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What's Inside the Tesla Model S Dashboard

A chance opportunity to take apart a wrecked Tesla Model S offers a peek at its internal components.

Tesla

It’s not every day that the opportunity to buy a Tesla Model S for the express purpose of taking it apart presents itself, but that is exactly what Andrew Rassweiler, an analyst with the electronics research firm IHS, has done.

In a series of research papers, the first of which is expected to be published today, IHS will reveal the findings of a detailed teardown analysis of the electronics inside the dashboard of a 2013 Model S.

The vehicle in question had been totaled in an accident. But its electronics — the displays, the entertainment system, everything associated with tracking and controlling the environment inside the car — were essentially undamaged, Rassweiler said.

So what did the analysts at IHS find? Tesla Motors approaches the design of its cars in much the same way that Apple and Samsung design their smartphones. “Usually, car companies turn over the design of their electronics to third parties,” like Harman Kardon or Panasonic, he said. “The first thing you see when you crack open the Tesla head-end unit is a lot of Tesla markings everywhere,” indicating that the company did a lot of custom design work on the electronics.

They also saw a lot of chips from Nvidia, the company that made its name with graphics processors that powered games and other high-end video. Tesla used one of Nvidia’s Tegra 3 chips to handle the primary computing work behind the massive 17-inch touchscreen display that dominates the center of the dashboard, known as the “Premium Media Control Unit,” and a second one to power the driver’s instrument cluster, which includes the speedometer and other indicators that the driver can select.

It is a big win for Nvidia, Rassweiler said. “Nvidia chips aren’t seen that often in smartphones and tablets. But it has really focused on the automotive market,” he said. “The volume tends to be lower but the opportunities for a profit margin tend to be higher.”

Nvidia packages the chips with other components inside what it calls a Tegra Visual Computing Module. There are two of those in the Tesla — the second-most costly component among dashboard electronics.

Nvidia has made no secret of its relationship with Tesla. The company says the automotive market is its fastest-growing business, though it hasn’t said what percentage of overall sales it represents.

What’s the most costly part? The touchscreen. While a touch-enabled display inside a car is not generally considered a big deal, a 17-inch one is, and it’s about as responsive as those on smartphones. “Usually the touchscreens found in cars are frustrating to use. That’s not the case here,” Rassweiler said. The reason is that the media control display uses a capacitive glass overlay manufactured by TPK, the Taiwan-based company that supplied the same technology to Apple for the first iPhones.

Tesla

The full display itself was manufactured by Innolux, another Taiwan-based company, though Rassweiler said other companies, including Japan Display, a joint venture owned by Sony, Toshiba and Hitachi, probably supply Tesla as well.

While the typical display used in a car is about seven inches, this one is so large it required Tesla to do a lot of customization. The company designed as many as 10 of its own printed circuit boards for the functions controlled by the display and one devoted to the touch control experience itself.

This, Rassweiler said, is unusual. “In most cases, a touchscreen supplier will provide a lot of the supporting electronics, including its own circuit boards, in order to save the carmaker time and labor,” he said. “In this case, the display was so large it required some amped-up electronic support, so Tesla did all that work itself.”

IHS isn’t releasing the costs of the individual components as it typically does with smartphone and other teardown reports. But after the display and the Nvidia computing engines, the next costly set of electronic parts was the second display, the one use for the instrument cluster. Japan Display supplied this one.

Down the list were a set of audio amplifier chips from a German company called S1NN that are used in the sound and entertainment system. “This company is new to us, as we haven’t seen their components before,” Rassweiler said.

Other chipmakers whose components were spotted in the teardown include Freescale Semiconductor, Texas Instruments, Qualcomm, STMicroelectronics and Altera.

The teardown was also one of the most complex the team at IHS had ever undertaken. The head unit has nearly 5,300 individual components, more than four times the number of parts in an iPhone 5s. The previous record of components in an IHS teardown was about 4,000 individual parts.

The unit in this teardown isn’t from the newest Tesla Model S, released earlier this year, but from a model that dates back to early 2013, so some things may have changed since the update. (Then there’s also the super-high end Model D which our James Temple got to ride in recently.)

Here’s a table listing the top 10 most costly components.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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