There is no question that Elon Musk has changed the conversation as far as electric vehicles. Musk, unlike his predecessors, focused on building an image of luxury and performance.
Electric powered vehicles, until the Tesla Model S arrived as an option, were boring, slow and impractical. Now, while Musk’s cars still remain impractical for most people (both in terms of range and price) and while it remains to be seen whether or not his company could survive without corporate welfare, Tesla has at least undone some of the negative image of electric vehicles.
Tesla seems to be taking one more step in the direction of practicality with the introduction of commercial vehicle. Semi, this latest opportunity for Musk to attract media attention, reminds me of something I would’ve drawn up in a middle school daydream: It has a sleek exterior, it is loaded up with LCD screens, it promises to perform at a level one would expect from a sports car, it is priced similar to other Class 8 trucks, and yet also makes me question if any experienced truck drivers were consulted in the design process…
Sure, middle school me would be salivating over this technological wonder. However now, as one having had years of experience behind the wheel of a big rig, the center seating position, glare of screens, wheel fenders and charging times make it totally unappealing to me.
The ergonomic and design issues, obvious from a driver’s perspective, are covered in another former trucker’s article (click here if you want to know more about them) but there are more serious matters and practical concerns yet to be addressed. Acceleration numbers and having the fastest truck on the road might increase coolness factor, but it might also leave all of your cargo on the road (or like the unmitigated disaster recalled unfondly from my days unloading trucks at the paint store) and distracts from questions of actual viability in the real world.
To many the promised 300-500 mile range and 30 minute recharging may seem wonderful. But, from a trucking industry standard, it is truly abysmal and completely impractical. The range of an over-the-road diesel truck, with 250 gallons of fuel, is anywhere from 1000 to 2000 miles and it only takes fifteen minutes every other day to refill the tanks—multiple extra stops per day is intolerable given the current hours of service requirements.
And, that’s assuming good conditions, what happens in cold weather when battery capacity is reduced by 40-50% like owners of other Telsa products have experienced?
It is no big secret that fossil fuels carry a greater amount of energy per pound than the alternatives currently available. This energy density is especially important in commercial trucking where every ounce of extra weight takes away from payload. Batteries with the range Telsa has promised will certainly be very heavy and that will be a huge competive disadvantage. It means you might need an additional Tesla truck to do what one diesel truck does—which wipes out any illusion of energy savings and cost effectiveness.
Then there is the question of longevity and servicing the truck. It could very well be that the Tesla Semi will be completely reliable and go a million miles like a diesel truck. But, even assuming that is the case, what sort of maintenance program and roadside assistance will they offer when things do inevitably go wrong? Service infrastructure is a more significant in commercial trucking than it is in general. Diesels are relatively easy to work on and the network is already established—those are questions that must be answered.
My own back-of-the-napkin analysis, based in what has already been said and can be reasonably assumed, is that this new Tesla offering will have the same liabilities of other battery electric vehicles except on a far larger scale. The question of Tesla being the future of trucking (or is simply a niché vehicle for those who can afford the unavoidable range and weight disadvantages, as well as potential maintenance issues) is not answered.
Trucking companies, unlike wealthy luxury car buyers aided by government subsidies, need to be profitable and competive to survive.
What do my trucker friends think?