Tesla touch screen
Tesla uses a 17-inch touchscreen as its main user interface. The software is Linux-based and connects to owner's mobile phones for Internet access. IBTimes/Angelo Young

The Tesla Model S isn't just a car. It's an "unconventional" mobile device, according to the automotive analytics firm that conducted the first-ever comprehensive "teardown" of the vehicle's electronics systems.

Teardowns are typically done by tech bloggers shortly after a new smartphone, tablet or PC hits the market. The analyses give consumers a look at the gadget's internal components and offer a glimpse at how the parts work together. Now, IHS Automotive is applying the same dissection to a Tesla Model S, starting with a look behind the car’s 17-inch touchscreen and instrument cluster that controls everything from the vehicle’s radio to the suspension settings. The firm plans to release a similar analysis of the electronics behind the car's drivetrain and battery pack, due out early next year.

IHS Automotive engineers spent about $20,000 on a wrecked Tesla Model S and took it to their El Segundo, California, workshop where they extracted and disassembled the vehicle's user interface. They spent weeks extracting and dissecting over a dozen electronic systems, starting first with the two digital screens on the car's dashboard.

“We didn’t have a lot to going on in terms of where things in the car would be hiding," Andrew Rassweiler, senior director for materials and cost benchmarking at IHS Automotive, said by phone on Tuesday. "It was a discovery process in a garage over two months.”

What Rassweiler's team found was something rivaling the highest-end instrumentation and infotainment systems in six-figure German luxury cars. They counted more than 5,000 individual parts making up the electronics system.

“Everything in this design makes the Tesla experience more like a media tablet or high-end smartphone than a traditional automobile,” Rassweiler said. “This approach required a major investment in big displays and touch panels, similar to the approach Apple took when designing the iPhone and iPad.”

A systems this complex isn’t being made from scratch at Tesla’s Fremont, California, facility. The brain of this system is powered by California company Nvidia’s Tegra 3 1.4-gigahertz quad-core processor that channels ultra-high resolution graphics to a Taiwanese-made touchscreen helped by German-engineered integrated circuits and control units made in Austin, Texas.

Despite the 17 major suppliers behind the system (see list below), IHS found that many of the printed circuit boards actually bear Tesla’s “T” trademark, suggesting the company conducted much of its own designs and engineering, something you would find in a tech gadget but is an unconventional approach compared to other automakers. The unusual size of the Tesla Model S touchscreen, for example, required the company to custom-engineer electronics to power it.

“With this model, Tesla once again is behaving more like a smartphone or tablet seller than a normal carmaker,” IHS said in its report.

Here’s a list of the 17 major suppliers of the key electronic components in the Model S identified so far: