The four in­no­va­tions that set Tesla apart

You know times have changed when brak­ing per­for­mance im­proves with an over-the-air soft­ware up­date

The Province - - DRIVING - DAVID BOOTH

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.

BAT­TERY TECH­NOL­OGY

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.

OVER-THE-AIR UP­DATES

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.

ARLEN REDEKOP

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.

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