How Tesla overcame the challenges of electric car design from the ground up

Unlike other electric vehicles that have strong roots in previous gas-powered models, Tesla cars started with a clean slate. That provides challenges since you can’t build off old ideas, but it also allows a certain type of design freedom that can be turned into a key strength. Tesla’s Model S was the first car to accomplish this and much of it had to do with Franz von Holzhausen, Chief Designer at Tesla Motors.

Speaking at the Gigaom Roadmap 2013 conference on Wednesday, von Holzhausen explained why he was interested in the project. “The automotive world needed a change and Tesla was moving towards a more green, stable environment. I’d never be able to achieve that at Mazda, GM or VW so I took the plunge.”

When asked about the design challenges for the first Tesla car, von Holzhausen explained what made it difficult and what his design goals were.

“It’s one thing to design a car but it’s another thing to design the first vehicle of a company that’s going to be growing for years and years. My goal: do that through the power of design. It’s the ‘moth to the flame’ idea: You don’t realize why you’re attracted to it, but you are. And it elicits an emotional response.”

It also needs to elicit recognizability so that consumers remember the brand when they see the car. There’s no mistaking a Tesla Model for what it is. And the emotions start as you walk up to the car because a Model S senses your approach and instructs the door handles to reach out for you. “As you approach the car, it’s the first experience you have and it needs to be incredibly memorable. Your first contact shouldn’t be with the cheapest part on the car.”

The company is currently readying its Model X, which tackled a different problem: Moving more people comfortably while also removing the addiction to fossil fuels. “No one wants to own a minivan so we thought: How can we make our car desirable more like an SUV?, said von Holzhausen. The model X has Falcon doors as well–similar to gull-wings but with two hinges instead of one. The doors are designed with sensors so they don’t hit the garage roof or doors.

Tesla’s Model X takes user experience into account for the dashboard in a new way, as well, with a large 17-inch touchscreen is the main focus. Why?

“Screens in cars really suck: They’re small, hard to interact with. Drivers don’t want three or four clicks; which is dangerous,” von Holzhausen explained. “The most important functions are on the screen at the same time. We can improve the UX over time with refreshes, helping to slow down the age of the car.”

Now that the Model S is for sale and pre-orders for the Model X have begun, what’s next? A third-generation car that will be essentially build from the ground up again. Tesla will surely take cues from the prior two models, but the next car will use a new platform. That’s fine with von Holzhausen; he’ll be able to be more creative once again in designing an electric car from the ground up.

Check out the rest of our Roadmap 2013 live coverage here, and a video embed of the session follows below:

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A transcription of the video follows on the next page