After seeing Tesla’s Semi — the 500-mile range, heavy-duty truck unveiled last week by Elon Musk — the trucking industry is asking if it’s all hype or radical disruption.
Already there are some electric heavy trucks on the road, mostly working Southern California’s giant twin port complex. But none are Teslas. And although seemingly late to the electric truck game, the brand has a magic name in the transportation world.
“Elon Musk is bringing more energy to the truck market,” Antti Lindstrom, trucking industry analyst at IHS Markit, told Trucks.com. “I wonder if some of the larger manufacturers are in fear of missing the boat now.”
Daimler, Volkswagen, Navistar, Cummins and others are all working on battery-electric trucks. Toyota and Kenworth are testing hydrogen fuel cell trucks with electric drivetrains.
The Tesla Semi is a smooth, aerodynamic tractor. There are few protrusions from the body save for side mirrors and surround-vision cameras on the cab roof. Its hoodless nose slopes sharply down from a curving windshield.
The wheels are covered by fairings. The cab’s body panels extend almost to the road, giving it a taller and narrower look than diesel big rigs.
The driver’s seat is located dead center in the cab, a departure from traditional trucks.
Placing the driver in the center of a bullet-shaped nose makes aerodynamic sense. It gives the driver better visibility and control, Lindstrom said. The cab doesn’t have to be as wide, allowing it to reduce drag.
“Other manufacturers know that market will eventually go to this shape because it is optimal, but for now they haven’t as a matter of market acceptance,” Lindstrom said.
The trucking industry is conservative and slow to change, he said.
Acceleration is race-car quick, about three times faster than a standard Class 8 diesel. The Tesla zooms from zero to 60 mph in 20 seconds when fully loaded. The zero to 60 mph time is just 5 seconds with no trailer.
It will travel up to 500 miles on a single charge, he said.
Tesla’s stature in electric transportation gives its push into trucks “a greater reality in the minds of the people who invest,” said Steve Tam, senior trucking industry analyst at ACT Research.
Musk’s ability to access capital will help advance the product, Tam said.
“Musk has been able to find it, and we believe he will be able to continue to do so,” he said.
With its entrance into the heavy truck market, Tesla “gives others a real sense of urgency,” said Michael Held, an analyst with the AlixPartners consulting firm.
“It has compressed and speeded-up timelines, and it will likely be a game-changer in terms of style and aerodynamics,” Held said.
The truck also has captured the attention of truckers.
“Tesla’s electric truck is something I am keeping on my radar screen,” said Henry Albert, an independent trucker from Statesville, N.C.
Still, Albert said the Tesla would have to make financial sense.
“If there is a better way that’s different from how I am running my business, I will consider it,” Albert said.
Other truckers worry about how the vehicle will be charged.
“If the charging stations and infrastructure are there, I would consider Tesla’s electric truck,” said Joey Slaughter, a trucker from Danville, Va.
On the road, the trucks' batteries will be charged by what Musk is calling megachargers. They are a new high-speed DC charging system that will supply enough electricity in 30 minutes to travel about 400 miles.
The expected better reliability of an electric truck compared to a diesel big rig is attractive, Slaughter said.
“What appeals to me is that Elon Musk said his electric truck could run a million miles without repair costs.”
Already motor carriers and retailers are placing orders for Tesla trucks.
J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. said it has put down $5,000 deposits for “multiple” Tesla semi tractors. It will use the trucks to haul freight on the West Coast.
“Reserving Tesla trucks marks an important step in our efforts to implement industry-changing technology,” said John Roberts, chief executive of J.B. Hunt. “Electric trucks will be most beneficial on local and dray routes,. We look forward to utilizing this new, sustainable technology.”
Walmart Stores Inc. told Trucks.com it has ordered 15 Teslas.
“We have a long history of testing new technology, including alternative-fuel trucks,” said Ryan Curell, the retailer’s spokesman. “We can learn how this technology performs within our supply chain.”
Five will be used in the U.S. and 10 are destined for Walmart’s Canadian operations.
“This is a product that will find its home with big fleets,” Lindstrom said.
But others are skeptical.
“The presentation raised more questions than it answered,” said Michael Baudendistel, an analyst at Stifel Financial Corp. “While the truck was impressive in many ways, we’re not yet sure of the economic case for truckers.”
Musk, for example, did not provide a price for a truck, outline a lease program or even say how much it weights. Weight is a in important consideration because the more the vehicle weights the less freight truckers can haul.
Many question whether electric vehicles will work for long-haul freight routes.
“The battery power, charging infrastructure and cost justification just isn’t there for long-haul trucks,” said Kenny Vieth, president of ACT Research.
The batteries make the vehicles heavier than conventional diesel big rigs.
“Unless the government suddenly gives you a waiver for having an extra 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of battery, you’ve just reduced your payload by that much,” said Fred Andersky, customer solutions director for Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems.
Low diesel fuel prices dampen the economic need for alternative fuel vehicles, said Noël Perry, a trucking analyst with FTR Transportation Intelligence. The only expectation is in a handful of states where air-quality rules are driving truck electrification.
“Maybe in 10 years, as the range improves, the demand might be there,” he said.
Many industry analysts say that battery and charging technology remains far away from working economically for long-haul trucks. The near-term market for electric trucks will be in the short-haul delivery, drayage and regional-haul categories.
“But battery technology is coming down in price, and improvements are coming really fast,” said Max Fuller, executive chairman of long-haul freight shipper US Xpress. “We realize that electric trucks are going to be a big thing in the future.”
One lingering question is Musk’s timetable. He said the truck will go into production in 2019.
Based on his track record of delays with passenger vehicle production, that’s unlikely, Lindstrom said.
“He is always overly optimistic,” he said.
Regardless of the timetable, there’s no doubt Tesla’s move into the industry will create disruption.
Tesla is “making a lot of companies that have been in this industry a long time look at the way they’re doing stuff and change those ways,” Andersky said.
Editor’s note: Trucks.com writers Clarissa Hawes, John O’Dell and Ryan ZumMallen contributed to this report.