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More Logical Than Ludicrous: Tesla Semi Will Need to Deliver Reliability

Tesla Semi

As dramatic as the surprise unveiling of a second-generation Tesla Roadster was last week, the world does not need yet another electric supercar. What it does need is an alternative for the two-thirds of freight activity that is carried out by pollution- and carbon-dioxide–belching diesel trucks. Which is why the Tesla Semi is potentially far more important.

According to the International Energy Authority, trucks burn about half of the diesel consumed worldwide every year and have accounted for about 80 percent of the increase in diesel demand since 2000. If that trend continues, diesel trucks alone will be responsible for nearly 10 percent of all energy-related carbon-dioxide emissions by 2050.

If Elon Musk has his way, the Tesla Semi will change all that. Not only will the world’s first battery-electric Class 8 truck have a range of up to 500 miles, it will benefit from a network of solar-powered Megachargers that allow it to run (eventually) on pure sunlight.

Tesla Semi

But as so often with Tesla products, many questions remain. Musk shared only selected technical and commercial details about the Semi, and Tesla continues to face severe financial, logistical, and manufacturing challenges as it struggles to bring its Model 3 to market. As impressive as the Semi prototype’s launch was last week, the cutthroat world of commercial trucking will need hard facts and harder numbers before fully embracing Musk’s ray of sunshine.

Musk introduced the Semi as he does most Tesla vehicles: touting its performance. While this is arguably the least important aspect of a commercial vehicle, Tesla has a brand image to maintain, and so the Semi can accelerate briskly from zero to 60 mph in five seconds without a trailer or in 20 seconds with a full load. It can also maintain a higher speed up a grade than existing diesel trucks.

At the launch, Musk told owner-operators, “If you’re pulling a load up [the] Rockies, you’ll earn 50 percent more per mile than in a diesel truck.” But this is hardly representative of most routes, and it applies only to drivers who are paid for their time rather than the distance they travel.

Tesla Semi

Range Life

Semi-truck range is far more crucial, and there were cheers when Musk announced that the Semi with a full load will be able to travel 500 miles between charges (there will be a 300-mile version available). “With 80 percent of routes under 250 miles, you can go to your destination and back even if it has no charging,” he said.

This statement, too, bears investigation. According to the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI), which carries out a detailed survey of trucking companies every year, only 21 percent of trips made in 2016 were less than 100 miles (thus, a 200-mile round trip). A further 40 percent were between 100 and 500 miles. That means the longer-range Tesla Semi should be able to manage about 60 percent of one-way journeys, but possibly far fewer round trips, without recharging.

Tesla would not reveal the lithium-ion battery pack’s exact capacity or chemistry, but an engineer did say that it is very similar to one of the company’s energy products, probably either the Powerwall domestic or Powerpack utility-scale battery.

Tesla Semi

If a trucker does have to recharge, Musk promised, the process will be painless at a new generation of roadside charging stations called Megachargers. Although no specifications were given, these will be more powerful than Tesla’s existing 480V/120-kW Superchargers and will deliver 400 miles of range in just 30 minutes. This dovetails neatly with legal break requirements for commercial drivers in the United States, Musk noted.

However, the existing network of more than 1000 Superchargers in Asia, North America, Europe, and the Middle East has taken years to build out, and upgrading those will take time. No details were given on how long it would take a Semi to recharge at an existing Supercharger—or even if it would be able to do so.

Reliability Really Matters

Musk also touched on another concern of commercial fleet operators: reliability. Fixing a broken-down electric truck could be beyond the abilities of many smaller or rural truck mechanics across the country for some time. Musk got another cheer when he said Tesla will guarantee that the Semi will not break down for a million miles. That is a reassuring number for truckers because it is significantly farther than the average of 750,000 miles that operators told ATRI they cover before selling a truck.

Tesla Semi

 

That reliability comes from having no transmission or brakes to wear out, although the Semi does use air disc brakes as a safety measure to complement its regenerative braking. It is also thanks to the Semi’s unique drivetrain, which uses four individual Model 3 motors, one on each of the truck’s four drive wheels. A failure of one or even two motors would not prevent the Semi from continuing to outperform a diesel truck, Musk said.

Nevertheless, Tesla said that large fleet customers that typically carry out their own maintenance will be given the tools and access required to service the Semi themselves. Tesla also expects to depend heavily on its mobile service technicians and perhaps even embed them with key customers.

Although the Semi comes with an Autopilot system almost identical to that found in Tesla’s cars (with a few additional radars), the emphasis is on safety rather than automation. All Semis will come with automated emergency braking, lane-keeping assist, and forward-collision warning as standard, as well as a new technology to detect and prevent jackknifing by independently controlling each of the four drive-wheel motors and brakes.

Tesla Semi

 

In the cab, a centrally positioned seat should simplify production for the global market, and twin screens identical to those in the Model 3 present the essential readings plus navigation, fleet management software, and driving settings. Whether the touchscreen displays might present ergonomic challenges to drivers was hard to judge during a short tour of the vehicle. There is no internal camera to watch the driver as on the Model 3.

Operating Cost: The True Test

But for all the Semi’s design flourishes and its potential environmental benefits, the big decision for many truck buyers will come down to dollars and cents. Will the Semi be cheaper to run than a traditional diesel truck?

Musk said it will. On the same 100-mile route and with the same load, he said, the Semi would cost $1.26 per mile to operate compared to $1.51 for a diesel truck. That figure compares well to the $1.59 per mile calculated by ATRI for operating a diesel truck in 2016. Saving 25 cents per mile would allow the Semi to offset its higher retail price in two years, according to Tesla. ATRI reported that an average truck drives just over 100,000 miles annually. That implies the Semi will cost $50,000 more than a typical $150,000 diesel truck, for a list price of around $200,000 (probably for the 300-mile variant). Neither Musk nor Tesla provided pricing for either version of the Semi.

Tesla Semi

However, the situation is more complex. Musk did not break down the cost per mile into its various components, including such unknowns as insurance, maintenance, and driver wages. More important, the $1.26 figure is based on charging the Semi at a Tesla Megacharger, where Musk promised that truckers would be able to buy electricity at just seven cents per kilowatt-hour (in the United States, at least). Although Musk has long promised that Tesla’s charging network will ultimately be powered by Tesla-made photovoltaic panels, it is still in the process of building its first Supercharger station with an onsite solar array, and the company has not released data on its use of renewable power.

Charging at seven cents per kilowatt-hour would be a bargain compared to the national average rate of 13.1 cents. But if truckers have to recharge using a local utility in the absence of a convenient Megacharger, their energy savings would shrink considerably. Tesla claimed that the Semi uses less than 2 kWh per mile of operation. Recharging the Semi from public supplies in California, for instance, where electricity costs 19 cents per kWh, would add 24 cents per mile and almost wipe out its cost advantage. In Connecticut, Alaska, and Hawaii, where electricity is priced at more than 20 cents per kWh, the Semi would lose money.

Musk claimed that platooning three Semis into an Autopilot-controlled convoy would slash costs further, to just 85 cents per mile—at which point he says it would even be cheaper than rail freight. However, aerodynamic research prepared for the Federal Highway Administration found a potential maximum fuel saving from platooning of just 7 percent, corresponding to $1.17 per mile for a Tesla convoy.

No doubt many of these questions will be answered as Tesla moves from the two working prototypes it showed last week to full production of the Semi by 2019. Tesla said it already has “lots” of reservations for the Semi, including from Walmart and trucking giant J.B. Hunt Transport. Whether they turn into sales that can make a significant dent in the 250,000 diesel trucks bought each year remains to be seen.

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More Logical Than Ludicrous: Tesla Semi Will Need to Deliver Reliability

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Not Zero: Emissions from Driving an EV Vary Widely by Country

Chevrolet Bolt EV

China and India both aspire to embrace electric cars to cut petroleum dependence over the next decade. But there’s a big reality check: Electric cars are only as clean as the power sources that charge them. So far, in both of these rapidly changing markets, the electrical grids are quite dirty.

Both China and India fall into a group of nations in which EVs aren’t much better for carbon emissions than some of the more efficient gasoline-powered cars. Based on new calculations from Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle of the University of Michigan, a gasoline car in India needs to get almost 36 mpg to achieve lower carbon emissions than a typical battery-electric vehicle. In China, the figure is 40 mpg.

In other countries, by and large, figures favor the EV in a much more promising way. On a global average, you’d need to get 52 mpg to rival plugging in, while on average in the United States, a gasoline-powered car would need to get 55 mpg to be cleaner than EVs charged from the grid.

Among the 12 nations in the world with the largest economies, France stands out as having the lowest emissions associated with plugging in—a gas car would need to get the equivalent of 525 mpg to match an average battery-electric vehicle there—while Canada and Brazil follow with the equivalent of more than 150 mpg. Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Russia all weighed in above the global average, while Japan, India, and South Korea were all below the global average.

The researchers behind the report produced a world map [below] ranking 143 of the 195 “currently recognized sovereign states” in the world, ranking them in four color-coded groups.

University of Michigan MPG world mapPurely by looking at electrical grids, Albania is the only country in which an electric vehicle generates 100 percent of its grid power from hydroelectric sources like dams, while Botswana and Gibraltar are mentioned as examples in the other direction.

Norway remains a high achiever for EVs. Almost a third of the new passenger vehicles sold in that Scandinavian nation in 2016 were pure electric models, while the Netherlands tops 5 percent and Sweden, France, the United Kingdom, and China all top the U.S. market’s sub-1-percent level.

To arrive at these assessments, the Michigan team essentially compounded two well-respected data sets. Country-specific information was sourced from the International Energy Agency (IEA) and some of the conclusions and figures from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) study 2015 Cleaner Cars from Cradle to Grave, in which most energy sources were given greenhouse-gas mile-per-gallon equivalents—all relative to some assumptions about the emissions associated with producing a gallon of gasoline.

It’s All in the Mix

Those scientists calculated that electricity generated using coal and oil was equivalent to 29 miles per gallon of gasoline, while natural gas was the same as getting 58 mpg. Geothermal and solar sources were rated at 310 and 350 mpg, respectively, while nuclear, wind, and hydro sources were in the thousands of miles per gallon.

GM wind energy in Mexico

The averages were based on an EPA-rated efficiency of 102 miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe)—0.33 kWh per mile—for electric vehicles. That happens to be the MPGe rating for both the 2017 Tesla Model S 100D and the Smart Fortwo Electric Drive cabriolet. At present, the EPA lists 18 trims or models with even better efficiency than that. So in the United States, or pretty much anywhere, electric cars do much better on carbon emissions than most gasoline vehicles.

But as for how much better? It depends. It depends on your local and regional utilities and where they get their power; and it even depends on the time of day. The figures also don’t include the cradle-to-grave emissions involved in manufacturing vehicles or their batteries—or in how materials are sourced.

On the other hand, they don’t include another important point: A gasoline vehicle isn’t going to emit any less at the tailpipe as it gets older, although it’s likely that over the life of an electric vehicle, energy replenished from the grid will keep getting cleaner—whether in China, India, or your own garage.

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2017 Genesis G90 in Depth: Luxurious and a Good Value

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Although it doesn’t yet have the clout of well-established European brands, Hyundai’s upscale Genesis spinoff division is off to a strong start with its G90 flagship. This full-size sedan is elegant and plush enough to make you forget that it comes from a luxury-brand upstart. Genesis has smartly eschewed sporting pretensions and instead focuses on the G90’s cosseting nature. Smooth and satisfying V-6 and V-8 powertrains prioritize refinement over excitement. The G90’s interior is richly appointed, and its exterior design is sophisticated but not ostentatious. The G90’s most compelling feature, however, is its sensational value proposition. If you can handle the not-quite-there-yet image, the G90 offers a lot of luxury for much less money than the established high-end brands. READ MORE ››

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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.

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

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First Drive: Porsche 911 Turbo S Exclusive, One of 500 with 607 HP!

2018-Porsche-911-Turbo-S-Placement

Porsche will build only 500 copies of the 911 Turbo S Exclusive globally. Exclusive—it’s right there in the name. Actually, the Exclusive part of the name refers to Porsche’s in-house customizing department: Exclusive Manufaktur, a label emblazoned on the fender badges. These are the folks made famous by their willingness to wrap anything and everything in leather. Want your tires to be wrapped in hides? They’ll probably do that. READ MORE ››

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2018 Porsche 911 Turbo S Exclusive – First Drive Review

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2018 Mercedes-AMG GLC63 First Drive: The Muscle Car of Compact SUVs

Mercedes-AMG GLC63

While other companies have dabbled in sticking big V-8s into their compact sports sedans, Mercedes-AMG was doing it years before—and it is the only brand that has hung on to the bent-eight in that segment. We shouldn’t be surprised, seeing as AMG made its bones putting eights into engine bays built for sixes and, more recently, V-12s in place of eights. Just as the rest of the industry has fully embraced downsizing, Mercedes-Benz’s in-house hot-rod shop is bucking trends by stuffing a V-8 into its second-from-smallest SUV family, which includes the GLC and the GLC coupe. Do what you know, right? READ MORE ››

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