Munro Associates tears cars like the Tesla Model 3 apart for a living. It’s what they do. Then they sell their teardown reports to whoever will buy them. Larger car companies do their own teardowns but it can be an expensive process. For other companies that need such intel, it’s just easier and cheaper to let Munro do the heavy lifting (even if those reports cost considerably more than a monthly CleanTechnica subscription).
The Tesla Model 3 (which we’ve reviewed in depth) is arguably the most talked about automobile on the planet at this moment. Every other manufacturer wants to know how it is put together. During a teardown, every piece of a car is looked at to determine how much it cost to make, how it was made, where it was made, and could it be made better for less money?
Once the secrets of the Model 3 are known, other companies will apply the lessons learned to their own products. In other words, the art of car making is always evolving. What is state of the art today is yesterday’s news tomorrow. (That said, how much they can glean about the batteries, battery production, and battery production costs is not entirely clear — this is new territory for such conventional automotive experts.)
Munro began a teardown of a Model 3 earlier this year. At that time, Sandy Munro, the head honcho of the operation, compared the build quality to a Kia from the 1990s. Ouch. If you remember those cars, the word “shoddy” may come to mind.
Obviously, that car was one of the first to come off the assembly line. Perhaps that partially explains some of the shortcomings Munro found. Remember, that’s a brand new model on a brand new assembly line from a nearly brand new company. Now, Munro has dug into a second car and updated its findings. One piece of good news — it says the panel gaps it complained about earlier appear to have gotten better. Who’s surprised?
Motor Trend visited Munro headquarters in Michigan after the 6,000 man-hour teardown process was completed. While they were there, they snapped 89 photos of Model 3 chassis and its component parts. It would be rude of us to use those photos here, but you can head on over to their website to view them for yourself. Or you can dig into the 90 minute Autoline After Hours video featuring Sandy Munro for more in-depth analysis and some other photos.
Tesla Does Digital
Munro sings the praises of Tesla when it comes to the digital technology baked into the Model 3. “The [digital] controllers are much, much more advanced than anything we’ve seen, and they’re all in one location,” Munro says. What others need three or four components to accomplish, Tesla does with one super-miniaturized solderless circuit board, which may save some money. Munro hasn’t completed its cost analysis yet but says the digital stuff is head and shoulders ahead of the competition. [Note: this sounds like echoes of what some German automotive engineers reportedly said after doing their own teardown.]
The touchscreen used in the Model S and Model X is unique to those cars but the one in the Model 3 is closer to a conventional, commercially available touchscreen, making it less expensive.
The Battery Is A Thing Of Beauty
Sandy Munro is clearly blown away by the Model 3 battery, whose 2,170 battery cells are assembled with remarkable precision. Each is glued to the others and to the battery cooling components. But what really knocked Munro’s socks off is that there is only a 0.2 milli-amp difference between all the cells in the pack. “That’s staggeringly close,” Munro says, “far beyond what anybody else can do.” [Note: Battery production has reportedly been Tesla’s unexpected bottleneck. Perhaps this unprecedented precision was more challenging than initially expected.]
The only negative Munro could find to talk about was that disassembling the battery pack is exceedingly difficult, which may make it hard to recycle or repurpose at the end of its useful life. Perhaps Tesla has some special AI machines in mind for that.
A Suspension Worthy Of Formula One
Munro is very impressed with the Model 3 suspension, saying the people how designed it could be Formula One princes, according to Autoweek. Thanks to how well the suspension works, the Model 3 has superior road handling characteristics, something bound to please drivers as the new wears off and the miles pile up. This is a car that is particularly well suited to hunting for apexes on sinuous back roads.
Unexpectedly Heavy Chassis
One area where the Model 3 does not shine is its chassis. Munro says its unexpectedly heavy, despite extensive use of aluminum. “The strategy for the body is about as bad as could be,” he says. “It’s heavy and much more expensive than even the carbon-fiber BMW i3.” It also features an extraordinary amount of body sealant — 165 feet of the stuff by his company’s count.
He thinks Tesla is light years ahead of the competition when it comes to the electronics side of things — as you would expect from a Silicon Valley company — but its design and manufacturing skills are still stuck in the 20th century. He believes the very design of certain parts of the car, and the way components work together, betrays a serious lack of experience with automotive engineering. A careful analysis of industry best practices could dramatically slash the body’s cost and weight. Less weight would also benefit the car’s usable range.
In summary, Munro thinks Tesla could make money on fully optioned Model 3s, but he is skeptical it can do so with base model cars that sell for $35,000 plus a $1,000 delivery charge. “There’s nothing here that says ‘save money,’” he says. “I think $36,000 Model 3s will be rare as hen’s teeth. I don’t see how they could make money at $36,000.”
Still, the Model 3 is an impressive car. “Anybody that’s in the car industry that ignores (the Model 3) is doing it at their own peril,” Munro says.
Following the Motor Trend article and the Autoline After Hours video, Tesla has issued a lengthy statement in reponse to Munro’s assessment in which it addresses fit and finish, production quality, and its chassis engineering.
“The primary car evaluated by Munro was built in 2017. We have significantly refined our production processes since then, and while there’s always room for improvement, our data already shows that Model 3 quality is rapidly getting better.
“Since we began shipping Model 3 last year, we have been very focused on refining and tuning both part and body manufacturing processes. The result being that the standard deviation of all gaps and offsets across the entire car has improved, on average, by nearly 40%, with particular gap improvements visible in the area of the trunk, rear lamps and rear quarter panel. Today, Model 3 panel gaps are competitive with Audi, BMW, and Mercedes models, but in the spirit of relentless improvement, we are working to make them even tighter.
“The U.S. government found Model S and Model X to have the lowest probability of injury of any cars it had ever tested, and Model 3 was designed with the same commitment to safety. While there’s always room for refinement of cost and mass, which we are already improving, electric cars have unique safety requirements to prevent intrusion into the battery, and Model 3 was also designed to meet the latest small overlap front crash requirements that other reference vehicles may not have.
“We stand behind our physical crash testing and our computer simulations of it, which have been remarkably accurate, and the safety that they demonstrate. The safety of our customers is more important than any other metric.”
Should Tesla Build Its Own Cars?
More than a few industry observers have suggested that Tesla should have hired an experienced vehicle manufacturer to assemble its vehicles. Companies like Magna Steyr build high-quality vehicles for Volkswagen. Deutsche Post (aka DHL) is building its electric delivery vans together with Ford. Rather than reinventing the wheel, perhaps Tesla would have been better off partnering with a company that actually knows how to build automobiles.
But, even if true, that is all in the rear-view mirror now. In a few days, Tesla will hold its Q1 earnings call with analysts and the dance between Tesla bulls and Tesla bears will ratchet up a notch.
The takeaway from Sandy Munro’s testing appears to be that there is much that Tesla does right, but also much it could do better. Many are hoping Elon figures it out before the roof falls in.