Going against the grain

Tesla’s vice-president of vehicle engineering Chris Porritt has worked for various OEMs, but his experience of developing the Model S has convinced him that his current employer’s approach is unlike anything else in the industry

Of all the OEMs in the automotive industry today, Tesla is surely the most intriguing. While others have rich and lengthy histories to fall back on, this niche Californian start-up has only existed for a decade. The rest of the competition relies heavily on knowledge of internal combustion engines, whereas Tesla focuses solely on pure electric applications.

Chris Porritt, Tesla’s vice-president of vehicle engineering, was previously at Aston Martin and before that with Land Rover but is adamant that working at his current employer is unlike anything he’s been used to.

“The big difference is that, in general, car companies are very traditional,” he says. “They will have a particular set of processes and rules that they apply, from setting out the architecture for the vehicle through to delivery and production.

“Tesla works in a very different way in that it is a tech company developing tech which happens to be applied to a car.”

Tesla may not have the heritage or resources of other OEMs but because it is so young its people have a level of freedom afforded to them that is simply not possible at much older rivals.

Porritt explains: “Processes are actually a bit of a dirty word at Tesla. We try to stay away from forming processes because by saying that you’re going to follow a process implies that you’ve stopped thinking about it any more as all you’re doing is following a rule.

“Instead we challenge everything and think about what we do at every step along the way.”

Whereas most other OEMs outsource much of the software work, Porritt estimates that 90% of this is done in-house at Tesla. From deciding which technologies are wanted to writing the required code and developing the product – even manufacturing the necessary hardware – is all done by the firm. Software development is so important that the headcount for such engineers is almost equal to that of the 400 hardware engineers at Tesla.

Having such a different approach to vehicle projects extends to the attitude to development breakthroughs occurring late on in the lifecycle. Unlike many rivals, Tesla’s philosophy is to not wait until the next generation.

“At first, I thought it was just crazy,” admits Porritt. “But let’s say you’re building 1,000 cars a week. If you wait a year to implement developments then that’s 52,000 customers missing out, so why would you wait until the next model to implement something? If it is good and it works, why would we wait?

“I admit it can be chaotic, as you can imagine a production line where things are changing all the time is hard work, but we’ve designed a system to make it possible.”

tags: March 2015 Porritt Tesla Hybrids & EVs