TeslaSemi1 Photo: Tesla Motors

Tesla’s Class 8 Semi: Does it have the juice to do the job?

The all-electric Class 8 tractor prototype unveiled by Tesla Motors last week reportedly has a range of 500 miles. Is that enough distance to satisfy today’s truckers?

During an event in Los Angeles late last week that seemed more like a rock concert than product introduction, Elon Musk – CEO of Tesla Motors – introduced a long-awaited all-electric Class 8 highway tractor dubbed the “Semi” that reportedly has up to 500 miles worth of range, which is a “worst-case scenario” based on the truck hauling a fully-loaded trailer and traveling at maximum highway speeds.

“You can get to your destination and back, even if your destination has no charging,” Musk said, noting that this vehicle will “revolutionize trucking” when it hits the road in 2019.

With use of “mega-chargers,” a new high-speed charging solution being developed by Tesla, truckers can add 400 miles worth of range in 30 minutes, he added, with such chargers installed at origin or destination points for freight deliveries, along heavily trafficked routes.

Musk did not take questions from the media or disclose a purchase price. However, he declared the Semi has “the lowest cost of ownership,” with an estimated cost of $1.26 a mile at a guaranteed 7 cents per kilowatt hour, compared with an average of $1.51 a mile for a conventional diesel.

A Tesla fact sheet said “owners can expect to gain $200,000 or more in savings over a million miles based on fuel costs alone.” Musk added the cost of ownership is nearly half of diesel trucks when the Semis are linked in a platoon.

Tesla actually unveiled two Class 8 tractors at the event, both daycabs, and indicated that the initial target market is local and regional applications – not linehaul – though the company plans to introduce a sleeper model in the future.

Musk not only called it “economic suicide” to use a diesel truck, but said the economics of the Tesla Semi outperform freight railroads as well.

Throughout his presentation, he took numerous shots at the overall appearance and performance of today’s conventional trucks.

He said the Tesla Semi goes from zero to 60 mph in five seconds without a trailer, compared with 15 seconds for a diesel-powered tractor. It climbs 5% grades at a steady 65 mph, while diesel trucks max out at 45 mph. That makes a “gigantic difference” for truckers who are paid by the mile, he told the audience made up largely of Tesla car owners.

The improved performance is achieved by the vehicle’s “bullet-shaped nose,” completely flat bottom, and reduced gap between the tractor and trailer.

The truck features four Tesla Model 3 electric motors – one for each rear wheel. With no shifting or clutching there is smoother acceleration and deceleration, and its regenerative braking recovers 98% of kinetic energy to the battery, giving it a basically infinite brake life, the company said.

The roomy interior is also quite different than trucks currently available, including a driver seat positioned in the center.

Musk said the centered seat and camera system provide complete visibility of the roads, while two large screens next to the steering wheel provide navigation and other data truckers need while on the road.

Tesla added that every Semi model will come standard with “enhanced autopilot,” including emergency braking, lane keeping assist, and collision avoidance systems. Onboard sensors that detect instability and the vehicle’s lower center of gravity means “jackknifing is impossible,” Musk said.

Among the loudest reactions from the crowd came from Musk’ declaration the truck will “not break down for 1 million miles.”

Even if two of the four motors break down, the truck will keep running and will “still beat a diesel truck,” he stressed.

If there are any problems, it will be detected by Tesla’s remote diagnostics service, similar to the many “uptime” features offered by existing truck and engine manufacturers, Musk said.

Cracked windshields should also be a thing of the past, according to Tesla, thanks to glass that is “thermonuclear explosion proof,” Musk claimed, noting that was his “favorite feature” of the new Semi.

Right now, at least four trucking companies have publicly confirmed having placed preorders for Tesla’s new “Semi” heavy-duty electric truck.

Those companies – J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Walmart, plus grocery store fleets Meijer Inc. and Loblaw – have each paid the $5,000-a-truck deposit price to order the new Semi tractor.

J.B. Hunt said in a statement it has reserved “multiple” trucks and plans to deploy them on the West Coast within its Intermodal and Dedicated Contract Services units. “Reserving Tesla trucks marks an important step in our efforts to implement industry-changing technology,” said John Roberts, president and CEO. “We believe electric trucks will be most beneficial on local and dray routes, and we look forward to utilizing this new, sustainable technology.”

However, executives with Hirschbach Motor Lines and Daseke Inc. said that the 500-mile range the Semi can attain on a single charge would actually prevent them from considering ordering those trucks at this early stage.

Michael Baudendistel, vice president of the transportation & logistics research group at Stifel Capital Markets, noted in a research brief that Tesla believes the payback period for its Semi relative to a diesel truck is two years; an important hurdle for truck fleets when considering investing in new equipment or technologies.

“Tesla cars don’t need to prove an economic case to their buyers, but Tesla trucks will—assessing the potential ROI [return on investment] starts with price,” he said. “A fundamental issue with electric vehicles is that the batteries are heavy, which reduces available payload capacity. We think it is reasonable to believe there may be a 10,000 lb. 700 kWh (kilowatt-per-hour) battery pack in the Tesla tractor to provide a 500 mile range. While there are significant weight offsets from removing a diesel engine (around 2,500 lbs.), 240 gallons of fuel (about 1,700 lbs.), and a transmission (some 900 lbs.), a battery pack of that size would almost certainly cut into the payload capacity of the truck.”

Baudendistel also noted “you can’t put the cart before the horse” in terms of the critical need to develop a vehicle recharging infrastructure to support this truck. “For the company to address the linehaul market, there needs to be a robust fueling infrastructure. With the current daycab options, this may not be a significant issue, as many of the buyers will want to charge the trucks overnight at their own facilities. But that will likely come at a higher cost than the seven cents per kWh the company assumes in its TCO [total cost of operation] calculation – [a price] it is guaranteeing at its mega-charger stations.”

—with additional reporting by Sean Kilcarr

TAGS: News Drivers
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