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Peter Rawlinson with Tesla Model S Alpha Build Prototype – Click above for the high-res image gallery

Tesla Motors is on a mission. We all know that the company's big plan is to electrify the automobile, but that's a long ways away. The company's real day-to-day work is to get ready for the Model S. During the Detroit Auto Show, we asked Peter Rawlinson, Tesla's vice president and chief engineer for vehicle engineering, what steps Tesla will take to bring the Model S to market and he admitted that there are a lot of hurdles that the company still needs to jump. These include getting the old NUMMI factory (now known as the Tesla Plant in Fremont, CA) ready to mass produce these cars and moving the Model S from the current Alpha testing through Beta testing and finally to production. Each of these steps contains a lot of little steps, but Rawlinson said that Tesla is "on track" to deliver the Model S in 2012 (possibly in the second quarter). Get the full details after the jump.


Tesla Model S Alpha Build Prototype
  • Tesla Model S Alpha Build Prototype
  • Tesla Model S Alpha Build Prototype

  • Tesla Model S Alpha Build Prototype
  • Tesla Model S Alpha Build Prototype

  • Tesla Model S Alpha Build Prototype
  • Tesla Model S Alpha Build Prototype

  • Tesla Model S Alpha Build Prototype
  • Tesla Model S Alpha Build Prototype

  • Tesla Model S Alpha Build Prototype
  • Tesla Model S Alpha Build Prototype

  • Tesla Model S Alpha Build Prototype
  • Tesla Model S Alpha Build Prototype

  • Tesla Model S Alpha Build Prototype
  • Tesla Model S Alpha Build Prototype

  • Tesla Model S Alpha Build Prototype
  • Tesla Model S Alpha Build Prototype

  • Tesla Model S Alpha Build Prototype
  • Tesla Model S Alpha Build Prototype

  • Tesla Model S Alpha Build Prototype
  • Tesla Model S Alpha Build Prototype

  • Tesla Model S Alpha Build Prototype
  • Tesla Model S Alpha Build Prototype


Photos copyright ©2011 Sebastian Blanco / AOL

What is Alpha testing anyway? Rawlinson said that it's a stage in the vehicle's development where things are about 80 percent finished. This doesn't mean that everything in the car is 80 percent of what it'll be in the end. Instead, some aspects might be totally locked down now, some might half-way there. The Model S' suspension, for example, is nearly production intent, as are elements of the subframe. The Alpha phase also includes a range of tests, things like brake and winter testing. "It's very important we have this window of opportunity, this winter, to get cold weather brake testing [for the Model S]," Rawlinson said. This includes making sure the antilock, stability control and electronics systems work together correctly. The first Alpha build prototype ran in December 2010 and is being used for the winter testing. "We are currently in full swing producing our Alpha prototype fleet," Rawlinson said. He declined to give a number about how big the fleet will eventually be, but we did find out that there are about a half dozen Alpha builds in existence right now. The other vehicles will be used to improve ride and handling development, powertrain integration, and some will be crash-tested in-house. "This is not for homologation purposes. It's for our own learning and also to provide data for our airbag development program," he said. "That's a huge activity, getting crash pulse information for airbags, to determine when an airbag fires." After that comes the Beta fleet, and then there will be vehicles made on the production line that will be crash tested for homologation purposes.

Tesla Model S SEC filing page

To accomplish these tasks, Tesla has brought in people not only from other automakers and Silicon Valley, but also from various suppliers, because "there is a lot more knowledge in the supply chain than meets the eye," Rawlinson said. The company has hired aerodynamicists from the airline and racing fields, as well. Another part of the Tesla strategy is to work with OEM partners, specifically Toyota and Daimler. For its OEM partnerships, Tesla is supplying Toyota or Daimler with either the battery (Smart ED, electric A-Class) or the whole electric powertrain system (RAV4 EV). The relationships are multi-faceted, since those companies have also invested in Tesla. As we've reported, Tesla is also learning from these companies, especially when it comes to ramping up production.

Tesla has said it will make 7,000 Model S units in the first 12 months, and 20,000 a year after that. So far, since the Roadster went on sale in early 2008, the company has only sold 1,500 Roadsters, so the Model S is quite an expansion. Rawlinson said that he is very conscious of that as he prepares the vehicle:
You have to design for volume, you have to design for process, and those volumes have to be volume appropriate and scalable, so it's absolutely appropriate that you design with volume in mind. The Model S is a very different animal from the Roadster so we have different processes, and different technologies that are appropriate for 20,000 units per annum.
Rawlinson said that the engineering and manufacturing teams have a very close working relationship, which isn't all that common. "In my past experience at car companies, the relationship between engineering and manufacturing has been downright adversarial, and it's not like that at Tesla," he said. "I have a full commitment to design a car that can be manufactured and they have a commitment to not stymie that design by inappropriate manufacturing constraints."

Tesla Model S Alpha Build Prototype

How is Rawlinson preparing the Model S for large-scale production? He said the subtleties of some of the stampings and castings have been changed, and the way the power electronics and motor and the multilink rear suspension are "a modular unit that's going to suit a modular philosophy for assembly on the production line" is all due to getting ready for making a lot of these cars. Another consideration is that Tesla will be bringing out the Model X, an SUV planned for 2014 or so:
Our focus is on the Model S, but we are cognizant of the value of the platform for future derivatives. We are incorporating certain features in the design, some subtleties which look a little bit beyond the Model S. For example, we have engineered the castings to accommodate the bandwidth of mass that is likely to be experienced on that platform. In other words, not just making castings that will be strong enough in an impact to support a Model S. What if there's another model in the future that is a couple hundred pounds heavier? We wouldn't want to have to put a new set of castings in because they are only strong enough for the Model S.
One thing won't change from the Roadster to the Model S, and that's Tesla's use of a single-speed transmission (remember this?). Rawlinson said, "We are committed to a single-speed, we think that's the right solution. We are putting our effort into really optimizing a beautifully engineered single-speed that is optimized for efficiency." Tesla is not testing two-speed transmissions in the Model S.

All of this work should result in a highly refined vehicle when the public finally gets a crack at it next year. Rawlinson said:
I believe that quality is designed in from the very outset. As long as we do our job correctly in engineering and design a quality product, which desensitizes fit and finish conditions, accommodates tolerance in a structured manner, then that is the foundation for a quality automobile.
For $57,400, drivers will expect nothing less.


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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 24 Comments
      • 4 Years Ago
      Ohhh, what a beautiful car! (Sorry, I'm not much of a car person, but I can appreciate a good design).

      ( http://www.jobvirtue.com)
      • 4 Years Ago
      To me it would seem that Tesla is easily 4 years ahead of the other EV automakers. The other major automakers are building EV cars based on existing platforms to save money. Tesla did this with the Roadster. And now the Model S will be the first mass produced EV car designed from scratch since the Baker.

      It would also seem to be the first mass produced EV car that is reasonably priced compared to it's ICE equivalent. It is a full size luxury sedan very similar to a Jaguar in style and it will go from 0 to 60mph in 5.7 sec. This would require an 8 cylinder engine or a supercharged 6 as an equivalent. I don't think one will find a car like that for less than 50k.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Tesla will need a lot more cash than $478 million to pay salaries for the next 2+ years, design all vehicle systems, line up suppliers, tool the parts, pay supplier non-recurring engineering costs, build two test fleets, conduct validation tests, facilitate an assembly line, hire a workforce, restart an assembly plant and launch the product.

      A mature OEM could easily spend as much for a just major refresh of an existing product with all of their experience. This does not look like a money maker to me. What am I missing?
      • 4 Years Ago
      Has TESLA considered the PLANAR ENERGY solid state electrolytic battery?
        • 4 Years Ago
        Likely, they do pay attention to new developments in battery technology, and sometimes they will even tests them out. But for their production vehicles, they will only use batteries that are readily available and mass produced, not batteries that are still in the prototype stage.

        If Planar goes into full production of a battery that is cheaper and/or has higher energy density than what Tesla is using now, then Tesla will consider switching.
      • 4 Years Ago
      I'm pumped to go to the NAIAS next weekend and finally see a Model S in person! These guys are 2 legit 2 quit.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Tesla is using aluminum to try and minimize the weight. My guess that these doors are big for a combination of Tesla hoping to get a five-star side-impact test rating and to lessen the amount of noise entering the car's interior.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Crazy how thick car doors became. I remember our 1984 car has really thin, lightweight doors.
      • 4 Years Ago
      HI TESLA, I WAS VERY IMPRESSED THE FIRST TIME I SAW YOUR COUP.BUT THE RANGE IS ALSO VERY GOOD.. I HAVE BEEN INVOLVED WITH BUILDING AND RACING CARS AND REDESIGNING CARS FOR MOST OF MY LIFE AND HAVE BEEN WORKING ON AN ANSWER TO INCREASING THE RANGE OF ELECTRIC VEHICLES FOR YEARS . I THOUGHT OF THE CONCEPT THE CHEVY VOLT USES WITH A HONDA GENERATOR IN THE TRUNK THAT RUNS ON GASOLINE 20 YEARS AGO . BUT CHEVY NEEDS THE CREDIT FOR THAT MORE THAN I DO SO I WILL LET THEM HAVE THAT ONE . CAUSE I AM ON TO MUCH BETTER IDEA-THAT I WOULD LIKE TO SHARE WITH YOU , BECAUSE FROM WHAT I SEE YOU SEEM TO BE THE BEST FULLY ELECTRIC VEHICLE IN PRODUCTION AND ALDO YOU ARE AN AMERICAN COMPANY . NOW IT WONT COST YOU ANYTHING TO LISTEN TO WHAT I HAVE JUST A FEW MINUTES OF YOUR TIME . I HAVE DEVELOPED A METHOD OF CREATING MORE ELECTRIC ENERGY THAN YOU USE WHILE DRIVING , AND THE FASTER YOU DRIVE THE MORE ENERGY YOU PRODUCE WHICH WILL GIVE YOU UNLIMITED RANGE WITHOUT HAVING TO STOP AND RECHARGE AND IT ALSO REQUIRES NO FUEL ..NOW SOME CAR MANUFACTURER IS GOING TO LISTEN TO ME AND THEY WILL HAVE THE ULTIMATE ELECTRIC VEHICLE YEARS AHEAD OF ANYONE ELSE AND WITH PATENT WILL CONTROL THE MARKET FOR YEARS .NOW I AM PLANNING TO ADAPT THIS SAME TECHNOLOGY TO POWER A BOAT THAT WILL ALSO HAVE UNLIMITED RANGE CAN YOU IMAGINE A BOAT THAT CAN CROSS THE OCEAN AND BACK NONSTOP WITH NO FUEL .. IMAGINE A VEHICLE YOU CAN DRIVE FOR FREE FOR YEARS NO FUEL ,NO RECHARGE, NO OIL CHANGE AND NO TUNEUPS.JUST KEEP BUYING TIRES AND DRIVE . GO AHEAD TELL ME TO PUT UP OR SHUT UP OR AT LEAST TELL ME YOU HEAR ME AND ARE NOT INTERESTED , AND I WILL GO TO SOMEONE THAT WILL LISTEN , RESPECTFULLY, YOURS, TOM JOHNSON-A TACA CORP ,ATLANTA ,GA, USA---ZOOMTOM@ATT.NET
        • 4 Years Ago
        Let me guess - Does your idea involve connecting a generator/dynamo/alternator to an axle or a wheel? Does it involve an electric motor driving a generator that powers the motor? Does it involve mounting a wind turbine on the car?

        If so, your "idea" has only been proposed several thousand times already. Problem is, they just don't work. You see, when a generator produces electricity, it also produces an electrodynamic drag proportional to the electrical energy produced. Try cranking one of those hand cranked flashlights, you can feel that electrodynamic drag in action. That drag is great if you want to slow the car down, that's what "regenerative braking is all about, but is worse than useless when you're trying to accelerate or even maintain speed. That drag assures that a generator will never produce enough electricity to power the motor driving it. That drag assures that a wind turbine will always produce too much drag and force the drive motor to use up more power than the wind turbine can produce.

        If you want anyone to take your proposal seriously, you're going to have to prove that it works as promised - no tricks, no gimmicks. But due to the nature of the Universe, I rather suspect you won't be able to get it to work at all.
        • 4 Years Ago
        WELL CHRIS YOU ALMOST GUESSED MY IDEA BUT NOT QUITE,I HAD HOPED TO SHARE THIS IDEA WITH TESLA SO AS TO HELP THEM SINCE I WAS MOST IMPRESSED WITH THEIR CAR .BUT NOW THEY WILL JUST HAVE TO BE EMBARRASSED THEY HAD A CHANCE TO GET IN ON GROUND FLOOR AND IGNORED ME AND WILL JUST HAVE TO STAND IN LINE WITH ALL THE OTHER CAR MAKERS . I AM IN PROCESS OF BUILDING MY OWN CAR TO PROVE IT WORKS..I AM AWARE OF ALL THE LAWS OF NATURE AND PHYSICS, BUT YOU SEE I AM NOT REJECTING NATURES LAWS BUT USING THEM TO MY ADVANTAGE,IF EVERY ONE THAT WAS TOLD THAT WHAT THEY WERE DOING IS IMPOSSIBLE WE WOULD NEVER HAVE NEW INVENTIONS OR TECHNOLOGY SO I NEVER HEAR IMPOSSIBLE IT IS JUST IMPOSSIBLE FOR OTHERS WHO DONT HAVE MY DETERMINATION .SO I GUESS YOU WONT BELIEVE I HAVE DEVELOPED A SELF PROPELLED ELECTRIC GENERATOR TO PROVIDE POWER FOR THE HOME EITHER WITH UP TO 20,000 WATTS OF CONTINUOUS POWER AVAILABLE -WELL THESE WILL SOON BE AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE FROM MY COMPANY -TOM JOHNSON-A TACA CORP
      • 4 Years Ago
      Comparing the Model S developent cycle to the Volt is totally inappropriate,
      comparing apples and oranges. The Volt began from ground zero and a very large portion of their design and testing concerned their battery. Tesla already has the power system ready - compliments of the years of experience in the roadster. The Volt also is horribly complicated with probably
      twice the number of parts contained in the Model S and with an enormous effort in hardware and software are for the sole purpose of combining an ICE with an EV.
        • 4 Years Ago
        The Volt already had the platform - GM's "Delta II" shared with the Chevy Cruze, Opel Astra, and Daewoo Lacetti. Much of what's holding up Tesla (the frame, steering, and suspension components) were "freebies" for the Volt, already tested by Daewoo and handed down to the Volt.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Take a look at it's exhaust pipe: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Elektrowniaopole02.jpg I wonder how you can be so blind and listen to all this bull like kids, all those green cars are as green as 19th century locomotives as at the end of the cable there's coal power plant...
        • 4 Years Ago
        "I wonder how you can be so blind and listen to all this bull like kids"

        Because we know that even if all EVs are sourced from coal, it's still a 100 grams of CO2 per mile less than petrol, and we know it's a domestic resource. We also know that as power generation gets cleaner, so do the EVs. Unlike like petrol, where ever increasing resources are spent trying to reach remaining oil that's farther and deeper away than ever.

        But then there a few dumb kids like me around who know that the 4 solar panels on my garage offset the power my EV will need, and after three years, I'll be driving for free. Carbon zero. All while all you smart kids continue to shift our domestic wealth to the middle east by paying $5 a gallon for gas.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Not only does the higher efficiency of electric power plants and EVs assures less pollution (and a non-imported fuel source) but coal provides less than half the electricity used in the US, and that percentage is dropping as more renewables come online. Unlike gasoline that comes only from petroleum, electricity comes from a wide variety of sources, including hydro, geothermal, wind, solar, nuclear, natural gas, and even biomass. Note that most of those sources produces little or no pollution.
      • 4 Years Ago
      It is very easy to underestimate all the federal regulation hurdles when an upstart car company(almost everyone but the big auto companies) joins the scene. Its very easy to under estimate costs(salaries, production, fed regulation/testing) and over estmiate on profits and performance. The Tesla roadster is $$$$ and extremely limited-other then a test car for technology not a game changer for most people or auto industry(cool car but I still would take a gas exotic for Ford GT--just by the chance you want to do a road trip weekend). I would love an Aptera as advertised over the last 2-3 years, but all the new companies hit the reality wall: expensive costs and less then theorectical performance. As soon as something minor or major is changed, its back to required expensive retesting--esp to appease the feds(ex:the redo of the GTO without a real hood scoop--was to time consuming and some extra cost to redo mpg tests--atleast they decided against the scoop decals!). Its not like the luxury cars haven't started using more exotic metals/aluminum. If a newbie co thinks they can magically build a car from scratch using aluminum, have it weigh 400lbs and reach safety requirements--its a pipe dream. Now if you produce very limited numbers(Veyron) sure, you can do alot but at 1 million plus a car! Model S luxury I would assume equals more weight=better ride components, insulation, bells and whistles=poorer mpge performance. But you can always *upgrade* your cheap $58K Model S with a $$ extended range battery--just like the roadster. I really doubt they will make their price point--very rare for big auto to meet their projections; and with new, riskier and more expensive tech--instead of a $1K error margin, Tesla will add $7-20K to the sticker for the base model. 20,000 cars at $60K a piece equals 1.2 billion year income, and that's gross income-not profit; tough task at that price point. Hope they succeed.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Tesla's biggest challenge is time because the big automakers are on board now and they can throw a lot of money and experience behind mass producing EV's, quickly. For Tesla to be cost competitive it will have to get into the market at the outset in order to claim its share of the market before prices come down to where Tesla isn't large enough to compete with mass produced Nissans.
        • 4 Years Ago
        "before prices come down to where Tesla isn't large enough to compete with mass produced Nissans."

        They don't have to be, that's their whole philosophy. Saying that Tesla needs to compete with Nissan is like saying Lexus needs to compete with Smart, or Lotus to Toyota. For whatever reason, all of the large automakers are building EV's out of smaller, cheaper city cars, while Tesla has tried to establish themselves as a luxury brand. I think if they hit their 2012 and $50k targets, they will be in more than good shape.
        • 4 Years Ago
        @Chris M
        I was about to make the same point. Model S had been development since shortly after the Roadster was launched (under the label Whitestar), although back then the technical details probably haven't been worked out yet.

        Most significant however is much of their EV knowledge from the Roadster carries on to the Model S (you can see clear influences in the battery pack, PEM, motor, transmission). Their biggest challenge right now is learning to build for higher volume and also to learn about chassis/body design (which is the main focus of the alpha prototype it seems).

        The Volt however doesn't really share much EV components from previous vehicles and literally is double the work, since they have to worry not only about the electrical side, but also the ICE/hybrid side.

        Incidentally the "alpha" for the Volt came out in 6/2009. Given the Volt was official delivered during the end of 2010, that's about 1.5 years from "alpha" to delivery. Translating that for the Model S (alpha during 1/2011) means delivery around mid 2012, which is on schedule.
        http://www.popsci.com/cars/article/2009-06/first-truly-seriously-real-volt-prototype-leaves-shop
        • 4 Years Ago
        Tesla has been working on a sedan since 2006. Codenamed: "WhiteStar"

        I'll grant that the original plans (it was to be based on the Ford Fusion platform) were scrapped, and that the Model S should be viewed as a second attempt, but Tesla has been working with the basic building blocks for some time.

        • 4 Years Ago
        SkiD: Development of the Model S started over two years ago, the powerplant was tested in a "mule" first, then a prototype was designed and built (and shown) a year ago. So it looks like Tesla is right on track with a 4 year development cycle, similar to the Volt.

        No, Tesla is not going to risk an undeveloped product, but they've been testing and developing for quite some time, and a lot of what was learned in the Roadster development will be applied to the Model S.
        • 4 Years Ago
        There is place on the market for several types of EVs the same way that Nissan, Toyota and GM (mass-production) can co-exist with Aston-Martin, Ferrari and Jaguar (low to moderate production).

        The most important factor is profitability. Nissan said that they will be profitable after 500,000 units, while Tesla will reach profitability after 20,000 units or so. It's a bit like the Apple Mac computers where they cost more and generate more profits than cheaper & better selling PCs. There's place for both models.
        • 4 Years Ago
        If the development time spent on refining the Volt is any indication - a proper mass market version of the 'S' won't be available in one years time - unless Tesla wants to risk selling an unfinshed product.

        If Telsa is willing to be a boutique manufacturer (the 'Ferrari' of electrics), maybe they are willing to sell an unrefined vehicle.

        Prediction, Toyota purchases Tesla within the next 5 years.
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