Electric vehicle maker Tesla is notoriously close-mouthed about its future products, preferring to tease out tidbits of information to generate interest. The company has stuck to that playbook when discussing plans to unveil a heavy-duty Tesla electric truck this week.
Still, some details have leaked and others can be intuited from what’s known of Tesla’s technology and design philosophy.
The prototype will be a futuristic, battery-electric, Class 8 tractor powered by Tesla-built electric motors, batteries and power electronics, all components the company already makes and can be scaled up for a heavy-duty truck.
Spy photographs indicate Tesla’s electric truck will look quite 22nd century — a tall, imposing cab inspired by the helmets worn by Imperial storm troopers in the “Star Wars” movies that Tesla’s designers watched growing up.
It will be gleaming white — or maybe Tesla red — with smoky black glass windows and curves and angles that slope up and back from a menacing, grille-less front end sporting LED projector headlamps and emblazoned with the company’s iconic “T” logo.
There won’t be a hood — no need in an electric truck. The power electronics and battery pack will be installed beneath the cab. The electric motors — and there will be two, based on Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk’s references to “motors” in tweets about the truck. They will likely be mounted on the rear axles, inboard of the wheels.
The basic design is intended to shout, “Here’s the future, and it is sleek, fierce, and powerful.”
Musk has promised that the truck’s torque will be best in the business, by far. In a tug-of-war with a diesel semi, he once boasted, Tesla’s semi — Musk calls it “the beast” — would pull its opponent uphill.
Based on Tesla’s cars, expect the cab to be plush and dedicated to making the driver as comfortable and operationally efficient as possible. That’s a Tesla trademark and one way the company helps justify the premium prices needed to pay for the lithium-ion batteries that power its vehicles.
The truck will have autonomous driving features to enable platooning and maximize fuel efficiency and safety. Tesla’s truck, as Tesla’s cars do already, will probably carry the hardware to become fully autonomous with a wireless software update when federal highway safety regulations allow driverless trucks.
Look for a day cab, intended for short- and medium-range work, with a range of up to 300 miles and, more likely, a range of somewhere between 150 and 225 miles. The batteries just get too heavy and too costly to pencil out economically after that, according to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University.
They found that the cost of current lithium-ion batteries alone would run between $160,000 and $210,000 per truck for trucks with 300 miles of range — more than the average $120,000 cost of an entire Class 8 diesel tractor. A 300-mile electric truck would require a battery pack capacity of 1,000 kilowatt-hours and would weigh almost nine tons, dramatically reducing cargo capacity, the study found.
A sleeper cab model for long-distance hauling is in Tesla’s future, but even if the cost and weight obstacles were overcome, the batteries available with today’s technology would require many lengthy, and thus costly, recharging stops — or the construction of a national network of battery swap stations — to keep the trucks rolling long-haul distance.
Rivals, including Toyota, General Motors, U.S. Hybrid and Kenworth, are working on fuel-cell electric trucks, from medium-duty models to over-the-road semis that use hydrogen fuel-cell technology to deliver longer travel distances and quicker refueling. Don’t expect that from Tesla. Musk is a vocal critic of fuel-cells.
Still, a Tesla drayage truck, designed to haul freight in 100-300 mile loops between port areas and freight hubs and regional warehousing and distribution centers, could be a big seller.
California and New York are big boosters of transitioning regional freight hauling and port truck traffic from fossil fuels to green technology.
The annual market for short-range, heavy-duty electric trucks in the U.S. will hit 15,000 units by 2025, Walter Rentzsch, a Michigan-based trucking industry analyst with consulting firm Roland Berger, told Trucks.com.
Those sales will all be in states, such as California, with heavy financial incentives that will help truck operators offset the higher purchase costs of electric models, Rentzsch said.
Rentzsch and colleague Stephan Keese said that a short-haul electric truck with about 100 miles of range and a five-ton, 600 kWh battery — a lesser truck than the Carnegie Mellon study envisioned — could earn payback for its price premium in three to five years if that premium were no more than $60,000 over the cost of a comparably equipped diesel model.
That’s a conservative look at the financials.
Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas recently called the Tesla truck “the biggest catalyst in trucking in decades,” and predicted that its operating costs could be 70 percent lower than for a Class 8 diesel tractor.
Tesla’s Musk hasn’t been shy about pitching the truck. At a shareholder meeting in June he urged investors to “show up for the semi-truck unveiling, maybe there’s a little more [to it] than what we are saying here.”
Tesla Semi truck unveil & test ride tentatively scheduled for Oct 26th in Hawthorne. Worth seeing this beast in person. It's unreal.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 13, 2017
Musk repeated that “more to it” claim in an Oct. 6 Twitter exchange with a follower. “Semi specs are better than anything I’ve seen reported so far,” he wrote.
One last thing: Tesla often promises release dates and production schedules that are revised multiple times before things actually start appearing on the road. Expect a lengthy gap from the Tesla truck’s introduction to commercial use.