On the 14th December 2017, Elon Musk hosted an unveiling of his new Tesla Semi articulated truck. The Semi represented Tesla’s entry to the commercial and utility automotive markets. In theory, it would meet all of the key criteria needed for hundreds of pre-orders from various large companies like Walmart.
Tesla Semi – The Perfect Truck?
The semi really had to tick all the boxes when it came to companies pre-ordering this thing in bulk. There are a few categories that Tesla had to nail, these are:
Tesla did an excellent job here, unveiling a truck that was capable of travelling 500 miles on a single charge. During the presentation, Musk highlighted that 80% of truck routes in the United States were under 250 miles, hence making the semi capable of getting there and back on a single charge.
Although this seems like it would be practical, if we compare it to a conventional diesel truck, it’s just a drop in the ocean. In the trucking industry, it’s not uncommon for a truck to house dual 150-gallon tanks, giving them a total fuel volume of 300 gallons.
If we assume that the average truck does about 5 miles to each gallon, that’s 1500 miles of range, three times more than the theoretical maximum of a Tesla semi. Yeah, that’s an enormous amount of range.
So, how can the semi-truck compete?
Fortunately, Tesla has a trick up its sleeve here. It’s in the statement that 80% of trucking routes are less than 250 miles. The semi isn’t made to replace the trucks hauling cross-continent 3000-mile routes which can be done by a diesel semi with one-stop. Instead, they will replace the short routes which are more common and more profitable.
Consequently, the range is now less of an issue, especially if the truck has access to a widespread charging network.
Cost is the main factor which determines whether a company like Walmart will decide to pick up a Tesla Semi over a regular semi.
Theoretically, the 500-mile range Semi will cost $180,000. Although this isn’t confirmed, Tesla has done a reasonable job in the past at delivering their vehicles at the price they promised at launch.
Here’s where it gets interesting.
On stage, Musk said that factoring in everything, lease cost, insurance, maintenance etc…, the Tesla Semi would be 20% cheaper than a conventional semi. Impressively, it came out with a cost per mile of $1.26 per mile, meanwhile, the diesel semi had a CPM of $1.51 per mile.
If Tesla can deliver on that, it’s a win for them, especially considering the reduced hassle caused by not having to change the brakes or oil periodically.
Here’s where it gets a little confusing. A truck driver and YouTuber GeauxTesla makes videos about his Tesla and the trucking industry. He estimates that the weight of the semi-truck will be around 25,000 lbs (11 tonnes). That’s considerably more than the average semi-truck at 19,000 lbs (8.6 tonnes).
The maximum payload in the USA is 80,000lbs (36 tonnes). This leaves 55,000 lbs available for the trailer and payload. The average trailer is around 10,000 lbs, leaving 45,000 lbs for the payload. However, 90% of truckloads are below around 73,000 lbs, meaning over 90% of truckloads in the US could be hauled with the semi.
The enormous battery packs that the Semi contains are going to need a LOT of juice. It takes the average Semi truck around 15 minutes to fill up fully. Keep in mind that 15 minutes gives the truck its 1500-2000 mile range.
When it comes to the Tesla Semi, Musk claims that it will be able to gather 400 miles of range in 30 minutes, double the time it takes for the diesel semi to fill up fully. By electric car charging standards, this is incredibly fast and must require an enormous charge rate.
To accomplish this, Tesla will place ‘Megachargers’ worldwide, allowing a truck driver to make long-distance routes with the semi. In addition, Tesla will offer origin and destination chargers so the driver can plug their Semi in whilst they load or unload their cargo.
Charging shouldn’t be a problem for the companies who buy the Tesla Semi. In fact, over time, it may become even easier than filling up a diesel truck as the truck driver does not need to be engaged at the pump for the duration of the refilling.
One of the other main reasons that companies may buy the Tesla Semi is to reduce their environmental impact and carbon footprint. Walmart and other large companies will see this as an opportunity to try out the next generation of cargo transportation.
Aside from the potentially damaging impacts from the materials the batteries are made of, the Semi is a very clean and efficient vehicle. If the batteries in the Semi can be recycled after use, it will make it even better for the environment. Vast amounts of battery cells will go into a Semi battery pack, making it all the more important to recycle them.
Why is the Semi Delayed?
We’ve established that Tesla has to deliver on several key categories to tempt large companies to purchase some of their trucks.
As we already understand, the Semi will require enormous amounts of batteries. The assembly process will require a completely new production line just for this vehicle, with all the machinery scaled up for the larger scale of it. Obviously, this is no easy feat.
With the upcoming production ramp of the Model Y, it’s unlikely that Tesla is happy to dedicate a significant chunk of resources to the Semi right now, especially considering how vital they believe the Model Y will be to the future of the company.
Hence, from a production standpoint, we can expect to see the Semi being produced in 2021 or 2022, a couple of years past its expected production date of 2019.
The charging solution for the Semi could be far better than the current refuelling situation of a diesel truck. However, this kind of large scale ultrafast charging grid takes a long time to fill out and is largely dependant on companies purchasing destination chargers.
Currently, Tesla is pretty good at installing supercharger stations, reaching a peak of about six per week, most of which are 250KW V3 chargers. However, Megachargers would have to use much more capable technology in order to output the power needed to achieve this charge rate.
To put the charging rate into perspective, imagine a Model 3 that could travel 500 miles. If it were plugged into a V3 supercharger, it could achieve 400 miles in around 30 minutes. However, the Model 3 is an extremely efficient vehicle and can travel very far on little energy.
Obviously, Tesla’s semi won’t have that luxury. Although it has an impressively small drag coefficient, it is very heavy and has much more resistance to motion that a Model 3. Seemingly, the Semi will need to accept a charge rate of around 500 kWh to achieve 400 miles of range in 30 minutes.
When Can We Expect a Fully Featured Tesla Semi to Be Delivered?
Based on the production schedule that Tesla has in the coming years for their other vehicles, I would expect the semi to be released sometime in 2021 or, at the latest, 2022. This would slot it in after the next-generation roadster and before the upcoming Cybertruck.
Once deliveries start, the Semi infrastructure will need to be built up to satisfy the expectations of the customers. Tesla will need to build up a suitable charging grid with strategically placed locations. This could take around 5 years to be up to a reasonable standard.
Jerome Guillen, Tesla’s president of automotive and head of the Telsa semi program confirmed that no location has been set for the Semi production, but the powertrains will be made at the Gigafactory in Nevada.
“The location is not yet set, but it’s pretty clear that we will make all the batteries and drivetrains in Reno (later correct to Sparks, Nevada).”
Eventually, Musk wants to be producing around 100,000 semi-trucks worldwide to sway the trucking industry towards electric power. We also know that there are two planned production variants of the truck, 300-mile and 500-mile variants. These will cost $150,000 and $180,000 respectively.