Fun Friday – Electric Sportscars and Commodity Chips

From prototype electric sports cars to commodity chips, a few items of interest to round out the week.

Yesterday the much-hyped Tesla Motors Roadster prototype was seductively displayed outside of PARC, courtesy of JB Straubel, Tesla Motors CTO. While the motor was buttoned-down and just out-of-reach, the leather seats were quite accessible and comfortable and the light carbon-composite body with aluminum frame attractive and shapely. The TM salesman was carefully positioned with a towel to wipe off any drool and greasy fingerprints from careless admirers.

One of the primary objections to all-electric cars is that they require new battery technologies which are untested on a massive scale and can result in unpredictable and costly liability suits. Even Li-ion batteries have had their share of “combustible” announcements, like when Sony manufacturing standards slipped as laptops went up in flames.

Tesla Motors decided that the benefits of a standardized Li-ion commodity battery (the 18650) outweighed the risk, and developed a fault-tolerant battery architecture that isolates each battery in 6800 individual metal cells with microprocessor-mediated power management and monitoring. As batteries fail, capacity reduces safely over time.

With $30M in orders already on the books (the first 100 orders at $100,000 up-front, and follow-on orders at $50,000 up-front) and plans for a plant in New Mexico, Tesla Motors may be the first car company in 50 years to introduce a new car well under the half-billion dollar cost estimate that is routinely bandied about by modern car companies. Of course, if you want one you’ve got to wait in line. It isn’t a touring car (consider a 200 mile limit), and it won’t fit a trunk. It does fit a couple of golf clubs, but I’d rather take an overnight bag and a guitar and drive to Santa Barbara.

Here’s a quiz for our hardware guys. How long does it take to get delivery on a little 8-bit commodity processor sample for development from the manufacturer? A few days? A week? As Don Adams of “Get Smart” liked to say, “Would you believe six months?” Yes, six months. That’s the delivery time one engineer recently complained he got for an Infineon 8 bit Microcontroller (PLCC – 84). He set out the call pleading with people to tell him why a common part in appliance products with volumes of millions would be so hard to obtain in a timely way.

Like a Zen Koan, the answer to the question is the question. Because it’s a common commodity part. Infineon ships this little chip in volume with six month advance orders because there is no reason to do it any other way at the low cost per piece. So if your little company wants it too, but you’re not going for a million volume order, the manufacturer will think you’re getting “too good a deal” piggybacking off of everybody else’s big order because they made it so cheap. Want it fast? Go to Frys and pay retail.

We once did this at Symmetric Computer Systems with DRAM during the memory wars of the 1980’s. When 1mbit DRAM rose from $12 to $40 in a day, we went to Frys and bought every single piece they had at $19 to make shipment to the NSA. The next day, their price went up to about $50. About the same time, Apple’s CEO Scully went off on vacation and left CFO Debi Coleman minding the store. When the DRAM crisis hit, she and the other Apple execs went on a buying binge. The resulting oversupply nearly killed that company. It was very funny.

Buying retail isn’t the solution for every chip. Little guys are in the pole position for exotic or new parts, and manys the time I’ve had field service engineers sit in my office pushing their cool new I/O or multicore products. My philosophy is always go for the low end of the exotic parts for tests because the sales and FAEs hand them out to our eager design engineers like jellybeans. Then sell them on how your hot new innovative cutting-edge state-of-the-art startup is going to use their high-end product still on their drawing boards to drive both our sales. That’s something they’re never going to hear from the 8-bit chip big guys. And that’s how a smart small company deals with a big guy — even Intel or Infineon. Have a good weekend.

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