When I was in my freshman year of engineering school at Colorado School of Mines one of my final design projects was to design a transportation system on the moon using primarily materials already available on the moon. The crazy thing was that this "out there" project was from none other than NASA.
Why would NASA have an interest in letting 18-year-old kids with no real experience design such an audacious plan? The reason was simple: As kids, with little formal engineering knowledge we didn't yet know what we didn't know. Like a child making art for the first time, there weren't any limits. The numbers of possibilities were endless and the resulting presentations from each group spanned from conceivable to absolutely ridiculous. But that was the point. NASA was starting with a clean slate and looking to generate as many ideas as possible for a system that had never been built before.
Starting with a clean slate
The slate was almost as clean for Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) engineers designing the Model S. It needed seats for passengers, a battery, electric motors, and it needed to go forward and in reverse. Other than that the possibilities were limitless.
The Model S wasn't constrained by a traditional engine or drive train. There was no existing manufacturing infrastructure that needed to be designed around. In reality, the only real reason the Model S needed to look anything like a traditional combustion vehicle would be to ease the minds of consumers looking to buy one.
That's why it's no surprise that Tesla has been able to build an electric vehicle that can go from zero to 60 miles per hour in 4.2 seconds, seats seven people, gets 265 miles in range, was Motor Trend's "Car of the Year", and was just rated the safest vehicle that the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has ever tested.
The safety features may surprise some but a quick look at the Model S's features show that the car was built to have the performance of a Porsche 911 with the safety of a Volvo. For example, Tesla was able to design the battery packs at the base of the car to allow a super-low center of gravity and into the frame to make the car more rigid. This kind of innovation would be almost unthinkable to do in a traditional car.
Just the beginning
The Model X will be similarly transformational in rethinking the SUV or crossover. The clean slate has again allowed designers to lower the center of gravity to prevent tipping, which is a common safety problem with most SUVs. Falcon wing doors are another innovation that solves a space and access problem that most manufactures have overlooked for years.
Entering the vehicle market without the normal constraints and biases that bog down traditional manufacturers has helped Tesla become a wild success in the car market. I just wonder what that freedom will allow them to cook up next?