Ricardo Strategic Consulting’s benchmarking study of the Model S provides a window into the unique engineering and high-tech approach used in Tesla’s development of the electric sedan.

Benchmarking studies offer automotive and related-industry customers an opportunity to view and judge the competitive nature of their own products and to assess the differences to other automotive technologies.  Ricardo, a global provider of strategic consulting and product innovation/engineering solutions, has been offering teardown technology and benchmarking study services since 2012 with partner A2Mac1.  In addition to the Tesla Model S, Ricardo and its partner have conducted web-based benchmarking studies of other electric and hybrid vehicles including the Nissan Leaf, the Chevrolet Volt, and the BMW i3.

Although there are many examples of benchmarking projects conducted by Ricardo, there has been significant interest in the results of the Model S study.  In general, automotive engineers who participated in Ricardo’s benchmarking project of the Model S have been impressed with Tesla’s accomplishments as a start-up automotive company.  According to Scott Ellsworth, Ricardo’s managing director, North America, the Model S is “remarkably different from anything that’s out there.”

Following Ricardo’s benchmarking study of the Model S, in early 2014, competing automotive companies and industry analysts who want the inside view of the vehicle – from the ground up – have been able to learn about Tesla’s unique technical approach, the Model S battery and engine systems, design, and performance.  In analysis of its components the Model S “is thematically interesting, offers retro-advanced technology, and is simply different from anything on the market,” says Ellsworth.

 

A Walking Tour

On a recent tour of Ricardo’s tear-down lab, we could see components of the Model S, along with other electric and hybrid vehicles, organized in rows on long tables.  The skeleton of the Model S body is hoisted above the floor and its parts are neatly arranged in black plastic crates.  On one table, battery cells from other electric and hybrid vehicle manufacturers, including the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt, are placed for comparison in red crates.  The batteries, along with the vehicle’s advanced induction motor technology, are another one of the fundamental differences shown by the Tesla Model S.  Scott began our walking tour of the teardown room with an inside view of the Model S battery pack.

CRIM:  What of importance did you learn from your teardown and benchmarking of the Model S, and what do you think other automotive engineers will want to know about it?

Tesla Model S Battery Pack, photo courtesy of Ricardo Strategic Consulting

Tesla Model S Battery Pack, photo courtesy of Ricardo Strategic Consulting

Scott:  The Model S is unique in every aspect.  Let’s look at the battery pack.  Each Model S battery pack is made up of up to 7,100 individual battery cells similar to those used in consumer electronics.  Meanwhile, the manufacturers of other electric and hybrid vehicles have adopted the more automotive-tailored, large-format cells.  Inside the Model S battery system there is a looping ribbon that removes the heat.  Coolant is pushed through the center of the ribbon and into the pack – an engineering thermal energy strategy to improve the longevity of the battery.

CRIM:  Along another table we can see different motor technologies used in electric and hybrid vehicles.

Scott:  Yes, again we can say that the Tesla Model S motor and rotor shows the adoption of a less conventional automotive traction motor technology.  Tesla’s strategy leverages the benefits of the AC induction motor technology and its efficiency at the ends of the speedometer, where drivers spend much of their time.  For example, in motoring down the highway, a driver is generally not using a lot of power.  The induction motor can be an efficient, cost-effective technology.  It also addresses the issue in regards to the cost volatility associated with rare metals used in permanent magnet motor architecture.

CRIM:  What has surprised you most about the Model S?

Scott:  We are an engineering and advanced technology firm, and so we are not focused on the leather and the touch of the steering wheel.  But we could not ignore the driver interface with the Model S.  It’s remarkably different.  A story that I like to share concerns how we wanted a Model S vehicle right away for our study.  We were able to obtain a dealer service model –  also known as a “customer loaner.”  Shortly after receiving the vehicle, we test drove it.  First impressions were, “it’s great except when you get to 80 mph it peters out”… We thought, that doesn’t make any sense… and so upon investigation we discovered that Tesla was electronically governing their service loaner vehicles.  We contacted the company and they said they’d send a signal overnight to fix the problem.  The next day someone from our team was driving the Model S and we asked how things went.  The vehicle got up to 100 mph!  Although there was no physical interaction with the vehicle, the company was able to improve the way the car handled.  The electronic interface of the vehicle is interesting and it is part of what’s driving sales but Tesla is also very dedicated to the customer experience.

CRIM:  What kinds of companies are interested in Ricardo’s benchmarking services?

Scott:  We’ve had conventional OEM’s that have electric vehicles.  They are interested in what others are doing.  We’ve had tier one suppliers here.  They are interested in the technology strategies that their competitors are offering to the OEM’s.  We have tier two and materials vendors interested in ways their materials might be used in various components and products.  Investors are also very interested in learning about the next technology and examining what that means for their portfolio of businesses.  We’ve had the U.S. Department of Energy, researchers, utility company representatives, materials and metals suppliers and many others visit on-site.  There’s a broad cross-section of interested observers in Ricardo’s teardown and benchmarking services.  Companies from Europe and Asia have visited our facility as well.  Everyone likes to see the different components whether they are only interested in the battery packs or the motors, we typically ask if they would like to see the whole vehicle and they often do.

CRIM:  What are Ricardo’s next teardown and benchmarking plans?

Scott:  We are currently working with a VW Jetta – a hybrid versus the more conventional vehicle.  We are also very interested in taking a look at the BMW i8.  Ricardo is working to acquire a good sampling of technologies used by different automakers.  We haven’t yet worked with the Hyundai and Kia platforms and we are interested in doing so.  Deciding on what’s next is an exciting part of my job.