Tesla may find a hurdle on its road to electric and autonomous trucking — truckers.
Truck drivers, especially those who drive long distances, like the act of driving. They are cautious of vehicles that would take operational control out of their hands or have dramatic technology advances such as electric drivetrains.
A 36-year trucking veteran, Tim Philmon of Middleburg, Fla., said he just isn’t a “push a button and go type of trucker.” He has a 2005 Peterbilt 379 and said he enjoys going through all 18 gears on his manual transmission and prefers the growl of a diesel engine to the near silence of an electric motor.
The Tesla Semi has no transmission and only one gear.
“I read up on the specs on the new Tesla truck, but I am just an old dog and I am not going to learn new tricks at this point in my career,” Philmon told Trucks.com.
The Tesla Semi, launched last week, includes an enhanced autopilot system that has self-driving capabilities such as matching speed to traffic conditions and changing lanes without driver input. The vehicles can also park themselves.
“I am not going to put my life into the hands of a computer,” Philmon said.
What did catch his attention in the Tesla truck is the position of the driver’s seat.
It is located in the middle of the cab for increased visibility. The Tesla lacks the long snout the Peterbilt uses to house the internal-combustion engine, so it is shorter than standard semi-tractors. That also gives a driver a better view of the road.
“I have an 8-foot hood on my Peterbilt, so I could see where this would be a great plus in terms of safety,” he said. “It would allow drivers to have a better vantage point to see out over the front of the hood.”
Truck manufacturers have considered moving the driver to that center position, said Antti Lindstrom, trucking industry analyst at IHS Markit. They feared that such a radical move would turn off truckers. But after looking at the Tesla truck, rival manufacturers might decide to do the same in a future model redesign, he said.
Ronnie Sellers, an independent trucker from Knoxville, Tenn., said he is unlikely to embrace automated technology that will come standard on the Tesla Semi.
“I trust a person’s ability to recognize a hazard up ahead more than I do a computer’s — there’s just too much room for error,” Sellers told Trucks.com.
The former police officer and pilot said he prefers to be behind the wheel and in control of his big rig. If automated technology takes over trucking, Sellers said that will prompt him to exit the industry.
“I do this job because I love to drive and I like shifting the gears,” Sellers said. “I see a problem with people eventually sharing the road with a bunch of computers instead of drivers.”
But other drivers are willing to give Tesla consideration.
The future of Class 8 trucks includes autonomous trucks that run on electricity like the Tesla Semi, said Dallas Philmon, Tim Philmon’s son and trucker with just four years behind the wheel from Jacksonville, Fla.
“If you don’t adjust to your surroundings, you will be left behind,” Dallas Philmon told Trucks.com. “Down the road I know I may eventually have to drive one of these vehicles.”
Earlier this year, Dallas Philmon drove a Tesla car in autopilot mode. He admits he had a hard time yielding control to the vehicle's computers and sensors and letting the car navigate through traffic using the autopilot feature.
“I was nervous the whole time,” he said.
Philmon said he is closely monitoring automated technology but added that truckers should always remain in the driver’s seat.
“Planes are automated with takeoffs and landings, but the pilot is always there to take over the controls— that’s how it should be in trucking,” Dallas Philmon said.
While it could eventually be an option for local drivers, Dallas Philmon, who drives shorter distances hauling containers to and from the port in Jacksonville, said the 500-mile range the Tesla Semi can travel before needing to be charged is a concern for long-haul truckers.
“The over-the-road drivers have 11 hours to drive each day; it would burn up their clock if they had to charge every 500 miles,” he said.
Truckers must comply with a federal hours-of-service rule limiting driving to no more than 11 hours a day within a 14-hour workday. Drivers must then be off duty for 10 consecutive hours.
Some truckers want to know more about what the exact cost of operating a Tesla, or another brand electric truck, would be.
It’s something Henry Albert of Statesville, N.C., said he’s been “keeping on his radar screen,” but said it would have to make financial sense before he would consider switching over from his diesel-powered truck to an electric truck.
“We can’t overlook advancements that have been made in trucking,” Albert told Trucks.com. “Just look to the past and the ideas that seemed far-fetched at the time that we use today.”
Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk said when he unveiled the truck that it will be more reliable than a comparable diesel truck and could run up to 1 million miles before needing major repairs.
The possibility of running such a long distance without repairs appeals to Joey Slaughter, a 25-year trucking veteran from Danville, Va.
“If the estimated maintenance and fuel-savings costs made financial sense, I would consider the Tesla truck for these reasons,” Slaughter told Trucks.com.
Still, giving up the controls and allowing Tesla’s enhanced autopilot system to take over would take him “years to overcome,” Slaughter said.
Until the charging infrastructure for electric trucks is built out across the country, Slaughter, a long-haul trucker, said it isn’t a feasible option for him.
“Its range is definitely a concern for me,” he said.