Elon Shows Us His Semi: Tesla’s Next Big Thing Is Big Indeed

Tesla Semi

Roughly 18 months have passed since we first learned about Tesla’s plan to add an electric semi-truck, of all things, to its automotive product family. At the time, it was said to be in the early stages of development, and was expected to appear sometime in 2017. Lo and behold, this past April, we were crawling around a pair of Tesla Semi prototypes at the company’s Hawthorne, California, headquarters. Then in May, Musk took to the Twitter and claimed that the Semi would be unveiled in September . . . sigh (at least this is a month that ends in “ember”!). More important, it seems worth the wait. 

“Like a Bullet”

As with Tesla’s other product reveals, the Semi was introduced at a huge Hollywood-style party filled with Tesla owners and fans, red carpet and all. Yes, a red carpet and multiple layers of security for a semi-truck introduction—that’s a first. And Musk wasted no time producing his two prototype rigs for the adoring throng to behold, both of which circled a vast expanse of asphalt in total silence before poking their sleek, sloped noses through the open hangar doors at the Jet Center in Hawthorne, California, adjacent to Tesla’s HQ.

“We designed the trucks to be like a bullet,” said Musk, and indeed, each of these day-cab trucks look as deliciously futuristic as one could hope them to look, particularly the low-roof matte-gray version—which turned out to be carrying some very precious cargo. With the exception of the windshield wipers and the exterior rearview mirrors, everything on the front and sides of the Semi’s body has been smoothed and flush mounted, including low-set headlamps, the upper clearance lights, and the Model 3–sourced door handles. The bottom of the truck is flat. Behind the cab are extendible panels that automatically detect the size and location of the trailer’s leading edges and extend out to meet them, effectively sealing them together from an aerodynamic standpoint. The wheels have aerodynamic covers, too, with the gray example featuring full skirting over the rear wheels. The coefficient of drag is a stunning 0.36. 

Tesla Semi

Sitting in the Doghouse

Even more revolutionary, at least in contrast to the often cramped cabs of today’s big rigs, is the Semi’s interior, which we were allowed to crawl around in briefly before the official unveiling. First of all, access to the space is provided by a couple of steps mounted at a slope just inside the door, a relatively easy climb up compared to the repelling exercise most truckers endure every time they get in and out. Even in this day-cab form, the Tesla Semi’s low floor and tall ceiling allow one to stand up inside and easily walk over to the passenger seat on the other side of the cab or around to the center-mounted driver’s seat. That’s right: Without an engine protruding into the front center of the cab—its covered housing is known in trucker circles as the doghouse—the Tesla Semi places its driver front and center, affording him or her a commanding view forward and to the sides. Dual touchscreens flanking the steering wheel fully integrate all vehicle information, navigation, travel logs, and communications—say, with one’s dispatcher—without cluttering the space with ancillary components. And, yes, there’s a pull strap for the horn.

Mercy Sakes Alive! Zero to 60 in Five Seconds! 500-Mile Range! Powered by Sunlight!

The futuristic styling and captain-of-the-starship driving environment are nice, but what matters most to Tesla, insofar as Musk has the goal of proliferating electric technology across the transportation industry, lies beneath all that. Like the Model S and X, the Semi’s structure is built around its battery packs, which are located between the front and rear axles beneath the cabin, affording it an exceptionally low center of gravity. Both prototypes feature dual rear axles, with each of the four rear wheels powered by its own dedicated electric motor (borrowed from the Model 3). The lack of a transmission frees the driver from having to shift—which is a notoriously complicated process in many rigs—and reduces the amount of jostling inflicted on the cargo.

And this truck will be quick, even by passenger-car standards. A bobtail Tesla Semi will be able to hustle to 60 mph in a shocking five seconds, compared with 20 seconds for a typical diesel truck, according to Musk. Add a trailer heavy enough to bring the rig’s total weight to an 80,000-pound GVWR, and the Semi’s zero-to-60-mph time increases to a similarly remarkable 20 seconds. Up a 5 percent grade, that same trailer-totin’ Tesla Semi can maintain 65 mph, whereas, Musk claimed, “the best diesel trucks” today can only maintain 45 mph. Going fast, of course, isn’t really the point of these rigs, but as time lost is money lost to many drivers, Musk pointed out, a less sluggish truck can make a big difference to the folks who actually use these things. Interestingly, the truck can still run even if one or two of the motors fails, in which condition “it will still beat the diesel truck,” Musk said.

Tesla Semi

Range, of course, is perhaps the greatest consideration for customers of electric vehicles large or small. Tesla said that, thanks in part to regenerative brakes capable of returning a remarkable 98 percent of the kinetic energy to the battery, the Semi can travel 500 miles on a full charge. That’s roughly double the real-world range of Tesla’s next-largest vehicle, the Model X. And that’s at 60 mph, with maximum payload.

Moreover, the net efficiency gain of a Tesla Semi driver traveling in a convoy of more than two rigs rivals rail transport. A planned network of new solar-fed high-speed Megachargers can replenish the truck with enough juice to give it an additional 400 miles of range in 30 minutes—incidentally, the same amount of time required for a driver to take a break every six hours, Musk said. These Megachargers would be installed either at points of origin or along heavily trafficked routes, according to Tesla. Other helpful technology bits include anti-jackknife stability control, blind-spot monitoring, and standard Enhanced Autopilot with automated emergency braking, lane-keeping assist, and lane-departure warning.

Cost Neutral?

While Musk didn’t provide pricing for the Semi, he claimed that operating costs will be comparable to those of current diesel trucks, thanks in part to cheaper maintenance and nonfluctuating energy costs that Musk said would be kept at $0.07 per kilowatt-hour. Citing the Semi’s ability to drive even with two of its four motors down, Musk stated, “We are guaranteeing that this truck will not break down for a million miles.”

You’re forgiven if you still haven’t yet gotten your head around the idea of electric semi-trucks. It took us a while, too. But after doing a bit of reporting on tougher emissions regulations soon to apply to big rigs, the notion is starting to make sense. And Tesla is not the only company thinking this way, with other EV semi-truck proposals appearing during the the past year or so, including Nikola Motor Company’s fuel-cell-powered semi prototype and a Class 7 Cummins electric semi prototype. This regulatory environment is subject to change, of course, given the current administration’s enthusiasm for rolling back environmental regulations. But don’t expect any change in the mandates to affect Tesla’s resolve. It plans to make its Semi a common sight at truck stops around the country starting in 2019—just not at the pumps.

Tesla-Semi-Reel

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