You’ll want to pay attention to the Tesla Semi truck launch

The last time Elon Musk took the stage it was to announce the more affordable Model 3. How will the Tesla Semi Change the world?
Image: lance ulanoff/mashable

Elon Musk is a man with a plan and, yes, a giant semi-truck fits right inside it.

The all-electric cargo mover, which Musk will unveil publicly for the first time on Thursday, fits neatly between the affordable all-electric Tesla Model 3 Musk is currently struggling to produce in volume and ride-sharing on steroids.

Unlike the other electric vehicles Tesla and Musk have put on the road thus far, the Tesla Semi truck is not for you. Well, maybe it is for you if you know how to work a CB radio and can handle an 18-wheeler.

No, the Tesla Semi is Musk’s first commercial all-electric vehicle, and the difference in sheer size, purpose, and target market raises many important and, admittedly, fascinating questions.

Musk’s big rig

When Musk takes the stage at 8 p.m. at his Hawthorne, California, Space X plant not far from Los Angeles International Airport (yes, he’s showing off the truck there perhaps because there’s enough space to drive a semi or two), he’ll be officially entering a multibillion-dollar market that, according to one industry research group, is responsible for moving 70 percent of the U.S. cargo load.

Musk has never been shy about entering difficult-to-crack markets. The auto industry, with its third-party suppliers, unions, and very specific way of selling to customers seemed impossible (the hurdles surely scared off Apple), but Tesla is making it work (though it still sells far fewer cars than, say, GM). As for the space industry, Musk single-handedly proved that privatized space companies can work (as long as they work super-closely with NASA).

Maybe it is for you if you know how to work a CB radio and can handle an 18-wheeler.

But all that Musk has learned from building consumer vehicles doesn’t mean Tesla automatically has a handle on the commercial space. As an industry, the trucking business probably has more in common with airplane manufacturers than traditional automakers.

This ain’t no sedan

Currently there are maybe a dozen or so semi manufacturers (some of which are also planning their own electric semis) and instead of selling one truck to one driver, they’re more apt to sell a fleet. Musk is probably imagining electric Tesla Semi truck-building contracts with USPS and FedEx, the No. 1 and No. 2 trucking companies in the U.S., respectively, according to a 2012 survey by JOC.com

It’s a given that an all-electric semi-truck will attract trucking companies looking to lower fuel costs (the industry consumes 30 billion gallons of diesel a year, according to a 2000 estimate) and go green, but hauling companies are not going to buy the “Model S of Semi Trucks.” In other words, a Tesla Semi that costs more than double the average diesel-powered rig (or thereabouts) is unlikely to attract many buyers, even if they can realize savings somewhere down the road (ahem).

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, though, Musk seemed to prize beauty over sales:

[Musk] moves on to the [Semi Truck] design, specifically a driver-comfort feature…”Probably no one will buy it because of this…but if you’re going to make a product, make it beautiful. Even if it doesn’t affect sales, I want it to be beautiful.” 

What we know of the Tesla Semi’s looks is only that it’s be big — imposing, even. Musk has repeatedly shared a single image of the rig (mostly in silhouette) and made hyperbolic promises like it’s “unreal’ and “it will blow your mind clear out of your skull and into another dimension.”

Hauling companies are not going to buy the ‘Model S of Semi Trucks.’

To be fair, Musk does have an almost Steve Jobs-like aesthetic. The Model S, X, and 3 are all exquisite vehicles that you could hardly mistake inside or out for anything but a Tesla. 

So, expect something eye-popping.

It’s likely, though, this will be more of a tease for the Tesla Semi truck than an all-out launch. The Model 3, for instance, had an unveiling in the spring of 2016 and then the delivery event almost more than a year later to 30 lucky customers.

Musk will deliver the details, give us a good long look at the Tesla Semi, maybe even drive it around a track, but then it (and maybe a couple other prototypes) will glide back into a hanger until Musk is good and ready to start selling them.

What about the range?

Since this is now Tesla’s fifth all-electric vehicle, you might expect fewer questions and concerns about putting an electric truck on the road, but cargo haulers raise a slew of new electric range questions. 

Analyst estimate that the Tesla Semi will get 300 miles to a charge. That’s below the maximum range of a Model S sedan and it may be a generous estimate. A sedan is not dragging two tons of tomatoes across state lines. How will that max range hold up with the added weight of a trailer and its cargo behind it?

A post shared by Elon Musk (@elonmusk) on

Will Musk also unveil custom, battery-packing trailers?

In addition, how will these Tesla Semi trucks charge? Can you fit a half-dozen Tesla Semis at a super-charge station? Will they need a new charging network? That could seriously compromise their viability. Perhaps Musk can work with states to add charging ports to cargo weigh stations.

Finally, there’s the question of autonomy.

Let the robot drive

The real innovation for the trucking industry is not an electrified fleet, it’s a fleet that can haul cargo without drivers.

A 2015 America Trucking Associations report noted there’s a growing shortage of truck drivers, explaining that the current workforce is simply aging out. Younger generations that show less interest in driving than virtually any other before them will probably not be taking their place. Self-driving Semi Trucks may be the smartest and only answer for the long-term.

Musk usually builds full-blown autonomy hardware into all his electric vehicles and then slowly releases functionality to drivers as software updates.

Self-driving Semi Trucks may be the smartest and only answer in the long-term.

Self-driving cars are still not allowed on roads in roughly half of the United States, though, and truckers have the added hurdle of having to cross state lines on a regular basis. 

Expect Musk to walk through how Tesla Semi trucks are not only designed for full autonomy, but to work as teams, allowing platoons of Tesla Semis Trucks to self-drive down the interstate, with one drafting right behind the other. Of course, he’ll also add that almost none of this autonomy will be live at launch and he’ll only turn it on when we have most of the contiguous states supporting autonomous driving for commercial vehicles (the HOV lane gets an CAV sibling)

Finally, if you’re wondering why you, who will probably never own or drive a semi should care, just take a good look around your home. Virtually everything you own spent some time on 18 wheels. Or, better yet, think back to the last time a semi-truck cut you off, leaving you to fume at its rear fender and the “How’s my driving?” bumper sticker plastered on it.

Electric, self-driving, always alert and smarter than all the other drivers on the road Tesla Semi trucks will matter to all of us, I promise.

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