Lightning Strikes: Why the Tesla Model S Plaid Is So Incredibly Fast
The Tesla Model S Plaid (the name is derived from the movie, Space Balls) was introduced in 2021, and with a sub-2 second 0 to 60 mph speed, it was quickly recognized as the quickest production car on the planet. Owners of high-end sports cars (Think: McClaren and Ferrari) and super-fast muscle cars (think: Dodge Hellcat or Nissan GTR) want to know how an EV leaves them in the dust? Although a few exotics such as the Rimac Nevera can easily beat the Model S Plaid in the quarter-mile (8.655 seconds at a speed of 166.66 mph, while the Model S Plaid does the same in 9.272 seconds at a speed of 152.68 mph), they aren’t currently being mass-produced.
Above: The Tesla Model S (Image:Car Magazine UK)
How did Tesla’s engineers get an electric, seven-seat family sedan to record-breaking speeds?Car and Driver reports that the Model S Plaid is powered by three high-performance electric motors, capable of generating over 1,000 HP. The two rear and single front axle motors are carbon-sleeved, permanent-magnet synchronous AC machines, capable of rotational speeds of 20,000 rpm, 25 percent faster than previous Tesla models. Because of the way they are wound, these motors generate a very efficient electromagnetic field, enabling the Model S Plaid to generate very high torque from a dead stop and continuing to maintain almost 1000 HP to its top speed of 200 mph. Tesla engineers also saved weight, making the Model S Plaid slightly lighter than previous Model S versions.
Finally, Tesla added a “drag strip model” that pre-heats the battery and lowers the car to reduce drag. The result according to Car and Driver testing is 100 mph in 4.3 seconds and a quarter-mile in 9.4 seconds. Impressive!
The Plaid is a supercar, but even normal EVs provide significant performance advantages when compared to standard ICE vehicles. Let’s take a look at the basics.
Here’s a fundamental advantage an EV has over gas-powered cars: it doesn’t need air. The gas-powered internal combustion engine (ICU) generates power by compressing a mixture of air and fuel to cause combustion. The process of combustion causes the motor to turn, but the process of combustion isn’t instantaneous, it takes time. An electric motor lacks all of these systems, which allows the electronics to work almost instantaneously, with almost no delay in power.
Above: Torque generation in an internal combustion engine inside a gas-powered vehicle (Source:Car Throttle)
We also need to look at torque mismatch between gas cars and EVs. According to Paul Chambon, a controls engineer and powertrains expert from Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, “Electric vehicles can achieve their maximum torque … anywhere from 0 to 8,000 or 10,000 revolutions per minute (RPM), which roughly corresponds to speeds between 0 and 75 mph”.
Above: Electric vehicle torque delivery (Source:Car Throttle)
For gas cars, it’s a different story. Cambon says “gasoline-powered cars cannot achieve peak torque at either a very low or very high rpm. Engines are optimized to run best with certain combinations of airflow, temperature and rotational speed. That means the torque in gas-powered engines peaks around 4,500 rpm, and that a graph of torque versus rpm looks like a domed hat… So at zero speed, gas-powered engines are not at their peak.”
EVs have immediate access to their torque at zero speed, says Chambon, while gas-powered engines “have to accelerate to middle speed to gain enough torque.”
Above: Internal combustion engine torque delivery in a gas-powered vehicle (Source:Car Throttle)
The dome-shaped torque graph, shown above, has other implications. When traveling at lower speeds, the engine isn’t producing enough torque to propel the car. To counter this, manufacturers put a gearbox between your engine and your wheels. This box matches your engine’s torque to get your wheels spinning at a certain RPM. According to Chambon, this gear-shifting creates a lull in your car’s acceleration.
But electric vehicles, which can operate at peak torque anywhere between 0- 10,000 RPM, don’t need a gearbox like gas cars do. Mike Duoba, a mechanical engineer at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, says that gear-shifting alone “is probably worth half a second or maybe a third of a second,” in the 0-to-60 test.
Above: The new front end redesign of the Tesla Model S (Source:Motor Trend)
Electric vehicles do have some natural advantages, but some advantages can only be found in Teslas and their superior battery tech. Jordi Cabana, a chemist at the University of Illinois in Chicago, studies battery chemistry, and he has some excellent insights on how car batteries work:
"In general, a battery's energy density predicts how much energy it can release (meaning how far the car drives) before recharging, while the power density (the energy density delivered per second) determines how fast energy can go in and out of the battery. That, in turn, governs how fast a car can accelerate... [the] Tesla battery helps quickly achieve these lightning-fast speeds by increasing the latter."
Although Tesla hasn’t released specific details, Cabana speculates that the Model S uses a lithium-ion battery. In these batteries, there is a layer called the cathode, “made of a blend of nickel, manganese and cobalt oxide (NMC).” Cabana explains that, when this battery is being charged, lithium ions from the cathode layer go through an electrolyte solution into the anode layer, “which is made from stacks of graphite.” Lithium-ion batteries are powerful, but prone to overheating, which Cabana says manufacturers counter by encasing individual cells, with both a cathode and anode, in protective cells. “The Tesla Model S battery [pack]... has thousands of these cells."
Above: Over 7,000 individual battery cells are inside a Tesla Model S battery pack (Source:Copper Motor via Ricardo Strategic Consulting)
Battery pack architecture
Generation of Tesla Batteries
Tesla continually improves its battery chemistry and architecture. The new 4680 battery that will be offered in new Tesla vehicles stores 5 times the energy at half the cost of the 2170 battery that is currently used in Tesla Model 3 and Model Y.
In commenting on the integration of individual batteries into the battery pack, Elon Musk stated: "People often think that a battery and a battery pack is the same thing, but the technical complexity, once you get to do a large number of cells in a pack, is very much on the module/pack level. You can think of the cell level as being a chemical engineering problem and the module/pack level as being a mechanical, electrical and software engineering problem... The cell is the same, but the module and pack architecture is changed significantly in order to achieve adequate cooling of the cells in a more energy-dense pack and to make sure we don’t have cell to cell combustion propagation."