Does Tesla’s Centralized IT Architecture Require Fewer Chips?


Originally posted on EVANNEX.
By Charles Morris

Of all the innovations Tesla has brought to the automotive industry, the unified computer architecture used in its vehicles is not the least important. This has enabled many of the wonderful Tesla-only features that owners rave about, and it’s no exaggeration to say that this has been one of the company’s biggest competitive advantages. Now, current events highlight what could be another major benefit.

While looking for my book, Tesla: How Elon Musk and His Company Made Electric Cars Cool and Reshaped the Auto and Power Industries, I was fortunate enough to be able to interview Tesla co-founder Ian Wright, who offered in-depth insight into Tesla’s systems approach to his software, and that turned out to be one of my parts. favorites from the book. I’ve referred to it in at least a dozen articles, and thanks to the current semiconductor shortage, it looks like I’m going to get a little more out of it.

The young Tesla had her roots in the Silicon Valley tech industry and her vehicles were designed with a single computer operating system from the start. It was the opposite of how traditional automakers did (and still do) things. A typical legacy vehicle has a patchwork of separate computers that control different systems in the vehicle. “I’m looking out the window at my 2008 Volkswagen Touareg, and I bet it has sixty or seventy electronic black boxes, three hundred pounds of wiring harness, and software from twenty different companies,” Ian Wright told me in 2014.

Consultant Roland Berger recently said Bloomberg that automakers need to redesign cars to use less semiconductors. Automakers are hoping the hated chip shortage will end soon, but Roland Berger predicts severe bottlenecks will persist until 2022.

“Automakers need to accelerate the transition to centralized electronic architectures and thereby move to advanced and cutting edge nodes,” analysts said in a recent report. A move to a central design with a single on-board computer could drastically reduce the number of chips needed in a vehicle. Roland Berger says that an average vehicle contains around 1,400 distinct chips.

Yes, readers, my interview with Ian Wright took place seven years ago. He told me that traditional automakers were “struggling” with the software design of their vehicles and if they continued to do things that way, they “would have a problem.” Well, now they’re in big trouble. Consulting firm AlixPartners estimated that the chip tightening cost the auto industry some $ 210 billion in lost sales in 2021.

Another problem is that traditional car manufacturers tend not to use the newer, better performing chips. Part of the reason for the supply crunch is that chipmakers are not interested in increasing the supply of the older generation semiconductors that are used in most cars. If automakers regularly updated their chips, as do computer and consumer electronics makers (and a certain California automaker), they might find production capacity to be less of a problem.

Electric vehicles don’t necessarily use less semiconductors than traditional ICE vehicles – on the contrary, they tend to use more. Electric vehicles need to convert AC power from the grid to DC, which is stored in batteries (cars that use AC motors, as some Tesla do, have to be converted again). This process is controlled by the conversion hardware, which requires a large number of chips.

Like Diving Transport reports, a typical diesel truck uses around 500 chips, but an electric truck could require as many as 5,000. The chip shortage surely has something to do with the delayed launch of the Tesla Semi. Last October, Elon Musk announced a further delay, saying Tesla “is expected to overcome our severe shortages in the supply chain” by 2023.

Tesla has handled the supply crunch with more agility than other automakers, and we know that at least in part this was due to it being able to move nimbly to newer chips more easily. available. “In the first quarter, we were able to overcome global chip supply shortage issues, in part by pivoting extremely quickly to new microcontrollers, while simultaneously developing firmware for new chips made by new vendors,” wrote Tesla in its letter to shareholders for the first quarter of 2021.

We can’t know exactly how much of a benefit Tesla’s unified computing architecture turns out to be when it comes to dealing with chip shortages, but to paraphrase Herman Melville, there’s nothing wrong. report a reasonable assumption if there is supporting evidence. A unified architecture is much better. Tesla has it. Other automakers don’t.

Computer hardware and software are essential to the automotive industry, and as the tetra trend (electrification, connectivity, range, new ownership models) continues, they will become increasingly important. For Tesla, IT is a core function, and it’s yet another area where legacy OEMs need to catch up, or, as Wright predicted with a classic understatement, they’re going to have problems. .

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