Built to Last: OverEngineering for fun and profit

In my endless quest for knowledge about everything, I’ve been delving into why people are so rabid about Tesla. It’s fascinating to me how people can be so apparently ambivalent about EVs (and maybe even not care for Elon Musk) yet be in LURV with Tesla. So I’ve been reading a lot of their specs to find their Secret Sauce.

In a nutshell, Tesla over-engineers their vehicles — maybe not by conscious choice, but by using electric components that by design have longer service lives than comparable internal combustion engine (ICE) parts and pieces. In the 120+ years since cars first started spooking horses, electric motor duty cycles (longevity) have greatly surpassed gasoline engines mainly due to WAY fewer moving parts. Since they were one of the first large-scale EV producers (along with Nissan), Tesla is becoming a real-life experimental study for battery life and design. They state that their battery packs are rated for a life of 500,000 miles with proper maintenance, and some components (motors presumably) have a duty cycle that equates to 1,000,000 miles. Which makes the amortized costs of an expensive vehicle low over its’ presumed longer life.

The hard change here will be in consumer behavior: over the years, many folks have become conditioned to think of a gasoline-powered car as worn out after 100,000 miles, when it merely needs an array of different parts replaced. Teslas and other EVs will slowly change that mindset. An old non-running gasoline car today will only net you $500-1,000 when you sell it. Today’s “dead EVs” are estimated to recoup as much as $7-10K in recyclable battery parts at the end of their useful life. So it’s a change there, too.

In the 1950 movie “Sunset Boulevard,” the aging film star Norma Desmond still has her 1929 Isotta-Fraschini — 21 years old, meticulously cared for by Max, her butler/chauffeur, which cost her $28,000. No idea how many miles. That would be the equivalent of over $430,000 in today’s dollars, making a Tesla or any high-end EV look positively cheap.

I personally have experience with another company that both over-engineered (and to some, over-charged) many of their components: Apple Computer and the Macintosh. In the early days of the Internet Age, I managed a mess of college computer labs. We’re talking 1990s…when we had Macintoshes and DOS-based 386s and 486s. Being tasked with keeping these machines running in a 24/7/365 environment, systems were in a revolving door between the labs and the repair bench. But over time, I realized the Macs didn’t require as much care.

After one typical Oklahoma Spring thunderstorm, nearby lightning caused a surge that took out a few machines on the same circuit. All were 486s. No Macs. My bench tech pointed out that the Mac power supplies had much higher voltage allowances, and could withstand more electrical abuse than their DOS counterparts. As she said: “they didn’t have to specify such beefy parts, but they did.”

Later on, reading in more detail about the team that created the original Motorola-powered compact Macs, I learned they didn’t cut any corners. Even the choice of the SCSI (Small Computer System Interface, ca. 1986) in their 2nd Generation offered expansion and longevity of components reserved normally for high-end CAD/CAM workstations, servers, and storage systems: democratized for everyone. Now everyone uses the same off-the-shelf components, so there’s no market incentive for longevity anymore.

I often complain about products designed not by engineers but by MBAs: make it just well enough to maximize profit, build in “planned obsolescence,” and then create marketing desire for the next new thing. It will be interesting to see if the EV auto market continues on the same path as other consumer electronics before them. We might see a divergence in paths: fleet manufacturers like Rivian who’s making trucks for Amazon might require longevity and the pure consumer market might skimp. We’ll see…

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