Breaking Down A Tesla
Collaborative Fund is fascinated by the materials that make up our world, and we’re starting to invest more time and money into materials science-based companies. This post is part of a series chronicling our efforts as we think more deeply about the objects we encounter every day, and how better materials can positively impact our shared future.
Tesla has single-handedly transformed the landscape of the automobile industry worldwide in less than two decades. Before it, almost no car companies were seriously invested in developing all-electric vehicles (EVs).
Now, automakers around the world are racing to catch up to Tesla, completely overhauling their R&D to prioritize EVs.
And we think Tesla and the cars it makes are good.
Yes, it’s had its fair share of controversy and drama over the years, from accusations of sexual harrasment at the company to CEO Elon Musk’s infamously mercurial behavior on Twitter (and his efforts both to outright buy it and then get out of buying it). Tesla was also recently de-listed from the S&P 500 Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) index, which struck many people as odd for a company whose raison d’être is to eliminate fossil fuel emissions.
Setting aside all that recent news to look at Tesla’s cars themselves, the Models S, 3, X, and Y are truly groundbreaking in the EV space because they were the first cars to do everything that a gas-powered car can do without asking drivers to sacrifice style and luxury. And people have been lining up in droves to buy them. So, despite the controversies, the company seems to be doing an admirable job of hewing to its mission to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.”
We’ve recently gotten really interested in the materials that make up our world, and so we started to wonder: what are Tesla’s cars actually made of?
What exactly are all those materials that get assembled into its iconic EVs, and are they actually better than those used in their gas-guzzling competitors?
In this blog post, we look “under the frunk” at what makes a Tesla a Tesla.
The first surprise we encountered was that the process of making a long-range EV actually produces 68% more greenhouse gas emissions than manufacturing a similar gas-powered car. EV batteries are sophisticated, high-tech products that require materials that have to be mined from the earth, transported, and processed - all of which releases a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
But the good news is that those manufacturing emissions are offset after driving a long-range EV just 19,000 miles. Since the average person drives about 14,000 miles per year, choosing a Tesla rather than a gas-powered car will start to have a net-positive effect on the planet after about 18 months. Plus, as more renewable power plants come online, manufacturing emissions will continue to drop. Win-win.
One of the most intensive pieces of a Tesla to produce is, of course, its battery.
Most people have probably heard that Tesla uses “lithium-ion” batteries, which also power a wide range of consumer electronics like smartphones, laptops, electric toothbrushes, scooters, and e-bikes.
The Tesla Roadster was the first EV in the world to use lithium-ion battery technology, which can store more than double the energy of previous types of EV batteries.
Even though they’re called lithium-ion, the batteries Tesla developed also use cobalt, an element that is found in the Earth’s crust, in an arrangement called lithium-cobalt-oxide (LCO).
The original Roadster batteries contained 6,831 lithium ion cells arranged in 11 “sheets.” Realizing that it needed to reduce the cost and labor required to produce lithium-ion batteries at a large scale, Tesla built its Gigafactory in the Nevada desert for that purpose in 2013.
While Nevada might seem like a random location choice, it wasn’t. In 2020, the company announced that it planned to start producing lithium from clay in the Nevada desert to further secure the supply of raw materials for its batteries. They’ve since filed a patent for a new lithium extraction method they plan to use.
But remember cobalt? That’s a raw material too, and it’s much less abundant (and more expensive) than lithium, meaning Tesla was going to have a problem sourcing enough cobalt for its batteries as it ramped up production. So, in 2021, Tesla announced that it was switching from LCO batteries to lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP) batteries, although it would continue to use LCO in its long-range vehicles.
LFP batteries are significantly cheaper and easier to recycle (see “Recycling” section below), because iron is a much more readily available material than cobalt or nickel. They’re also more chemically stable, so they’re safer.
On the flip side, LFP batteries are less energy-dense, meaning they get less range per charge than other types of batteries. But for a standard-range EV, they seem to be a better all-around option.
About 95% of LFP manufacturing is done in China, but patent restrictions on LFPs start to expire this year, meaning that battery cell makers in other countries can potentially produce their own LFPs without paying for licenses and royalties.
Like any high-end car, Tesla’s interior is swathed in leather.
But while leather is a natural material that can biodegrade at the end of its usable life, all those cowhides wreak havoc on the planet. Most come from cows raised in Brazil, where illegal cattle farming to meet American automakers’ demand for leather is driving deforestation of the Amazon rainforest at a frightening pace. Almost three-quarters of the ranches identified in an analysis by the New York Times overlapped with land that the Brazilian government has classified as illegally deforested, Indigenous land, or a conservation zone.
In 2019, Tesla announced that it would be switching all of its models’ interiors from cowhide leather to a “vegan leather” material, led by pressure from its shareholders. In addition to being cow-free, the faux leather doesn’t crack like real leather, and seems more resilient to wear and tear.
The trickiest piece of the synthetic switch? The steering wheel, which takes extra abuse from the oils, sweat, and other things we have on our hands.
But, like any synthetic material, Tesla’s vegan leather is made from plastic, which is ultimately made from fossil fuels (and can apparently bubble in certain conditions). So, the vegan leather is a bit of a trade-off: less deforestation and animal cruelty, enabled by using fossil fuels. About 8-10% of the global oil supply is used to make plastics, while deforestation causes about 20% of annual global greenhouse gas emissions. If we assume that the process of producing plastics also releases greenhouse gasses, this switch from cowhide to synthetic leather seems to be slightly better for the planet overall.
Silicon isn’t just for computer chips - it’s also the main component of glass, which Teslas have a lot of thanks to the all-glass roofs on the Model 3 and Model Y. More than 90% of the Earth’s crust is composed of silicate minerals, so silicon is pretty easy to get and glass is pretty cheap to make.
It’s so ubiquitous, it’s easy to forget it’s there at all - most of us barely notice the glass when we look at our TVs or phone screens, or through windows. But Tesla engineers have spent a lot of time thinking about the glass in their cars. So much so that they created their own proprietary version called Tesla Glass that does a lot more than your average windowpane.
On models with glass roofs, a solar element has been added that absorbs 99% of the UV rays that hit the roof, protecting the occupants from the sun. All the glass panels are constructed like a glass “sandwich” with two panes of glass on either side of an acoustic dampening layer, which reduces road noise and wind noise.
And Tesla Glass is used in the company’s solar roof tiles that it markets to customers to allow them to charge their cars at home with fossil-fuel-free electricity from the sun.
The forthcoming Cybertruck, set to be released in 2023, is said to have an even more durable type of glass that Tesla’s website calls “armor glass.”
In addition to the batteries, leather, and glass, Teslas contain many more materials, including rare earth metals, steel, aluminum, plastic, and titanium.
Where does it all go when the cars reach the end of their usable life?
Many of the raw materials used in the company’s lithium-ion batteries are recyclable, and can be extracted and reprocessed into other products. Tesla reported that 1,300 tons of nickel, 400 tons of copper, and 80 tons of cobalt were recycled from its batteries in 2020. It also says it has installed the first phase of its on-site battery cell recycling program at its Nevada Gigafactory, and that all decommissioned lithium-ion batteries are recycled (although it’s been noted that the vast majority of Tesla batteries haven’t reached their end-of-life yet).
Tesla plans for all its battery factories to have recycling facilities, with the goal of recovering and reusing up to 92% of the raw materials it puts into its cars. In addition to recycling, in 2020 the company also said that it had decreased manufacturing waste by 50% in some facilities, and had also reduced the amount of water and energy it uses in its manufacturing processes.
Other car companies like Ford, General Motors, and Toyota have announced their own milestones and achievements when it comes to reducing waste and increasing recycling in factories, so Tesla isn’t alone in its moves to maximize its material usage.
It seems that Tesla is really taking the sustainability of their materials seriously, from committing to recycle all their batteries to eliminating the use of Brazilian leather to producing their own lithium locally rather than mining and shipping it from across the globe. If we zoom back out and consider them within the larger context of global emissions, are Tesla EVs actually more sustainable than other cars? That answer is surprisingly hard to pin down.
In its annual ranking of the most earth-friendly cars, Greenercars.org ranked the Model Y in 11th place. The rankings reflect each car’s negative impact on the planet based on air pollution produced by their manufacturing and disposal, the production and distribution of fuel or electricity, and the cars’ tailpipes. It also takes into account the emissions released from producing the materials that go into the cars, and in 2022 included an increase in emission from mining lithium, which is a crucial component of nearly all EV batteries, in its calculations. While Tesla’s Model Y was ranked higher than all gas-powered cars, several other EVs - including the Toyota Prius, the Nissan Leaf, and even some hybrids - edged it out of the top 10.
Then there’s the ESG question.
S&P Global said its decision to drop Tesla was based on other companies’ rankings improving, Tesla’s lack of a low-carbon strategy and disclosure of its overall greenhouse gas emissions, incidents related to claims of racial discrimination and poor working conditions at its Fremont factory, and its handling of investigations into multiple deaths and injuries linked to its autopilot feature.
Musk has criticized the S&P ESG index for allowing oil and gas companies to make the list even though their primary business function is to produce more fossil fuels. As we’ve written in the past, “what counts as ESG depends on what lens you’re looking through,” and while there are indeed many lenses through which to view Tesla, we think the company’s overall commitment to doing good for the planet is more valuable than its ESG score.
Nothing is ever as simple as it seems, not even something as commonplace as a car. In reimagining the automobile for the EV age, Tesla had to decide what materials would align with its particular vision for the future.
Through our lens of “pushing the world forward,” we think these choices put Tesla into the “net good for the planet” category, despite arguments that can be made about, for example, the relative benefits of vegan leather vs. cow leather. Neither choice is 100% good nor 100% bad, but Tesla has committed to the choice that it feels is better for the planet, and we respect them for that - not just when it comes to leather, but for other materials it sources as well.
That got us wondering…what other materials in our daily lives have fascinating backstories that we tend to overlook, and what can learning about them teach us about the world, both today and in the future?
Stay tuned for more deep dives into the materials behind everyday objects.