Tesla CTO talks Model S, batteries and in-car Linux

The all-electric car maker's technology chief sees longer driving range and less expensive models in the future

For most people who identify themselves as techies, Tesla's Model S is something of a dream car. The all-electric vehicle accelerates fast, can maintain a high top speed, has a range of up to 300 miles, and packs a 17-inch flat panel display with a Linux-based computer system that provides access to just about every aspect of the car's performance and entertainment system.

(Watch an IDG test drive of the Model S with details on its high-tech systems on YouTube.)

It's perhaps no wonder that thousands of the cars have been reserved, even though Tesla has only just started delivering them to customers. IDG News Service spoke to JB Straubel, chief technology officer for Tesla, about the Model S, its design and technology, and his outlook on electric vehicle technology. Here's what he said.

IDGNS: When you get into the Model S, this 17-inch flat-panel screen dominates the interior. Was that how you intended it, or did the design evolve that way?

JB Straubel: We did want to make a statement and package as much touchscreen as we could. Tesla is very much trying to drive forward the usability, technology and infotainment as well as the propulsion and the electric drive. It was a key design point from the very beginning.

IDGNS: What type of batteries are you using?

JBS: They are all Lithium Ion batteries, that gives us the best range and the best power and also life. We've exclusively used Lithium Ion batteries since the Roadster and into the Model S. These are made in Japan. We work with several notable companies in Japan and also elsewhere in Asia. We buy the cells and integrate that into a battery pack with cooling and electronics, and build that here.

IDGNS: What is the state of Lithium Ion battery technology today? It seems that for any gadget powered by Lithium Ion, longer life is always critical.

JBS: Technology in these batteries is constantly improving. It's a pretty exciting thing from a car point of view. Today, we're just at a tipping point where it's possible for the first time ever to build an electric vehicle that has a range similar to a gasoline vehicle. This car has 300 miles of range, and the Lithium Ion batteries are getting better [by] maybe 7 or 8 percent every year. A little bit more energy and range, and also the cost is improving. So, it's a very exciting time, and vehicles we'll build 10 years from now could have almost potentially twice the range of today, or a battery pack that weighed half as much as the battery packs we have today.

IDGNS: When it comes to your customers, or potential customers, is the range a worry? As it's all electric, you can't just fill it up with more gasoline. Is that somewhat of a psychological barrier?

JBS: Certainly, our customers are a little more technically savvy. They are early adopters at some level. Still, 300 miles gives you more freedom and utility than any other EV today, and particularly with this car, we are rolling out a network of what we call superchargers that can refuel the car in about 30 to 45 minutes. That's something we are pioneering here in California so customers can drive 500, 600, even 1,000 miles a day if they want, stopping only for 20 to 30 minutes in the middle for a quick recharge.

IDGNS: When you talk about your customers being early adopters, where would you like the company to go? Is it always going to be a luxury car maker, or are you hoping to become a mass-market car maker at one stage?

JBS: I think the Model S is really a transition product. The Roadster was really for die-hard fans and people who either loved performance or technology. The Model S is bridging that gap. We see customers with Model S that are much more mainstream. Tesla's goal is to advance the boundaries of electric vehicle technology and eventually drive a revolution in the whole industry. So we would love to see every car on the road being electric as soon as possible. We won't build all of those, but we definitely want to change the mindset and people's barriers about what they think is possible. I think Tesla will remain a brand where we focus on performance and fun driving but we are also driving down the price of our vehicles with each successive generation. So the Model S is about half the price of the Roadster and we are already working on our third-generation platform beyond this, which will be much cheaper still, maybe about US$30,000.

IDGNS: I'd like to ask you a couple of technology questions. When you look at all the areas of the car, what are the one or two areas that you are putting your most investment into, or the areas that need the biggest push at the moment?

JBS: Batteries are still near the top of that list. It's still one of the most important areas in the vehicle. Also, software is very critical to us, and we invest a lot of effort and engineering into very good software. That's part of what gives the car its very smooth feel, and when you drive it, the accelerator pedal responds very quickly and smoothly. Also having very high torque: That's part of the control of the motor. Those are a couple of the key areas; I would say batteries and software are two of the big ones. Also aluminum structures, very lightweight vehicles. This is one of the lightest weight chassis of any car on the market.

IDGNS: Tell me about the software in the car.

JBS: We wrote most of the software in the car ourselves. All of the screens you see were programmed here, designed here, and we have a whole team of software engineers upstairs implementing that and making it a reality. We are using an operating system that is a version of something called Linux. That is open source, very robust standard, for the display and entertainment. For the control and motor and things like that, we don't have operating systems. They run in a lower level and are actually running C code, so we have engineers upstairs writing in the C programming language, building the control loops from scratch. We write it, we model it, we test it here.

IDGNS: So if the Linux crashes, the car won't go off the road?

JBS: That's a key point. The whole entertainment system, those touchscreens, all of the applications you might load are totally separate from the propulsion of the car. In fact you could, if you had to, turn off the screens in the car while driving and the car still drives just fine. You couldn't see your Google Map, but you could still drive and stop and do everything else.

Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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