Having carved a perch as an automotive disruptor, Tesla is looking to make waves in trucking with its Tesla Semi.
A casual glance at the truck expresses an aerodynamic design with a shorter snout than any big rig currently on the road. One of the most dramatic Tesla features is the central location of the driver.
Instead of the traditional left- or right-side driving position, the Semi places the driver equidistant from the front wheels of the vehicle. But though it smacks of innovation, Tesla is far from the first to propose a central driving position.
In the world of passenger cars, the million-dollar-plus McLaren F1 is the most notable example. Going back to the 1940s, a steering wheel and driver’s seat in the center of the car was a talked-about feature of the Tucker Torpedo concept car, the precursor of the production Tucker 48.
More recently, several heavy-duty concepts featured a central driving position. One notable example is the Walmart Advanced Vehicle Experience, or WAVE fuel economy prototype, an intriguing combination tractor-trailer that was a cooperative effort by Peterbilt, Great Dane and Capstone Turbine for retail giant Walmart. First shown to the public at the 2014 Mid America Trucking Show, the WAVE promised to cut fuel by 20 percent compared with standard semi-tractors.
In the Peterbilt-badged WAVE tractor, the compact gas turbine/electric powertrain is located between the frame rails with the aerodynamic cab above. This allowed for a narrow cab intended to split the airflow down the sides of the truck since the innovative powertrain eliminated the need to accommodate a big diesel engine and its bulky cooling system. By necessity the driving position was placed in the center of the cab with a commanding view over the dual all-electronic dashboard, housed in panels on either side of the steering position. As with the mildly more conventional-looking Tesla Semi, the dash in the WAVE dipped low directly in front of the driver to give a clear view up close in what is a major blind spot in a traditional semi-tractor.
The Tesla can follow a similar architecture because it also lacks a bulky internal-combustion engine taking up space in front.
Proponents of the centrally located driving position claim it improves visibility and provides enhanced safety because the driver sits farther away from side panels and windshield A-pillars. But the biggest benefit might be to the vehicle aerodynamics. Positioning the driver in the center of the tractor enables the Tesla to sport a narrow nose that flares out to direct air down the sides of the trailer with minimal interruption.
Another radical design exercise with an unconventional driving position debuted at the 2016 IAA truck, bus and equipment show in Hanover, Germany.
The Iveco Zero Truck employed a liquid natural gas-fueled internal combustion engine. Its driving position wasn’t precisely central but instead offset slightly to the left of the vehicle’s centerline to accommodate a desk, sofa and cooking area. The Zero Truck was meant to operate autonomously, so the “driver” was not intended to pilot the vehicle so much as serve as its caretaker. As with the Tesla Semi and the WAVE, the cab has a narrow front end to cut into the air and then flares out rapidly.
The forward-looking concept trucks of recent years, and especially the avant-garde WAVE, echo earlier concept trucks by German industrial designer Luigi Colani. Truck 2001, built in the late ‘70s, featured the now-familiar pod-type driving compartment riding high above a Mercedes-Benz class 8 chassis. However, the driver sat to the left in the cab, probably to gain a sightline past the huge, three-pointed star windshield wiper mounted near the center of the enormous bubble-like windshield. The massive wiper was meant to emphasize the Mercedes vehicle on which the concept was based.
Truck 2001 evolved into the Spitzer-Silo concept tractor-trailer that integrated trailer and tractor into a total aerodynamic combination, but it too featured a left-side driving position. Then in 2006 came the Colani TUM Supertruck, dubbed the “Innotruck,” taking the separated driving compartment concept to a new level.
In the Innotruck, a powered aerodynamic lower module contained all the mechanicals of a conventional truck tractor, including a fifth wheel. On top, the cab was integrated into the trailer’s nose with a conical glass canopy projecting from the streamlined trailer body. A race car-like “power module,” the semitrailer and a third full trailer were incorporated in the complete vehicle.
Built in cooperation with a team from the Technical University of Munich and German industrial giant Siemens, the Innotruck was intended as a demonstration vehicle. The driver entered the vehicle by sliding the Concorde-like nose, windshield and front windows forward to step up and into the driver’s seat.
The Innotruck used a modified diesel engine as a range-extender for the electric power system. The drivetrain sat in a separate pod under the truck. Colani said the combination of canopy and sleek, low-slung power pod would greatly improve aerodynamics and overall performance. The Innotruck’s trailers housed lounges and an exhibition space, but in theory the trailers could be load-haulers, passenger carriers or even generators for a mobile powerplant. Siemens noted that multiple trailer modules could be attached to the front semi.
Innovation and a central driving position are two aspects that the WAVE and Innotruck share with the current Tesla Semi. They are attention-grabbers. But for all their seeming advantages, not all truck drivers are keen on the central driving position. It’s a conservative business. Despite all these innovative concept trucks, the basic architecture of big rigs has not changed in decades.