Building Model S: A Perfectionist Defines Tesla's Design Language

Franz von Holzhausen, Chief Designer, April 29, 2009

For a few hours now, I have been sitting in a darkened photography studio, staring at a beautifully lit Model S. I am beginning to realize why it sucks to be a perfectionist. Even after hours and hours poring over and deliberating every millimeter of surface and detail leading to this prototype glowing in front of me, I realize the job is far from done. But the good news for a designer who is never satisfied is that, even after accomplishing so much in such a short time, it’s not quite time to lift the brush.

The world is now very familiar with the Model S show car, which we launched on March 26. But the development process continues as we hone the Model S into a world-class production car – and the best EV on the market. I left Mazda last summer to work at Tesla, attracted to an idea that initially struck me as impossibly ambitious -- and, equally, downright genius. The goal: A mid-sized sedan that seats 7 people and their luggage in a package that is both functional and good looking – actually, better looking than anything on the market. Some SUVs can’t even do that. Especially the good looking part. ;) With such lofty expectations, we needed to start with a clean sheet -- and that’s what we did. In a small, white tent carved out of a corner in the back of a rocket factory in Hawthorne, California – where SpaceX employees seem to accomplish the impossibly ambitious on a daily basis -- we got to work. We immediately began building the design team, which eventually grew to 11 people. We worked grueling hours, fueled by countless take-out dinners, lunches and breakfasts, not to mention ample caffeine and snacks in the SpaceX cafeteria.

If that weren’t challenge enough, last fall we simultaneously developed the Roadster Sport, the first variant of Tesla’s world-class powertrain. Tesla will begin delivering the Roadster Sport to customers starting in late June. We worked nearly up to the moment that the car was revealed to the public. That’s a total of eight months – a timeline that would seem preposterous by the standards of the traditional automotive industry. But one of our biggest assets – aside from our (possibly unhealthy) work ethic – is the simplicity of an all-electric powertrain. Tesla’s industry-leading electric powertrain fundamentally redefined the basic architecture for a sedan, enabling the Model S to become an insanely functional car. We also had the confidence that comes from building a car around a proven powertrain that has already racked up hundreds of thousands of miles in simulated and real-world testing.

Still, one of our biggest challenges was coming up with an overarching design language for a car unlike anything else on the road. The main design theme the Model S communicates is efficiency. “Uncompromised” is the key word I use to describe Model S: environmentally friendly, extremely functional and attractive. It’s a vehicle you are proud to own regardless of what attribute is most important to you, and one where you don’t sacrifice one or more of those attributes for the sake of any other. I set out to develop an efficient, timelessly modern yet classic and international form language, as well as a face for the Tesla brand. As a new brand in a rapidly changing world of brand-savvy consumers, establishing a secure identity is critical. Model S will be the volume base from which we will build the Tesla brand. Tesla’s design is gender-neutral, advanced and unique -- but not strange, futuristic or overly avant-garde. It’s ready-to-wear, not runway haute couture. This is a pretty good sized car, yet it’s agile and looks a bit smaller than a car with such a roomy cabin and cavernous storage capacity. It’s got a lightweight, lean impression, which visually communicates efficiency, especially considering the “range anxiety” of skeptics unfamiliar with Tesla and EVs.

Since Tesla is already a sporty brand, a fastback silhouette delivers a more functional interior volume. The interior volume essentially over delivers on the exterior promise. The highlight of the cabin’s functionality is the first ever in-car touch sensitive 17-inch infotainment screen in the middle of the instrument panel, which we are still developing and will reflect the best technology available in late 2011, when the cars start rolling off the assembly line.

Recycled PET carpeting and vegetable tanned leather give a tactile sense to the environmental message. In the front, where an internal combustion engine normally sits, our floor-mounted powertrain means the Model S can have a a bonus storage area instead of an engine. And we continue to develop more and more clever functionality into the fresh interior. We have so far taken more than 850 reservations for the Model S — more than our optimistic internal projections and a major validation that we are on the right path, especially considering this economy. In the weeks after the launch, we have taken the Model S show car to receptions in Washington and Silicon Valley – and on April 29 we will be in on the Late Show with David Letterman and have a party in New York City. At each of these venues, we discuss and promote the Model S. But more importantly we listen to ideas and criticism, confident that the ongoing dialog with customers, prospective customers, media, politicians and others will lead to a better production car. Thanks for the input and the encouragement. Many of us seem to agree: Owning an environmentally efficient vehicle shouldn’t require sacrificing anything. But enough discussion of the past eight months. Now it’s time for me to get back to work!