Behind The Scenes: Tesla Model S Director of Product Design (Event Video)


Tesla Model S All Electric Car

Our friends at Cross Campus in Santa Monica partnered with RKS Design to host Javier Verdura, Director of Product Design at Tesla Motors. Javier shared interesting facts about Tesla Motors and how they design their cars, such as Tesla Model S and others.

What is Tesla Motors?

We’re a car company that sells electric cars instead of internal combustion engine cars. The deck is stacked against us.

Tesla’s mission is to accelerate the world’s transition to electric vehicles.

What makes Tesla Motors what it is today? (1:00-2:20)

[Elon Musk] is the most inspiring person I’ve ever met in my life. His energy and passion for doing things the right way is contagious … What he has imparted to us at Tesla is to not make money as a car company or only to make great designs but to make sure that everybody wants to drive an electric car.

Tesla Model S Event at Cross Campus

When did Tesla start and what was its first car? (2:20-3:13)

Tesla started in 2003. The first car launched was the Roadster, and it was meant to be a test platform for our technology.

There were a lot of challenges in designing this car but the whole idea was not just to be the best electric car. If you bought an electric car before Tesla existed, you were really compromising on aesthetics, on style, and performance. You were buying an electric car because you believed in driving a clean vehicle; you didn’t drive it to have the coolest car in the block. One of the things we set out to be is to make the best car in the world, regardless of whether it’s an electric engine vehicle or combustion engine vehicle. And my God, we did it!(04:25-5:01)

Driving a car with an electric motor means that the torque is available instantly

Tesla has three main facilities (11:25-11:55)

  1. The factory in Fremont, California. It grew from having 30,000 people two years ago to 82,000 today.
  2. The HQ in Palo Alto.
  3. The design studio in LA

(11:39-16:34) The studio has about 130 people. Made of industrial designers, engineers, fabricators, and sculptors.

Everything we do at Tesla Motors starts at the design studio. -Javier Verdura

Designing an automobile undergoes through the following processes:

  1. Clay modeling
  2. 3D scanning
  3. Reverse engineering
  4. A-class surfacing
  5. Clay CNC milling
  6. Visualization

Aerodynamics is a huge part of our car's success. - Javier Verdura

Range is key with electric cars. Mass and drag are two huge factors of range. If we can get a car as slippery as possible, it means we can get more mileage out of it to the point when we specify the tires, the rolling resistance of the tires and the properties of the tires are able to give us a mile extra of range.

What are super charging networks?

Super charging networks are capable of replacing over 170 miles of range in only 30 minutes. Currently, there are 150+ self-funded charging stations in North America, Europe and Asia. (18:40-21:45)

One of the ethos we live by: (21:46-22:08)

Free charging on pure sunlight for life. –Elon Musk

Fascinating things about Tesla: (22:00-25:00)

  • Walking into our store isn’t just a matter of being sold cars, it’s about being educated about the technology; about Tesla, how we went electric, what is a supercharging system, how far you go, and your carbon footprint depending on where you live in the country.
  • We’re transparent about where you energy comes from (coal, gas, clean energy etc.) depending on where you live.
  • We don’t do advertising.
  • We don’t have a dealership network or dealership associations.
  • You can buy and configure an entire car online; what kind of wheels you want, what color, what interior etc. The car is made for you. Each car takes 6-7 weeks to finish.

Amazing fan-made video about a Tesla Model S (25:40-26:47)

Do you have any idea what’s going to happen with Tesla 4-5 years down the road? Are you going to re-design the body? (27:33-29:11)

Our roadmap right now is to have the Model S stay in production for 4-5 years. But Tesla Model S is a $110,000 car so it’s not a car for everybody. What we’re trying to do right now is build a mass market car that everybody can afford.

Currently, we’re working on the Gen III, which is our low-cost project that we didn’t talk about too much. It costs $35,000 and it’s going to be a competitor to, let’s say, the A43 series of BMW.

Can you talk a little bit about what the design team does for the interiors and the interface? Do they work with the industrial designers? (29:15-32:00)

They are part of the design umbrella and they are based up north in Palo Alto. The user interface team has about 5 people and a lot of them came from Apple. There are only two buttons inside the car and the rest is touch screen so they are a pretty big part of the design team. They are a little bit separate from my group here in LA but they run things with us. We have a monthly meeting when they have new technology and how can work together more closely.

One of the uphill battles that we have is if you take a look at the interior of Mercedes S Class car, it’s very luxurious and opulent. To us, a Mercedes is a big mansion with drapes, big couches, and Persian rugs. Our car is a mid-century modern house with Inch furniture and super minimum. It’s just a matter of how you perceive it.

How are decisions actually made? Who decide what’s cool and what inspires you guys? (32:01-33:22)

Believe it or not, most of the decision-making comes from Elon. He has a great eye for design and his title is probably architect as opposed to CEO. Of course, we have to present to him something that has a solid foundation that he has to react to.

What did you have to overcome when you’re testing for impact issues and putting passengers out of danger? (33:24-37:20)

Our engineers that did the cross structures and everything had to be extremely creative. To do the impossible that can’t done because nobody’s ever done it before, we have to get it done because nobody’s done it before; that’s the theory behind everything that we do. At the end of the day, the structure of the car is designed in such a way that it’s one of the strongest cars on the road in terms of crash-worthiness. When the Highway Safety Association tested Model S, it got 5 stars.

Can you talk a little bit about about what your process was like before you came to Tesla? Maybe how it differs now that you’re part of the company? (38:35-40:04)

What I used to do was consumer testing. That’s one thing we don’t do at Tesla and it’s something Elon doesn’t believe in. The difference, obviously, is the lack of consumer testing—the fact that we don’t use focus groups. We don’t think consumers know what they don’t.

Javier Verdura in Tesla Model S

Talk about the design of Tesla Model S as far as sitting six or seven people and storage space, as compared to Model X. (40:06-41:55)

Model S can sit 6 or 7 people but we only put up to 12-year-old kids at the back. Model X can fit 7 adults and the third row seat is just as comfortable as the rest of the car. The thing that we’re battling with both models is just keeping the weight down and making sure they both have the same range.

What are the resistances you get from oil companies or the government or establishment that are set to lose if Tesla becomes massively successful? (42:01-44:25)

I think if we have any lashback from oil companies, I don’t know if we would know about it. People say that some of the negative press we get sometimes are things done on purpose to hurt us and oil companies are doing it --whatever. I don’t think that’s the case. We haven’t heard anything directly.

Can you speak a little a bit about the design process of supercharging stations? (44:26-47:00)

In a gas station, you’re there for five minutes to fill up a 20-gallon tank. If you have to stand 25-30 minutes there, what are you going to do? We have to find size where there’s a place to get a cup of coffee, a fast food restaurant, or whatever it might be. That’s challenging. It’s more like a real-estate challenge than a design challenge.

There’s also the social challenge. A social platform has to be established to inform people that their car is done charging and make way for two or three others cars waiting in line. We’re probably going to do it via cellphones.

As far as product design and product changes, how long does it take to hit production? How long is the turnaround time? (49:09-50:19)

It varies. A new car itself takes a solid three years to design, engineers, tool up, and start manufacturing. But if we’re running changes in the car, it will take six to seven months. There are a lot of things in the car that will keep evolving and improving on.

What do you think is special about Tesla versus others trying to make eVes? (50:29-51:35)

I think it’s the fact that we don’t compromise.

What do you think is Tesla’s biggest challenge going forward? (51:40-52:55)

I would say producing our own batteries is our biggest challenge. Well, it’s not a challenge, it’s going to happen. It’s something we have to recognize.

The supercharging network is a challenge as well. Building each station costs a lot of money and we’re funding it ourselves.

If you enjoyed this blog post, please visit our friends Cross Campus or RKS Design to learn more about their mission.

Want to hear more interesting stories about successful modern companies? Leave us a comment below.