Tesla Semi promises a new era for road freight


US automotive innovator Tesla has launched what promises to be a new era for road freight with the unveiling of its battery-powered ‘Tesla Semi’ truck, which it claims will offer an extraordinary performance improvement, increased safety, lower overall costs and a far better experience for truck drivers compared with diesel vehicles when it becomes available in 2019.

Without a trailer, Tesla claims its Semi achieves 0-60 mph (96kph) in just five seconds, compared to 15 seconds in a comparable diesel truck, and with a full 40-tonne (80,000-pound) load does 0-60 mph in 20 seconds, a task that takes a diesel truck about a minute. And a fully charged battery will give it a range of 500 miles (800 km), Tesla said.

“Most notably for truck drivers and other travellers on the road, it climbs 5% grades at a steady 65 mph, whereas a diesel truck maxes out at 45 mph on a 5% grade,” claimed Tesla co-founder, CEO and product architect Elon Musk.

At the vehicle’s launch last week in California, Musk emphasised the vehicle’s extraordinary performance and driver experience. He said the Tesla Semi “requires no shifting or clutching for smooth acceleration and deceleration”, noting that the “regenerative braking” capability of the electric vehicle’s systems “recovers 98% of kinetic energy to the battery, giving it a basically infinite brake life”.

He added: “Overall, the Semi is more responsive, covers more miles than a diesel truck in the same amount of time, and more safely integrates with passenger car traffic.

And he said unlike other trucks, the Semi’s cabin is designed specifically around the driver, featuring full standing room inside, and a centred driver position “for optimal visibility”. Two touchscreen displays positioned symmetrically on both sides of the driver “provide easy access to navigation, blind spot monitoring and electronic data logging. Built-in connectivity integrates directly with a fleet’s management system to support routing and scheduling, and remote monitoring.”

In contrast, diesel trucks today currently require several third-party devices for similar functionality, he noted.

He claimed that a new network of battery ‘Megachargers’, a new high-speed DC charging solution, will “add about 400 miles in 30 minutes and can be installed at origin or destination points and along heavily trafficked routes, enabling recharging during loading, unloading, and driver breaks”.

Among the claims made by Tesla is that the Semi will have 20% lower total costs than equivalent diesel vehicles, “when the full costs of ownership are taken into account, including the lease cost, insurance, maintenance”. Tesla claims the Semi will cost $1.26 per mile versus $1.51 per mile for diesel truck, based on a guaranteed electricity price it will offer.

“By itself it beats diesel trucks, but what if you have a convoy?” Musk asks. “The convoy technology and tracking technology, we are confident that we can do it now 10 times more safely then a human driver. And if you look at the economics of a truck convoy, it gets way better. Now a diesel track is twice as expensive as a Tesla Semi.”

With an operating cost of $0.85 per mile, he said the Tesla Semi operated in a truck convoy had better operating costs than rail freight. “Now, that, I think, is really quite profound,” he said.

“Production begins 2019. So, if you order now, you can have a truck in two years.”

However, some analysts question Tesla’s cost analysis, with diesel vehicle associations claiming Tesla will not be able to compete with diesel vehicles’ range. And some battery specialists doubt that Tesla can produce a powerful enough battery at a reasonable price.

“A 300-mile-capable battery pack costs about $200,000 − which is much higher than a diesel-powered semi-truck, which costs about $120,000, on average, for the entire vehicle,” a Carnegie Mellon study, reported by the BBC, concluded.

Nevertheless, several major customers have reportedly signed up and paid the US$5,000 per truck reservation fee the Tesla Semi.

Reports in the North American media and tech sector indicate that road freight specialist JB Hunt has alrady pre-ordered 40 of the vehicles; Canadian grocery chain Loblaws has pre-ordered 25 to haul food to its stores across the country; and Walmart has ordered 15 vehicles for testing.

On the costs of ownership, Tesla claims its Semi “delivers massive savings in energy costs, performance, efficiency and reliability”, adding: “The biggest immediate cost-advantage comes from savings in energy costs: fully loaded, the Tesla Semi consumes less than two kilowatt-hours of energy per mile and is capable of 500 miles of range at GVW and highway speed, accommodating a wide range of shipping applications − given that nearly 80% of freight in the US is moved less than 250 miles. Coupled with the low and stable nature of electricity prices – which average $0.12/kWh in the US and can be significantly less for commercial and industrial users, falling to almost nothing when combined with local solar generation and storage – owners can expect to gain $200,000 or more in savings over a million miles based on fuel costs alone.

On safety, Tesla said the Semi’s all-electric architecture “is designed to have a higher safety standard than any other heavy-duty truck on the market, with a reinforced battery that shields the Semi from impact and gives it an exceptionally low centre of gravity. Its windshield is made of impact resistant glass. 

“Jackknifing is prevented due to the Semi's onboard sensors that detect instability and react with positive or negative torque to each wheel while independently actuating all brakes. The surround cameras aid object detection and minimize blind spots, automatically alerting the driver to safety hazards and obstacles.

“With Enhanced Autopilot, the Tesla Semi features Automatic Emergency Braking, Automatic Lane Keeping, Lane Departure Warning, and event recording,” Tesla said.

Musk said that in the event of a medical emergency experienced by the driver, the vehicle can be safely brought to a stop and call emergency services on behalf of the driver.

A video of the vehicle launch can be viewed via this link.