — the original NCR18650s were about 18 millimetres in diameter and 65 mm in length — was a mistake.
Like virtually every car company, I thought that managing the 5,000 to 8,000 individual cells that make up a single Tesla battery would prove an insurmountable task. Traditional automakers, led by General Motors at the time, proposed that equally powerful batteries with much larger — but fewer — cells was a superior design mainly because there were less individual cells to monitor.
Well, they, like I, have (so far) been wrong. Not only have Tesla’s smaller cells proven slightly more powerful — larger cells can’t be quite as power-dense for fear of fire — but the company has proven amazingly adept at equalizing the power output of those thousands of cells. Indeed, if Tesla fans are looking for a purely technical advantage in their cars, it is not so much the battery chemistry as battery management, a fact proven by the marked lack of degradation of older Model S batteries.
Now, one can, as I do, ascribe this decision to pure pragmatism — the company couldn’t afford to develop its own technology, so it turned Panasonic’s “commodity”-sized units out of sheer desperation — and that larger cell technology may eventually prove superior. But, good luck or no, Tesla has managed to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
Most, if not all automakers have talked up the benefits of over-the-air (OTA) transmission as a way to update their cars. None, however, have embraced it with quite the tenacity of Tesla. While most OTA upgrades are directed at electronic conveniences — one of the challenges for traditional automakers is keeping up with the pace of updating consumer-facing interfaces such as infotainment systems — Tesla recently took the technology a step farther by instituting a performance improvement simply by beaming its Model 3 new software.
Consumer Reports had initially denied the Model 3 its coveted “recommended” rating because the car’s stopping distance from 60 miles per hour (96 km/h) was a sub-par 152 feet (46.3 metres) — seven feet more, said CR, than a Ford F-150. With nothing more than a software fix — much quicker, as you can imagine, than a physical upgrade — a subsequent retest saw the compact Tesla stop in 133 feet (40.5 metres), an improvement possible because so much of the braking system (ABS, regenerative braking, etc.) is now controlled electronically. But as the magazine’s testers noted, until recently, retroactive performance upgrades via software alone were unheard of.
“I’ve been at CR for 19 years and tested more than 1,000 cars,” said Jake Fisher, director of auto testing at Consumer Reports, after the May 2018 re-evaluation, “and I’ve never seen a car that could improve its track performance with an over-theair update.” It would seem that Tesla is leading an electronic revolution as well as an electric one.
TESLAS CAN SEE MOTORCYCLES
Ok, this one is a little gratuitous, seeing as how I ride motorbikes. And no, I don’t think Tesla will conquer the automotive marketplace because Autopilot — previously one of the company’s weaker technologies — is now better equipped to deal with the speed and unpredictability of motorized two-wheelers.
Nonetheless, Motorcycle News’ recent report that the Model 3, running Version 9 software, can sense motorcycles “filtering” between vehicles, is a comfort. Considering the No. 1 cause of car-versus-motorcycle collisions is the old “I didn’t see him” excuse and that filtering may soon be legal in my hometown of Toronto, this upgrade — hopefully over the air — is extremely welcome.
Tesla can seem more like a tech company than a carmaker — like when people line up outside dealerships such as the one on Robson Street to buy the latest vehicle.