Five Questions: Peter Rawlinson, Tesla Motors Chief Engineer

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Peter Rawlinson, Tesla Motors vice president and chief engineer

Peter Rawlinson, Tesla Motors vice president and chief engineer

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If Tesla Motors had a single message to convey at the 2011 Detroit Auto Show, it was this: We're a real car company.

Rather than show a completed prototype of its Model S all-electric luxury sports sedan, scheduled to launch by the end of 2012, the company showed the car's shell.

That allowed other carmakers to look it over, see that it wasn't based on any other company's platform or structure, and pass their own judgment on the structural engineering, suspension design, and of course the slimline battery pack that forms the floorpan.

And visit they did, including no less a luminary than Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda, who ran his hands over the shell and was photographed feeling inside a pillar of the Model S body on display.

We spoke with Tesla VP and chief engineer Peter Rawlinson, whose team is responsible for the design and production engineering of the Model S.

What's the biggest misconception you find people to have about the Tesla Model S?

Peter Rawlinson: We wanted to show that the vehicle engineers at Tesla are capable of designing and engineering a world-class car from a clean sheet of paper. That means engineered in-house, no carryover component assemblies, doing the entire platform, suspension, and body structure ourselves.

We may bring in individual components--brake disks and calipers, electric power steering motors, air suspension, anti-lock brake controllers, for example--but we tune them all ourselves.

Maybe in some quarters, our ability to do all of this isn't as well understood as it might be. So we have to demonstrate that by showing the bodyshell.

During your press event, you used the phrase "aluminum intensive" many times. Can you be more explicit?

PR: The structure of the Tesla Model S is roughly 97 percent aluminum. Weight saving is at a premium for electric-vehicle range, so we've tried to create some elegant engineering solutions to the design challenges--although, of course, never at the expense of safety.

We use a few specific elements made of high-strength steel in, for example, the B-pillars (between the front and rear doors).

The bumper systems are ultra-high-strength boron steel, which is so strong it can't be stamped at room temperature--it has to be heated until it's cherry red before you can form it.

Other than that, we'll do our own aluminum stampings in-house and have specialists do the castings and extrusions. We'll assemble all of them into a complete Model S body.

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Comments (3)
  1. Excellent interview. Well done sir. Love hearing the technical details of the Tesla process.

  2. Being an exNUMMI (New United Motors) employee and working hard on my knowledge and understanding of not only E.V. vehicles but the work going on at the Tesla plant. These articles are wonderful sources of information. Thank you

  3. I do have a question. Your company is advancing electric car technology and that is great, fantastic. Your company has more money now. Now why do you still use consumer grade batteries in your cars. There are much better bateries out there, industrial and even military grade batteries. Your batteries in your car are for use in toys and throw away consumer goods. You do a good job with these batteries but if you used military grade batteries with thionyl for example, you could make your battery packs 10 percent or more smaller and they would have at least double the energy and thus double the range. You could travel 500 to 600 miles per recharge while driving at 75 miles an hour. The packs would also last 25 years or so. The packs might have 5 or 6 times increase in price but these are for rich people anyway. Im not telling you what to do as I only drive electric bikes and my interest is that nbow I can recharge the eBike in 10 minutes, which I can, so my interest is in recharging.

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