A teardown of the Tesla Model 3 found Tesla is years ahead of the competition on AI and self-driving – as much as six years ahead by one estimate. Tesla’s choice to ignore the traditional supply channel, to design and use its own microprocessors, and integrate much of the control functionality into a single module are cited as reasons for Tesla standing out from the competition.
According to an article in Nikkei Asian Review, a “stunned engineer from a major Japanese automaker … declared, ‘We cannot do it.’”
Nikkei Business Publications recently acquired a 2019 Tesla Model 3 and did a complete teardown of the hardware components. What they found:
What stands out most is Tesla’s integrated central control unit, or “full self-driving computer.” Also known as Hardware 3, this little piece of tech is the company’s biggest weapon in the burgeoning EV market. It could end the auto industry supply chain as we know it…
The module — released last spring and found in all new Model 3, Model S and Model X vehicles — includes two custom, 260-sq.-millimeter AI chips. Tesla developed the chips on its own, along with special software designed to complement the hardware. The computer powers the cars’ self-driving capabilities as well as their advanced in-car “infotainment” system.
Tesla FSD chips.
This massive integration is uncommon in the auto industry, especially out of the desire to separate critical functionality such as self-driving from nice-to-have features such as infotainment, in case the car gets hacked.
Tesla’s original Autopilot system dates to 2014, also called Hardware 1, and “every two or three years, the company pushed the envelope further, culminating in the full self-driving computer.” It would take an automaker such as Toyota or VW – for what it’s worth, the story did not cite GM or Ford – until 2025 to match Tesla, the six-year lead apparently referring to the model year of the car torn apart.
According to the story, the real reason for Tesla’s success may be its willingness to work outside the established supply chain for electronics:
So big automakers apparently feel obliged to continue using complicated webs of dozens of ECUs, while we only found a few in the Model 3. Put another way, the supply chains that have helped today’s auto giants grow are now beginning to hamper their ability to innovate.
Young companies like Tesla, on the other hand, are not shackled to suppliers and are free to pursue the best technologies available. Our teardown underscored this in another way as well.
Most parts inside the Model 3 do not bear the name of a supplier. Instead, many have the Tesla logo, including the substrates inside the ECUs. This suggests the company maintains tight control over the development of almost all key technologies in the car.
Expect big-time pushback from the big suppliers. And they will have fair arguments. It is hubris to assume one group of engineers, even as they’re constantly refreshed and bring in new talent, can have all the answers. In addition, Tesla is making a big bet that it doesn’t need lidar to make self-driving cars work.
We’ve also seen Tesla, being so far ahead, runs into problems sooner than other automakers. Its auto-lane-change feature has changed lanes into the path of other cars, where that of competitors does not. Just this year, there’ve been reports that the teenager trick of taping or painting a 35-mph speed limit sign to 85 mph tricks Autopilot into speeding up. All you’d need to counteract this hack is a common-sense module that says no place in America lets you drive 85 mph within town limits.
We’re also waiting to see how Tesla, and everyone else, will manage self-driving in rain or snow. That calls for smarter, or different sensors, perhaps that look downward (ground penetrating radar) or use different visual frequencies (short wave infrared, or SWIR).
The story cheerleads, in some ways, for Tesla, saying:
And with this hardware in place, Teslas can evolve through “over the air” software updates. Right now, the vehicles are still classified as Level 2 or “partially autonomous” cars. But Musk has stressed that they have all the necessary components — “computer and otherwise” — for full self-driving.
At the very least, this is a wakeup call for the rest of the auto industry. The Tesla mystique continues: sales better than the rest of the industry, the stainless steel pickup trick, and a market value bigger than GM and Ford combined. Tesla stock has more than doubled in the first six weeks of 2020.