Competition in the electric truck business appears to be ramping up, following the unveiling of the Tesla Semi on Thursday. Elon Musk’s company will not begin deliveries of the vehicle until 2019 (and has a record of consistently missing its targets), but has nonetheless picked up pre-orders from Wal-Mart, Meijer and J.B. Hunt, with Ryder System also in the process of placing an initial order.
As the name suggests the ‘Tesla Semi’ is a semi-trailer capable of pulling 36 metric tonnes, which would make it the largest category of freight vehicle in many countries. It is Elon Musk’s assertion that the endurance of the vehicle is around 500miles/800km before requiring a recharge making it suitable for “80% of existing routes”. However, in the publicity material, Tesla is equivocal about the vehicle’s range stating that it is “300 or 500 miles”. It might be suggested that the range is qualified by loading, speed and terrain, yet even 300 miles would be viable for many routes.
Tesla’s announcements came hot on the heels of Daimler’s latest EV news; the German company having showcased its E-Fuso Vision One at the Tokyo Motor Show in October. In addition, 2017 has also seen significant electric truck announcements from Loblaw and Cummins, whilst DHL and UPS are both pushing on with electric parcel delivery vans.
Tesla stands apart from these systems, however, because it appears much more capable of tackling the primary issues confronting Electric Vehicles (EVs): range, and recharging speed.
Moreover, Tesla appear to be attempting to change the parameters around road freight operations. By offering an increased optimal speed for the vehicle, they seem to be aiming to make the time for each route shorter and thus more efficient. The performance numbers quoted by the company are of a vehicle able to accelerate to 60mph in 20 seconds whilst carrying a load of 8,000 pounds (approx.3.5 metric tonnes) and “speed up a (incline) of 5%” of 65mph.
There was no mention of the capital cost of the vehicle, rather the focus was on the running costs of the vehicle, which did seem to offer considerable benefits, stating than “electricity offered costs half those of diesel” with US$200,000 saved over a two-year period.
The vehicle is not without its flaws, as truckers themselves have pointed out. The positioning of the seat, lack of mirrors and reliance on brightly-lit screens could all cause problems for drivers, and it remains to be seen whether Tesla’s use of cameras and sensors will mitigate driver visibility issues.
Moreover, whilst the operating costs for EV’s are far lower than for conventional Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) vehicles, startup costs are substantial. Whilst pricing of the Tesla Semi is yet to be confirmed, a Carnegie Mellon study concluded that the cost of just the vehicle’s battery pack would amount to $200,000; this is almost twice the average price of a comparable diesel truck.
With Model 3 production stuttering, the unveiling of the Tesla Semi represented welcome respite for the company. It is nonetheless important to bear in mind that production of the vehicle remains some way off, with the orders thus far consisting of only a small quantity of vehicles. Furthermore, there could be substantial changes in the business and technological landscape in the intervening years.
Authors: Thomas Cullen and Alex Le Roy
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