How Tesla Protects The Romance Of Driving While Disrupting The Industry

Designer Franz von Holzhausen reveals the inspiration–and the latest designs–for a company leading the electric car revolution.

It’s one thing to design a car. It’s another to create the first vehicle for a brand founded on the goal of making electric cars sexy, mainstream, and a threat to the rest of the automobile industry. “No pressure,” said Franz von Holzhausen, chief designer of Tesla Motors. “Just hit a home run on your first swing.”


In 2008, von Holzhausen was designing concept cars for Mazda North America when Tesla founder and tech visionary Elon Musk asked him to create the Model S, Tesla’s first generation electric sedan that has since been lauded by everyone from Motor Trends to Consumer Reports. Musk’s primary goal with Tesla is to ween vehicles off fossil fuels, but he also saw an opportunity to also change manufacturers’ current approach to car-making. And von Holzhausen, who was interviewed at GigaOm’s Roadmap conference yesterday, plays a crucial role in both aspects of the company–while also being tasked “to protect the romance” of cars.

“What I wanted to create was a moth to a flame,” he said. “Emotional engagement that draws you in…and you don’t really know why.”

Tesla Model S

With the release of the Model X scheduled for next year, von Holzhausen will bring that signature romance to the most maligned of automobile styles–the minivan. Yesterday, he also alluded to the newest Tesla, a high-style design being called the Gen 3.


Built In A Rocket Factory, Inspired By Athletes

The design and engineering teams tasked with developing the Model S were originally located in the back corner of a rocket factory at Space X, where Musk is the CEO and chief designer. And while the car does have a space-age feel, its design was actually inspired by athletes.

“If you see the car, it has broad shoulders, a wide stance, and a purposeful built body,” said von Holzhausen. “Our goal was to create a face for a vehicle–a character or face that is recognizable–the eyes of a headlight. Many brands have evolved their faces over time. We were starting with nothing. It was very important to get the eyes correct. We also have a nose cone on the car, chosen so that if you see a Model S from afar now it is instantly recognizable.”

Image: Flickr user Bobo Boom

The Model S also ended up having a fronk–front trunk–no gas cap, and a charging station under the taillight. It’s quirky and weird, but it works. Even the door handles were intentionally fashioned to be a memorable experience. “It’s such a shame with other vehicles that the first contact you have, the handles, are the cheapest part,” he said.


The internals of the Model S also had to live up to its sporty exterior. And the engineering team pulled it off too, said von Holzhausen, as only a roller coaster or fighter jet has the same kind of torque.

Falcon Wings And Federal Legislation

Tesla’s latest vehicle, the SUV-style minivan replacement Model X, is “getting final design brushstrokes now,” in preparation for 2014. Von Holzhausen’s design mandate was to balance functionality with finesse.

While the Model X has been discussed as a product geared toward women, von Holzhausen says the bigger goal is to create a more functional vehicle. “A minivan is really soulless and characterless. People buy them because they have to, but no one wants to own one. We are looking at how you provide the functionality of a minivan but [also] something that will be desirable.”


To that end, the car includes a brand new type of Falcon Wing door so that people can step inside–all the way to the back. “Sliding doors don’t open wide enough and a gullwing experience is a single hinge, but that doesn’t work well in parking lots,” said von Holzhausen. “Instead we created a double-hinge with a door that slides up then out, and has sensors embedded in the doors so you can’t open them into other cars.”

Minivans are also sought after for their safety, which von Holzhausen admits is a huge challenge. “We have to design in safety without making it look like a brick,” he said.

If anything in the Model X looks pulled from the future, it’s the dashboard’s 17-inch screen originally intended for the Model S. “Elon and I both thought screens in cars suck,” he said. “We wanted to create an environment where you have access to all the information at one time and don’t have knobs and buttons that age–are antiquated 6 months after you buy the car. If you put all the buttons into the screen, the car can still improve and be fresh 3 or 4 years after you bought the car.”


Additionally, the Model X prototype uses video cameras for its side mirrors, but according to von Holzhausen there’s some federal legislation that gets in the way of making those feasible by next year. “A lot of those federal rules were created in the ’70s and ’80s and get in the way now,” he said.

User Experience: Turning Customers Into Enthusiasts

Transforming the experience of the electric car also meant transforming the way those cars are charged. The Tesla design team is intimately involved in the user experience across the entire brand, including how and where drivers may re-up on energy. The company’s Supercharger stations, located across North America and Europe, offer fast and free charging to Tesla owners, something the company will build out more in the future. “We’re expanding the idea of a supercharged network and free-for-life charging,” von Holzhausen. “It’s just a matter of time where we roll out more of these supercharging experiences.”

Image: Courtesy of Tesla Motors

The Supercharging stations are also one of the ways the design team collects customer feedback. “We have stations right in front of our design studios,” said von Holzhausen. “It was the first one we created. Customers come by and talk with the team. We can get that feedback and be back at our desks in two minutes. As a designer, your job is filtering all that input and creating something great out of it.”


This attention to detail tends to turn customers into enthusiasts. Jay Adelson, founder of Digg and Opsmatic, who owns Tesla model S number 26 and has driven it every day for the past 5 years, told Fast Company: “Nothing has had as much of a daily impact in my life as Tesla has, compared to any other technology.”

What’s Next

Von Holhausen briefly discussed Tesla’s next vehicle–he called it Gen 3–which sounds like yet another departure. “If anyone knows my design history, they know I’m not shy when it comes to being provocative,” he said. “I think Model S was really the ready-to-wear element, and the Gen 3 has the opportunity to be more couture.”

He also said the vehicle will be created on a new platform, and, not surprisingly, that battery and range are topics under serious discussion. “Most companies’ main bread and butter is gasoline powered cars,” said Von Holzhausen. “Working with a company like Tesla where ‘getting rid of fossil fuels’ is your sole purpose, you’ve pushed all your chips into the table and you’re betting on them.”


About the author

Leah Hunter has spent her career exploring the intersection of technology, culture, and design. She writes about the human side of tech for Fast Company, O'Reilly Radar, Business Punk, and mentors tech companies. Formerly AVP of Innovation at Idea Couture and an editor at MISC Magazine, she is an ethnographer by both training and nature