Has Tesla Found a Better Way to Test and Validate Vehicles?

Electric carmaker might shorten the beta test phase of its forthcoming Tesla Model 3 vehicle.
March 22, 2017

A recent statement by Tesla Inc. CEO Elon Musk has auto insiders wondering if the electric car maker has found a better way to test and validate vehicles, or if it is embarking on a risky new course.

In the statement made on an exclusive investor-only call last week, Musk reportedly suggested that the beta test phase of the company’s moderately-priced Model 3 EV is being shortened, and that its “early release candidates” are already being built on production tooling. According to various electric car websites, such as Elektrek, Tesla engineers used sophisticated design-for-manufacturability analytics, enabling them to limit the number of pre-production iterations of the vehicle. The result is that the quality of the so-called “release candidates” is higher than it was for the company’s earlier products, the Model S and Model X, reports said.

 “The most plausible interpretation of this statement about release candidates is that (Musk) has opted to short-cut development testing of prototype vehicles,” noted Sam Abuelsamid, senior research analyst for Navigant Research , in an e-mail to Design News. “In all likelihood, he is assuming that they can get by with more simulation testing and less testing of physical prototypes.”

If that is indeed Musk’s plan, it would be a departure from the way automobiles have traditionally been tested, validated and manufactured. In common practice, beta testing involves months and tens of thousands of testing miles on vehicles built on pre-production tooling. In the case of the Model 3 (photo, left), that phase may have been short-circuited, but it’s difficult to know definitively because Musk often uses different terms than other automakers when describing the process. Tesla did not respond to an e-mail from Design News asking for clarification.

Automotive experts said the industry will watch carefully to see if the Silicon Valley carmaker’s software-centric approach is successful, but many were skeptical. “Everybody is trying to accelerate the process of launch,” noted David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research . “But if you say you’re going to skip part of the normal process in validating your tooling, it’s a risk.”

Up to now, Tesla has not publicly said if it did indeed shorten its beta test schedule or, if so, by how much. A few weeks ago, the company said it was doing beta test on vehicles.

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Elektrek wrote that it was initially concerned about the possibility of truncated beta test schedule, but ultimately decided that Tesla was on the right track. “… If those vehicles are actually being made ‘almost entirely’ on production machines, it’s reassuring,” the website wrote.

Analysts said that their concern for Tesla is that its earlier premium vehicles exhibited quality problems. Going to the lower-priced segment, where customers place a special value on reliability, will only accentuate those problems, they said. “Even with design for manufacturability, Tesla has yet


With perfect insight there would not be much need for any testing of a product. So it is the level of insight and understanding that prevents the unanticipated problems that the testing is done to discover. So if there has been that adequate level of insight then it is reasonable to do a bit less testing. Recall that the rest of the industry has often suffered from an extreme lack of insight in a number of areas because of corporate culture and internal politics.

As certain as Agent Sadusky was in National Treasure when he said: "someone's got to go to prison, Ben." it is certain that someone's going to do the Tesla vehicle durability testing. If not Tesla, then their customers. Building early vehicles on production tooling is nothing new. Neither is component validation testing. But integration and quality issues always remain and will be discovered in full vehicle durability testing much to the detriment of the customers doing it for them.

Perhaps with self driving cars, they can be running around a test track 24/7? Perhaps with several dozen running simultaneously? That would allow the collection of a lot more data than a few test drivers could ever manage... The cars could also be run until something breaks without endangering test drivers.

There's much more to design validation than just beta testing; in fact, beta testing is a crutch for poor design methodology. Even so, the design of experiment behind testing is an important factor and, as we know, many defects escape testing of physical prototypes. Also, given the level of reliance on complex tooling and process, there is really no such thing as prototype tooling that is closely reproduced in production tooling and process: not all beta testing is equal.

Every high-tech engineering team uses simulation to verify their products, both functionally and evaluate long-term effects before production - shows the confidence it commands. There are countless instances of simulation detecting a component/system failure after the event, which could have been caught if it was extensively simulated in the first place. It can do wonders for an automotive design, in analyzing near and long-term effects - an excellent prototyping system when used effectively!

Tesla must have used the same technique in testing the Model X. The results are obviously terrible. As Rumsfeld said there are the known knows, the unknown knows and the unknown unknowns. The consumers typically are the one who find out the third category.

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