HAWTHORNE, CALIF.—On Thursday evening, a couple of months later than originally promised, Tesla showed the world its first proper look at the company’s heavy duty electric vehicle, the Tesla Semi. The tractor can hook up with any trailer; no brand-specific trailer is necessary.
But let’s get some statistics on what those 2019 electric trucks will look like:
|Specs at a glance: Tesla Semi|
|Speed||0-60mph in 5 seconds|
|Top speed at 5% grade||65mph|
|Speed with 80,000lbs haul||0-60mph in 20 seconds|
The 500 mile range is particularly interesting news given that Reuters reported earlier this year that Tesla’s truck would have 200 to 300 miles of range. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics notes that “most freight shipments by value and tonnage move less than 250 miles.” Those shipments include freight that travels by train, waterway, and pipeline, but shipments along those lines tend to be longer hauls.
Tesla also said it was working on a charging solution that would allow the truck to charge up to an equivalent of 400 miles in 30 minutes. At an evening event, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said the company was working on “Megachargers” that would be solar-powered, ensuring guaranteed electricity prices for truckers.
Musk also said that the Semi powertrain would be guaranteed for a million miles. The windshield glass would also be very strong, Musk said, joking that it was thermonuclear explosion-proof glass. “Survive a thermonuclear explosion or your money back,” the CEO told the crowd.
The cabin of the Semi offers full standing room inside. The driver sits in the center of the cabin on an air-suspension seat that adjusts to the driver’s weight. There are two touchscreen tablets on either side of the driver for navigation and blind spot monitoring. One version of the tractor eliminates side view mirrors entirely, although another version retains them.
The truck software also logs driver miles to meet new electronic logging device (ELD) regulations that go into effect in December for the trucking industry.
Inside the cabin there are also airplane-style overhead bins for the driver’s personal effects. The nose of the tractor (where the engine would normally go) also contains a storage area for belongings.
The Semi will come with Autopilot software that includes Automatic Emergency Braking, Automatic Lane Keeping, and Lane Departure Warning. Tesla noted that, like its cars, the truck has a low center of gravity, and the reinforced battery should help to shield the tractor from impact. Guards along the bottom of the tractor also prevent debris from hitting the battery from the side.
Jackknifing is apparently prevented with the help of the Semi’s onboard sensors, which “detect instability and react with positive or negative torque to each wheel while independently actuating all brakes,” Tesla said.
Although Tesla didn’t offer any battery size figures (other than “it’s a big battery”), the eight rear wheels of the tractor are powered by four Model 3 motors, one for each side of each axle. This offers some measure of redundancy. If one motor fails, the tractor can still move forward on the other axle.
At the end of the evening, Musk talked about the cost without giving a specific number. He argued that, given a 100-mile route, at a 60mph speed, with diesel at $2.50 an hour, and a $0.07 kwH electricity price, the Semi would beat a diesel truck on price.
The company brought out diesel trucks to use as comparisons against their design. One noticeable thing is that, being electric, the vehicle doesn’t come with a clutch (although there are three pedals: a brake, an acceleration pedal, and a pedal to adjust the steering column). Eliminating the manual transmission in the truck also eliminates any jerky shifting-through-gears necessary to accelerate and decelerate the truck like you’d experience in a diesel vehicle.
Since Tesla floated the idea of a Semi product earlier this year, and there has been no shortage of companies presenting their own electric truck ideas. In August, diesel engine maker Cummins announced an all-electric drivetrain and a hybrid electric-diesel drivetrain. The all-electric drivetrain can haul 22 tons (or 44,000lbs). It will reportedly have a 100-mile range (300 miles with the additional diesel generator).
Daimler also released a line of short-haul electric trucks meant for city-based deliveries as opposed to inter-city deliveries. The 62-mile range seems modest, but, given that Daimler is already producing the trucks for the United Postal Service (UPS), it’s actually ahead of the game.
Salt Lake City-based Nikola Motor Company and Bosch also announced a partnership in September that they say will result in a hydrogen fuel cell truck that can drive 1,200 miles on a full tank by 2020.
The Tesla Semi has been called a “flashy distraction” from a long series of quarterly losses, poor Model 3 production numbers, and accusations that Musk’s tendency to overpromise is tantamount to misleading shareholders. But the Tesla Semi doesn’t quite feel like a distraction for the company. The Semi is already internal company infrastructure—more discrete prototype versions of the truck are already being used to move Tesla vehicle battery packs from the Sparks, Nevada, Gigafactory to the Fremont, California, auto manufacturing facility, the company said tonight. Much like the Powerwall and the Powerpack stationary storage batteries, it seems that Musk hopes to sell copies of this infrastructure.
Perhaps it’s not a flashy distraction as much as it is sleight of hand. Sure, this is a new product. But, it seems Tesla is clever enough to make us think the Semi is the next Model 3, when really it’s a Powerwall.
Still, a lot of unanswered questions remain. Ken Harper, director of marketing for freight exchange service DAT, said that for truckers and trucking service providers, cost, maintenance, and range will be elements of interest, but the most important factor will be whether charging infrastructure can support freight trucks. Infrastructure won’t just be a question, “infrastructure is the question,” Harper said.
Certainly, Model S vehicles met some of this skepticism, too. Range anxiety is still a reason people don’t buy electric cars, but the anxiety might be more pronounced for a truck driver. It’s easier to get towed if you’re a sedan that powers down on a lonely stretch of highway than if you’re a tractor trailer carrying 80,000lbs of perishable food.