Tesla made a huge splash when it introduced the world to its all-electric heavy truck, the Tesla Semi, late in 2017. The company hasn’t talked much about the truck since it introduced the first prototypes.
It turns out that Tesla been treading water with the Semi for the past 18 months, setting aside its plans for the Class 8 hauler as it struggled to cope with production and supply chain issues surrounding the company’s Model 3 electric sedan.
Musk said as much in a March 30 tweet that included a photo of a Tesla Semi hauling a load of Tesla passenger cars. “We’ve been so mired in production & logistics for the past 18 months,” he wrote. “Really looking forward to getting the Semi into production.”
Trucks.com is looking forward to that as well. Tesla initially promised a 2019 production start. That’s now delayed until late 2020.
In anticipation, we’ve prepared a look at everything we know about the vehicle the never-modest Musk says will revolutionize the trucking industry.
PRICE AND OPERATING COST
Musk said there initially will be two day-cab models, a short-range version that will start at $150,000 and a midrange truck starting at $180,000.
The typical Class 8 diesel day-cab starts at about $120,000.
Tesla justified the electric Semi’s initial expense with long-term savings – mainly in fuel costs. It says a Tesla Semi will pay off the difference in two years. The ongoing operation will add $200,000 to a trucking company’s balance sheet over the course of a truck’s expected million-mile lifetime, Musk said.
The savings are based on Tesla’s calculations of an overall operating cost of $1.26 a mile for the Semi versus $1.51 a mile for a competitive diesel truck.
Each truck and trailer combo would weigh 80,000 pounds fully loaded and run a daily 100-mile route at an average top speed of 60 mph. Diesel fuel for the calculation was figured at $2.50 a gallon, versus 7 cents a kilowatt-hour for electricity to charge the Semi.
The electricity cost is lower than the national average, but Musk has said Tesla will guarantee it and help provide a charging network for the trucks that use renewable energy.
The Tesla Semi was shown as a Class 8 day-cab model with four independent electric motors, one for each of the four rear wheels.
Horsepower and torque figures haven’t been given, but the motors reportedly are the same as used for the Tesla Model 3 electric sedan.
Independent dynamometer tests of the Model 3 motors found they produce up to 300 horsepower and 550 pound-feet of torque. Multiply by four and discount a little for the losses occurring when the motors are linked, and it is probably safe to expect the Semi to deliver a minimum of 1,000 horsepower and 2,000 pound-feet of torque.
Musk said at the Semi’s debut that it was capable at a fully loaded gross weight of 80,000 pounds of maintaining a top speed of 65 mph on a 5 percent uphill grade. That’s a rise of one foot every 20 feet of distance. But on the company’s website, the Semi is listed as maintaining a 60 mph speed on a 5 percent grade. That 5 mph decline is the first of the two specs that have changed since the truck’s Nov. 16, 2017, introduction.
A typical diesel Class 8 truck would top out at about 45 mph on the same grade with the same load.
Class 8 trucks aren’t built for drag-racing, but quick acceleration up freeway on-ramps and when merging into the flow of traffic are helpful. It could reduce congestion that develops behind slowly chugging diesel trucks.
Musk said that the Semi pulling an empty trailer can go from 0 to 60 in 5 seconds. That jumps to 20 seconds for a Tesla tractor pulling a full load. While that’s three to five times quicker than the average diesel semi, truckers are far more concerned about fuel economy and vehicle reliability than acceleration speed.
Musk initially said the Semi would be offered with either 300 miles or 500 miles of range.
Recently, he said Tesla’s engineers now believe the longer-range version will deliver closer to 600 miles on a fully charged battery. It is not clear yet whether the 300-mile version also would get a boost.
A report from the California Highway Patrol inspection station at Donner Pass, near Lake Tahoe, helps validate the new range claim. After a Tesla Semi truck making a test run with a load of concrete construction barriers stopped at the station in August, several photos and a report of the driver’s comments were posted on the station’s official Facebook page
According to the post, the driver said the truck, which weighed 75,000 pounds with its trailer and cargo, was meeting or exceeding Tesla range estimates on the steep mountain route.
Musk has always said that Tesla vehicles will be able to operate autonomously as soon as regulations allow such operation. Tesla already equips its cars with sensors and hardware that provide automated safety features. The automaker plans to activate the system with over-the-air software updates.
Tesla plans the same for the Semi.
Standard equipment would include automatic emergency braking, obstacle recognition, lane-keeping assist, forward-collision warning and the ability to communicate wirelessly with other vehicles to enable platooning.
In one notable excursion earlier this year along California’s U.S. 101, a Tesla fan snapped a photo of what some observers believe was a Tesla Semi running without a driver at the wheel.
The California Department of Motor Vehicles, which regulates autonomous testing, checked with Tesla and was told that the company is not doing any autonomous testing with the Semi, a spokesman told Trucks.com.
Autonomous vehicle testing with a safety driver behind the wheel is legal in California for cars and light to midweight trucks, vans and SUVs, and Tesla has a permit to do so.
But regulators don’t yet allow vehicles in excess of 10,000 pounds gross weight to operate in fully autonomous mode on public roads, even with a safety driver poised to take control if necessary.
Tesla has not disclosed battery capacities for the two versions. But the company has said it is aiming for something under 2 kilowatt-hours of capacity per mile of range. That means the 300-mile version is likely to have a roughly 500-kWh battery pack, while the 500- to 600-mile version’s battery should come in at around 900 to 1100 kWh.
Tesla has switched battery cell format for the Model 3. The new “2170” cells are slightly larger than those in the Models S and X and about 30 percent more powerful.
If Tesla uses the new format for the Semi, the 300-mile model could get by with a battery pack containing just over 29,000 cells, versus 42,000 cells in the old format. That would decrease battery pack complexity considerably, as each cell must be cooled and protected against shorts and other faults.
Musk has said that Tesla will work with Semi customers to install networks of “Megachargers.”
They would be capable of adding enough juice to a depleted battery pack in 30 minutes to provide up to 400 miles of range.
Each Megacharger should be capable of charging at one megawatt – 1,000 kilowatts – per hour. Tesla is rolling out new Version 3 superchargers. Those could charge passenger cars rated at 250 kWh, or one-fourth the capacity of a Megacharger.
Tesla Semi customers Anheuser-Busch, UPS and Pepsico are installing the Megachargers at their fleet centers.
On-highway chargers are to come later. Tesla is seeking commercial partners to share the land acquisition, equipment and installation costs.
Tesla is testing the trucks hauling cargo between its facilities. It also is running the trucks on California’s Interstate 5, with its steep Tejon Pass, and on out-of-state jaunts.
A Tesla Semi drove from California to the Arkansas headquarters of motor carrier J.B. Hunt last year without support vehicles.
Tesla also has used the Semi to haul Model 3 sedans directly to selected Tesla car customers, the company said.
Overall, Tesla testers have been “driving trucks extensively with, so far, I think, quite amazing success,” truck program director Jerome Guillen said earlier this year.
Tesla made the Semi extremely aerodynamic, with looks inspired by Japan’s bullet trains. There’s also a bit of Darth Vader/Imperial Stormtrooper helmet in the look.
The nose is short and rounded. The windshield is tall and curved. That permits air to flow around the truck rather than smash into it. The driver’s seat is located in the forward center of the cab, reminiscent of a Formula 1 race car. There’s a small “frunk,” or front trunk, for gear storage where a diesel engine would sit in a conventional truck.
Smooth composite bodywork covers most gaps. Musk claims the truck’s drag coefficient of 0.36 gives better aerodynamics than a $2 million Bugatti Chiron supercar.
Tesla hasn’t started producing commercial models of the Semi yet. But a number of major and minor players have placed orders. Tesla’s last claim was that it has orders for more than 2,000 Semis.
Customers that have acknowledged ordering Tesla Semis for their fleets include: UPS, 125 Semis; PepsiCo, 100; Los Angeles-based TCI Transportation, 50; Bee’ah, a United Arab Emirates-based refuse-hauling company, 50; Sysco, 50; Wal-Mart, 45; Anheuser-Busch, 40; Canadian grocery chain operator Loblaw Cos., 25; DHL, 10; Florida-based City Furniture, 5; and Michigan-based grocery chain Meijer, 4.
Ryder Systems and J.B. Hunt also have placed orders but have only said they are for “multiple” trucks. One published report has J.B. Hunt’s initial order at 40 Semis.
Tesla itself is also a Semi customer. It is using several preproduction models for regular testing. The trucks haul vehicles and batteries between Tesla’s plant in Fremont, Calif., and its battery factory in Sparks, Nev. The route includes a climb of more than 7,500 feet over the Sierra Nevada.
Tesla isn’t alone on the electric truck frontier.
Most major truck makers, including Daimler, Paccar, Volvo, Volkswagen and China’s BYD, are developing electric heavy trucks of their own. Even diesel engine giant Cummins has shown an electric truck.
Additionally, Arizona-based startup Nikola Motors and industry giant Toyota both are developing fuel-cell electric trucks that use hydrogen fuel cells rather than grid-charged batteries to produce the power for their electric motors.
Nikola will build battery-electric models for customers who prefer them for shorter routes. But it is aiming most of its business at the long-haul industry. Nikola claims to have $14 billion worth of nonbinding orders for its trucks. Its roster includes many companies that are ordering Tesla Semis.