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

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Session Title: Designing an Electric Car from the Ground Up

Chris Albrecht
Katie Fehrenbacher
Franz von Holzhausen
Audience Member #1
Audience Member #2


Announcer 01:23
If we could just ask everybody to move into the seats so that others can get into the open chairs, that would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

Announcer 03:27
Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats; the program is about to begin.

Announcer 04:04
Please welcome your MC, Chris Albrecht back to the stage.
Chris Albrecht 04:09
Everybody have a good break? Good fun? Thanks for the applause; give yourself an applause. You guys are doing well. I don’t have my clicker but that’s okay, they’ll help me backstage. Just a couple things to remember. Scoot in so people can get in, Wi-Fi – thank you Rob backstage – network is Gigaom, password is roadmap2013. If you’re just joining us, you can follow us on Twitter at Gigaom and you can tag your tweets and I know you’re probably going to tag a lot of them for this next session – hash tag, roadmap 2013. There’s a Roadmap mobile app. You can scan the bar code on the back to download, scan the bar code on the front of someone else to exchange contact information. That’s about it for right now. I’m going to shut my yap and bring out our next guest. He is Mr. Franz von Holzhausen, Tesla. He’s going to be talking with Katie Fehrenbacher. They’re going to be talking about “Designing an Electric Car from the Ground Up.” Please welcome Katie and Franz.
Katie Fehrenbacher 05:09
Hi guys. I’m super excited about this interview today. We’re really lucky because we have Franz up here this morning from the LA Design Studio. He’s the Chief Designer of Tesla. He joined Tesla back in the summer of 2008, right after they launched the first initial version of the Roadster. He was in charge of the next generation of the Roadster, of the Model S, of the Model X, of the UI in the car, of the brand experience, as well. If you guys don’t know, the Model S is a fascinating car because it’s one of – from a design perspective – the first electric cars built and designed from the ground up. They’re going to ship 21,500 cars by the end of the year. Then, the Model X is the next Gen car. It’s coming out end of 2014 and Franz was also in charge of designing this as well. I wanted to go back to the beginning when you joined Tesla. Early 2008, you were at Mazda in North America. You were a critically acclaimed designer at these large car companies and Tesla was tiny, had no money in the back, at some point in 2008. What was Elon Musk’s pitch to you? How did they get you involved?
Franz von Holzhausen 06:50
It was a moment of walking off the cliff, so to speak. Elon was pretty persuasive. I don’t know if anybody’s had a chance to engage with him. If he sets his mind on something, he’s going to accomplish it. We’ve seen the fruits of that labor. At that moment in time, Tesla was really looking for a vertical integration including design, and bringing design in-house so it could control our destiny a little bit better. I believed that the automotive world really needs a change. Something needed to trigger a change in behavior and in manufacturer’s behavior towards moving to a more green, sustainable environment, and Elon was really pushing this. I wasn’t going to be able to achieve it at Mazda, GM or VW, so I took the plunge.
Katie Fehrenbacher 07:49
So it was also an environmental or getting the world off of fossil fuels that was a large part in your decision?
Franz von Holzhausen 07:58
Yes. Tesla’s primary goal is to rid the addiction of fossil fuel. No other major automotive manufacturer has its sole purpose set on being a green company. Most of the green developments are R&D projects or enough to cover the marketing proportion. Their main bread and butter is gasoline powered cars. In order to really change the mindset and change the thinking, working with a company like Tesla where you’re all in, you’ve pushed all your chips onto the table and you’re betting on them. That’s really motivating.
Katie Fehrenbacher 08:51
You joined mid 2008 and you whipped the Roadster into shape a little bit more for the next generations. But then you have this monumental task of designing the Model S which is not only one of the first mainstream electric cars, built from the ground up, but also Tesla’s linchpin for becoming profitable and becoming less of a niche car maker. You start from a blank sheet of paper. What was the design process you went through creating the Model S?
Franz von Holzhausen 09:24
It was kind of no pressure, just hit a home run your first swing and know that you’re going to do that. The day I started at Tesla, I began working on Model S, and was trying to understand where we were going, where the brand was going and the importance of what Model S meant to the brand. It’s one thing to design a car or a vehicle, which is already in itself, a challenge, but it’s another thing to design the very first vehicle for a brand that’s going to grow for many, many years. And really create the foundation and win the acceptance of electric cars. My job, my goal is to do that through the power of design. What I really wanted to achieve was this idea of, I’m off to the flame, where you don’t really realize what it is your looking at or why you’re attracted to it but you are. That emotional response, that engagement that you get is what sparks the curiosity and makes you go over and look at that thing or see that car and really investigate it and really try to figure out what it is and learn more about it and become a fan.
Katie Fehrenbacher 10:51
What were your design inspirations? You’ve talked a little bit about an athlete and Tour de France, I think you had said before.
Franz von Holzhausen 11:02
For Model S and for Tesla, the Roadster really demonstrated that electric propulsion could be incredibly sporty. It has an incredible amount of performance, 100% torque at 0 RPM. It’s really impressive. If you’ve never driven in a Roadster or Model S, that acceleration moment is alluring. There’s no other vehicle other than a rollercoaster or a fighter jet that has that kind of torque pull that’s just continuous and pulls and pulls and pulls. That performance spirited vibe is something that I needed to communicate in the leverage of the car. At the onset, I felt that an athlete was really the right kind of spiritual theme for how to create a design language. An athlete is really tuned to win the race. It’s everything that goes in it is tuned and its physique is the result of exercise and practice and a regimen, all in the idea of winning that race. It became a natural theme for us and it acquainted really well back into the car. And if you see the car, it has broad shoulders, it has a great stance, has a really purposeful built body. It goes back to this athletic theme.
Katie Fehrenbacher 12:32
We were talking backstage about the importance of the face of the car. What was the inspiration for the Model S face?
Franz von Holzhausen 12:38
Yes. When you meet a person, you recognize them by their face. Creating a face for a vehicle is very similar to that. That instant recognition or that memory that you have of that vehicle, is generally through the face and you can attribute it through many different brands. All the brands work on creating a characterable face that is recognizable, whether it’s what we call, down the road graphics, where you can see it from afar and recognize it right away, or just a memory of a grill shape or the eyes or headlights that remind you of it. Many brands have actually evolved a character over time. If you look at Mercedes or Audi. They’ve really evolved their face and their character over a long period of time. We were starting with nothing and needed to create that history. There’s a level of taking a little bit of the spirit of Roadster and then developing that into an instantly recognizable face that you can see on the road and getting the eyes correct and giving it a little bit of character. We have a nose cone on the car and it’s the mouth that really holds the badge for the car, really creating the identity. If you see a Model S now from afar, you’d recognize it right away. The DRL, the lights, are instantly recognizable and I think that’s incredibly important.
Katie Fehrenbacher 14:10
You’ve been a big component of the elements that surprise and delay or these little touches, not unlike the way that Apple has designed their products, with the door handles that come out on the Model X with the doors that rise. Why do you think that’s important to you?
Franz von Holzhausen 14:31
The door handles were something that I just thought would be – as you approach the car for the first time, the first contact you have with the vehicle – it’s through the door handle. It needs to be a memorable experience. It needs to elicit an emotion from the moment that you get to the car, not from when you get behind the wheel. The idea of this handle that protrudes from the car as you approach it. The car’s already thinking for you. It’s already allowing you to enter it and that experience that you have is just incredibly memorable. So many people that own or have been around a Model S, the first thing they talk about is the door handle because it’s really unique and it’s a memorable experience and it’s your first point of contact with the car. It’s such a shame when you see other vehicles that that’s one of the first elements that they cost reduced and they try to take any value out of. The first contact you have is the cheapest part on the car and we wanted to change that around a little bit. The Falcon doors for the Model X are really an exercise in how do you access the second and third row of a vehicle better than what is on the market today? We’ve gotten use to sliding doors and we’ve gotten use to normal doors and their not great at getting people into the third row of a vehicle. Even minivans, you kind of have to climb over or move the seat out of way and if you have a baby seat in the second row, you’ve thrown the kid into the first row in order to get to the third row. We wanted to find a better way to do that and the Falcon doors really open up the environment so you can easily climb in or easily step in and just make the experience better. It’s really about these touch points. It’s about improving the overall experience and not just taking for granted what already exists.
Katie Fehrenbacher 16:22
It’s real interesting about Model S and X is that the engineering is next generation, future forward. What was the process of working with the engineering team like when they bring you a flat battery pack that no other car has been designed around before? What was the interaction like in terms of form and function?
Franz von Holzhausen 16:47
The interaction was far from normal when we were developing Model S because the design team and the engineering team were located in the back corner of a rocket factory in SpaceX. So already we had a unique experience around us and we were a very small team. We were looking to innovate a platform and architecture that we could develop great cars from. The idea of a flat battery pack underneath the floor of the car, was really one that allowed us as designers to open up the overall space of the car and I called everything above that flat floor this kind of skateboard concept, the opportunity space. It’s the space where we as designers, give back to the owner, the consumer, and create a unique environment that you really can’t have in any other car because you have a lump of metal up front and a gas tank in back. We were able to open that space up and provide more value.
Katie Fehrenbacher 17:48
The Model S took four years or so from design concept to delivery, which is very fast in the automotive world. What were some lessons you learned along the way working so quickly and going from the prototype to production in such a new way. What were the biggest lessons you learned there? Obviously, there’s infinite design iterations.
Franz von Holzhausen 18:11
Tons of iterations along the way but I think what was really important for us was to make sure the prototype was actually real. Too many times you see show cars and concept cars that are an idea but they’re not really grounded in reality. At the onset, when we began developing Model S and we created the first prototype, it was exactly what we wanted to achieve with the car. Everything on that prototype made it to production. We had these crazy door handles that nobody thought we could do. We had a funk – a front trunk – in the car, we had all this space. We were able to fit seven people in there. These were all things that nobody thought would be possible and we didn’t think we could continue to bring that to market but we did. That part of the process, making sure when we prototype and develop, it’s grounded in reality, really is a great enabler to getting it into production quickly. The other part is just collaborative working. We worked together as a team – engineers and designers, shoulder to shoulder – tripping over each other on a daily basis, which really shortcut the little bit more traditional process of designer and engineer throwing ideas over the fence and waiting for a response.
Katie Fehrenbacher 19:36
The Model X is coming out next year. I was listening to the earnings call yesterday and Elon was saying Model X is getting the final design brushstrokes now. What are you finishing up on the Model X? What are you working on?
Franz von Holzhausen 19:50
One of the things that’s rarely discussed about Model S and obviously, Model X, is that we spent an incredible amount of time making Model S the most aerodynamic car in the marketplace and that aerodynamic efficiency translates into overall range and efficiency. But it’s not quirky or weird or something that takes away from the inherent beauty of the car. That’s something that we’re working on right now with Model X is continuing to refine, hone, tune and tweak and make sure that we get maximum efficiency out of the car. Perfecting the interior ambience and the space in there and really optimizing, based on what we’ve already shown. We get a lot of feedback from the prototypes and we try to bake that in in a very positive way. We’re in the refining process right now.
Katie Fehrenbacher 20:40
So it will look pretty similar to the prototype?
Franz von Holzhausen 20:42
Katie Fehrenbacher 20:43
What’s the latest on the video camera mirrors?
Franz von Holzhausen 20:48
The video camera mirrors, there’s some Federal legislation that gets in the way of making those really able to be in production by next year but Tesla members and people at Tesla are working with our Federal friends on trying to improve regulations that hold back creativity and hold back safety elements and technology that can really make our cars more safe. A lot of these Federal rules were written in the 70’s and 80’s and we still have to adhere to them today, and some of them just don’t make sense anymore. That’s definitely one that we’re challenging.
Katie Fehrenbacher 21:24
What other kinds of things are you guys challenging on the design front?
Franz von Holzhausen 21:28
On the design front, in terms of Federal regulations?
Katie Fehrenbacher 21:31
Yes. It seems like it’s such a unique industry. There are a lot of product developers in the audience who don’t have to deal with things like that where it’s so tightly regulated. It seems like you guys are iterating on – not just the video camera mirrors – but a variety of design elements across the car.
Franz von Holzhausen 21:49
One of things that we pride ourselves on is being one of the safest or the safest car in the marketplace right now. That’s an unwritten rule at Tesla is that every vehicle that we make is going to be safe. So, we have to design in safety into the language and not make it look like a brick or a big ugly bumpers or anything like that. We work down to the millimeter or less to make sure we protect the identity, language and romance, but incorporate all these safety elements and being the most aerodynamic and the safest car and still winning design awards and Motor Trend Car of the Year award, it’s just a testament to just a lot of hard work and finesse.
Katie Fehrenbacher 22:44
The Model X, I read an interview with you that you said, it was designed for a lot more female audience like the soccer mom with the kids. Were there steps you went through to make sure that you had that female oven voice in there?
Franz von Holzhausen 23:05
I think we’ll see that Model X works well for women, but the bigger idea is to create a more functional vehicle. If you look at the marketplace, there’s an idea of a minivan, which is solace and characterless. Nobody really wants to own a minivan. It’s just because you have to. [laughter] Sorry if I’m offending but it’s probably true. From a functional perspective, if you just can’t knuckle down and own a minivan, you move to an SUV or a crossover, which arguably aren’t as functional. Model X is really looking at, how do you provide the functionality of a minivan, but make it attractive and desirable, something similar to what an SUV has in terms of desire. The functionality and the attractiveness is what’s hopefully going to win over everybody including women.
Katie Fehrenbacher 24:10
What was your inspiration for the doors? I know that the Falcon wing doors were the inspiration but how did that come about? What was the process?
Franz von Holzhausen 24:22
Again, we explored the marketplace and we realized that conventional doors are not great for accessing the second or third row, combined with kids, etc. The sliding doors don’t actually open that big and they’re really challenging to get into the third row, especially if you have kids and especially in parking lots, etc. We just thought there was a better way, so we looked at a Gold wing type experience, really is a single hinge on the car, and the doors open really wide in a parking lot and you couldn’t open them anywhere, so we did a double-actuated hinge where the door opens vertically first and then flips over the top. We have sensors on the doors now that they’ll never hit a garage, low hanging roof or a car parked next to you. But you’ll always be able to get into the vehicle. It was really an exploration and not just sticking to the known paradigm of, “this is what other people do, so we should do it too.” But really cracking that open and looking at what’s best for the user.
Katie Fehrenbacher 25:28
And the third Gen car, Elon was saying that next year you’re going to start the design process. Any kinds of things you’re thinking about – inspiration- you can share in terms of the third Gen design?
Franz von Holzhausen 25:39
As cool as everything that we’ve done today and better. Obviously, our goal is to be more affordable. Now that we’ve got a great foundation with Model S and Model X coming, you start to see the character of what a Tesla could be. If anybody knows my design history, I’m not shy when it comes to being provocative or creating provocative designs. I think Model S was really the ‘ready to wear’ element and the Gen3 has the opportunity to be a little bit more couture and expressive, but at the same time, we don’t want to alienate anybody. We’re still on a mission to bring electrification to the masses. It was really important with Model S to make it an attractive, desirable car for everybody, not just overly masculine or freaky or cool for early adopters, but for everybody. The Gen3 car will have that same appeal.
Katie Fehrenbacher 26:38
Is the Gen3 going to be based on the Model S and X platform or are you going to do a brand new platform?
Franz von Holzhausen 26:43
We’ll do a new platform.
Katie Fehrenbacher 26:45
Is that going to be with a bigger battery or lighter or do you know?
Franz von Holzhausen 26:53
I think there’s been a lot of discussion about what the battery and the range will be and we’re still working on that, so just stay tuned. It’ll be attractive. [laughter]
Katie Fehrenbacher 27:03
I’m going to open up to audience questions. In the meantime, I have another question for you. The whole UI is something that you’re in charge of too and you’re trying to create a brand new driving experience. We haven’t talked about that yet, the 17 inch screen, obviously. What was your decision-making when you decided, “we want this huge screen in the car, never used before”? What were you thinking about that?
Franz von Holzhausen 27:32
Elon and I talked a lot about it in the early days and what we both came to the realization was that screens in cars at that point in time, and still probably today, really sucked. They’re super small, they’re hard to interact with and you get this new era of idrives and MMI’s, where you have to cycle through screens in order to get to the screen that you want to look at and sometimes it’s three or four clicks. When you’re doing that while you’re driving, it can be very dangerous. We wanted to take that away and create an environment where you could have the most important functions all on the screen at the same time and take away all the physical buttons which can age a vehicles interior very quickly. Then we created this idea that I call, being relevant over time. With the UI, we can constantly upgrade and refresh the feel, improve the user experience over time and no other car is doing that. We’ve gotten fully accustomed to that with our phones, etc., but the cars don’t do that and they age very quickly on the interior of these conventional knobs and buttons and you suffer through antiquated navigation systems six months after you buy a brand new car. We wanted to take all that off the table and just make a great experience. My thought is if we put all the buttons into the screen and the interaction is very similar, the car can still be fresh and new and personalized even two, three, four years into the ownership experience, and improve with you.
Katie Fehrenbacher 29:04
So it’s changing design around over the air software updates and always on connectivity?
Franz von Holzhausen 29:09
Katie Fehrenbacher 29:14
We’ve got a question up front. The mic runner will run to you. Over there.
Audience Member #1 29:23
One of the things that’s very frustrating about vehicles is the refueling experience, finding a place and going and plugging in or whatever. How much thought has gone into – from the design perspective – on the recharging experience and what that’s like for the drivers of the Teslas?
Franz von Holzhausen 29:42
One of the things that we are intimately involved in is the user experience as you mentioned, and making sure it’s a positive experience. One of the things we did on Model S was to remove this idea of a gas cap. We put the charge and hid it in the taillight and made the exterior of the car very sleek, so there’s really no association to the gasoline powered car and we made the handle in the connection very small. If you experience any other manufacturer’s connection experiences, they’re big, clunky, large and cumbersome and not friendly. We want to make it a really positive experience. Our team is involved in the overall supercharging experience, which is free for life charging and intracity and we’re expanding that at an incredible rate. We just drove from San Diego to Vancouver last week, all free on a supercharging network and we’re expanding that across the country. The experience that you have with that is it simply emulates what you would do in your house or in your garage, when you charge the car. I think it’s just a matter of time before we roll out more and more and more of these supercharging experiences. With the range of Model S, you don’t have to find a plug everywhere you go. I can drive my car for several days and not plug it in.
Katie Fehrenbacher 31:12
Right there in the middle. I think we’ve got time for one more.
Audience Member #2 31:21
How do you get customer feedback in your design process? Do you talk to users? What is your methodology to get feedback while you’re designing or do you basically work from a hunch?
Franz von Holzhausen 31:31
Yes. We talk to users all the time. In fact, we have a supercharging station right in front of our design studio. It was the first one that we opened. It’s a great opportunity to engage with the customers. They come into our lobby and we talk to and engage with them, we ask them questions, they ask us questions. It’s a great way to find out right away and we can translate that and two minutes later, we can be at our desk working on an improved design or translating some responses back into the vehicle. We also travel around to the stores and we get different regional inputs. We read the Tesla forum and the blogs that people post. We don’t have a shy consumer or customer out there. They are very vocal and we appreciate that. It’s our job as a designer– if there’s any designers out there – your job is filtering all the input and creating something great out of that. That’s what I try to do.
Katie Fehrenbacher 32:36
Unfortunately, that’s all the time we have. Maybe you can see Franz down in LA driving his electric blue Model S, special color, and if he has any time, try to grab him after the show, but I think he’s got to run. Thank you so much, Franz for being here.
Franz von Holzhausen 32:52
Katie Fehrenbacher 32:52
It was awesome.
Franz von Holzhausen 32:53
Thank you.