A recent statement by Tesla Inc. CEO Elon Musk has auto insiders wondering if the electric car maker has found a better way to test and validate vehicles, or if it is embarking on a risky new course.
In the statement made on an exclusive investor-only call last week, Musk reportedly suggested that the beta test phase of the company’s moderately-priced Model 3 EV is being shortened, and that its “early release candidates” are already being built on production tooling. According to various electric car websites, such as Elektrek, Tesla engineers used sophisticated design-for-manufacturability analytics, enabling them to limit the number of pre-production iterations of the vehicle. The result is that the quality of the so-called “release candidates” is higher than it was for the company’s earlier products, the Model S and Model X, reports said.
“The most plausible interpretation of this statement about release candidates is that (Musk) has opted to short-cut development testing of prototype vehicles,” noted Sam Abuelsamid, senior research analyst for Navigant Research, in an e-mail to Design News. “In all likelihood, he is assuming that they can get by with more simulation testing and less testing of physical prototypes.”
If that is indeed Musk’s plan, it would be a departure from the way automobiles have traditionally been tested, validated and manufactured. In common practice, beta testing involves months and tens of thousands of testing miles on vehicles built on pre-production tooling. In the case of the Model 3 (photo, left), that phase may have been short-circuited, but it’s difficult to know definitively because Musk often uses different terms than other automakers when describing the process. Tesla did not respond to an e-mail from Design News asking for clarification.
Automotive experts said the industry will watch carefully to see if the Silicon Valley carmaker’s software-centric approach is successful, but many were skeptical. “Everybody is trying to accelerate the process of launch,” noted David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research. “But if you say you’re going to skip part of the normal process in validating your tooling, it’s a risk.”
Up to now, Tesla has not publicly said if it did indeed shorten its beta test schedule or, if so, by how much. A few weeks ago, the company said it was doing beta test on vehicles.
Elektrek wrote that it was initially concerned about the possibility of truncated beta test schedule, but ultimately decided that Tesla was on the right track. “… If those vehicles are actually being made ‘almost entirely’ on production machines, it’s reassuring,” the website wrote.
Analysts said that their concern for Tesla is that its earlier premium vehicles exhibited quality problems. Going to the lower-priced segment, where customers place a special value on reliability, will only accentuate those problems, they said. “Even with design for manufacturability, Tesla has yet to prove it can build high-volume, high-quality products,” Abuelsamid said. “Compressing [the beta test] phase seems penny-wise and pound-foolish.”
Cole said that the market has forgiven Tesla’s past quality problems, but wondered whether that would continue with the Model 3. “They have beautiful designs and their cars are engineered well, but they’re not manufactured as well as they could be,” he said. “And that’s going to be particularly important when they get down to the $30,000 to $40,000 range.”
During the investor call, Musk reportedly said that Tesla employees will be driving early-release vehicles in “one to two weeks.” Plans are to launch low-volume production of the Model 3 in July and to ramp up to 5,000 units per week by the end of the year. The Model 3’s primary competitor, GM’s Bolt EV, is already in production.
Cole said that Tesla’s effort will serve as a teaching moment for the industry, whether or not it’s successful. “The big thing that virtual engineering does is allow you to cut your lead times,” he told us. “But translating that into production tooling will be tough. They’re in high-risk territory right now.”
Images courtesy of Tesla, Inc.
Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 33 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and autos.