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Musk teases Tesla truck update

CEO announces September date for unveiling of semi truck concept

Elon Musk created a flurry of excitement on Twitter over the weekend by setting down a concrete date -September- for the unveil of a Tesla semi-truck as well as promising the same for a pickup truck in the next 18-24 months.

The Tesla CEO appears to be making good on promises made last July in the company’s so-called “Masterplan Part Deux”. In it, Tesla stated that:

“In addition to consumer vehicles, there are two other types of electric vehicle needed: heavy-duty trucks and high passenger-density urban transport. Both are in the early stages of development at Tesla and should be ready for unveiling next year.”

Besides Musk’s Twitter spree, however, precious little else has actually been revealed about either of the two models. Indeed, a Tesla spokesperson told automotive website Jalopnik that “Right now Elon’s tweets are the extent of what we’re sharing.”

However, this has done little to dissuade commentators in the EV industry from weighing in on what the company might be up to, based on previous information and what it will have to do in order to produce a competitive vehicle.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk

Why Tesla wants to tackle trucks

One of the most notable voices offering their opinion on the announcement is Ian Wright, CEO of hybrid and electric automaker Wrightspeed and one of the original founders of Tesla. He left the company soon after he realised it was going to focus on sports cars before tackling more practical commercial vehicles. Although commercial vehicles only account for 8% of US carbon emissions -compared to light vehicles 20%- he argues that starting by electrifying such vehicles makes more commercial sense.

He points out that a Nissan Leaf is twice the price of the Japanese company’s comparable ICE vehicle, the Versa, but that the consumer only makes back US$800 a year by not paying for fuel. By this measure it would take a person 20 years to make their money back. On the other hand, whilst he suggests that the gulf between an ICE semi and an all-electric one would be something like US$150,000, the amount saved each year on traditionally fuel-hungry vehicles would mean it would only take 3 years to get your money back.

Wright was referring to his own vehicles in this case, and it is worth pointing out that he specialises in manufacturing vehicles designed for cities where speeds rarely exceed 40mph compared with the average 70mph that long-haul cross-country vehicles would be expected to reach. This being the case, sceptics have pointed out that the battery would have to be ludicrously heavy in order to gain commercial traction.

Ryan Popple, CEO of electric bus manufacturer Proterra is one such sceptic. According to him, in order to deliver long-haul loads of up to 100,000 lbs, the Tesla semi-truck would have to have an enormous battery capable of around 1MWh of energy storage. This is ten times the size of the largest Model S powerpack Tesla currently offers.

Instead, Popple has a theory that Tesla’s truck may be in development as more of an internal project designed to help deliver Tesla’s batteries from its Gigafactory in Nevada to the relatively nearby and easy to reach assembly plant in Fremont, California. According to him:

“They could build battery packs and put them into a truck that’s optimized for the shipment of those packs, charge them with solar as a way of validating the pack, and transport them at maybe 50 or 60 percent state of charge. Going from east to west in California is generally fairly easy—6,000 feet of elevation certainly helps if the elevation is going in the right direction!”

Such difficulties in producing sensibly-sized batteries for heavy, long-range vehicles is why potential competitors such as Nikola Motors and even established automakers such as Toyota have bet on hydrogen fuel cells as the future in this market, a technology of which Musk is notoriously dismissive.

Nikola Motors’ hydrogen-powered semi truck

Speculative Specs

Whilst Musk did not immediately reveal any specs for either the upcoming semi or the pickup, specs offered by rivals such as Nikola provide suggestions of what the company will have to achieve in order to produce a commercially viable vehicle.

For example, Nikola aim to provide a range of up to 1,200 miles and a torque of up to 2,000 ft-lbs compared with the 750-mile range and 1,650 ft-lbs offered by the average diesel semi whilst also weighing 2,000 lbs less at a maximum of 21,000 lbs. Whether or not Nikola itself can genuinely pull this off, the average figures for diesel trucks show what Musk will already be up against in the notoriously conservative trucking industry.

Other questions will no doubt be asked concerning the charging of the vehicle. For a start, would there be a new charging standard rolled out specifically for the trucks or will the 480V fast charging that is already available be the norm? If the answer if the latter and the trucks do contain significantly bigger batteries than standard vehicles, how will extremely long charging times be resolved with drivers for whom time is often of the essence? Once again, Tesla is yet to offer anything further on such issues.

Heavy duty EVs on the rise

Musk’s announcement comes at a time when several other companies are starting to dip their toes into the heavy duty EV market. In addition to Tesla and the aforementioned Nikola Motors, Toyota announced last November that it would be testing their new fuel cell technology in California this year, and Mercedes recently unveiled the Urban eTruck which, as the name suggests, is designed for cities and will have a range of around 125 miles. Ian Wright’s Wrightspeed also recently signed a contract to re-power a fleet of diesel buses in New Zealand to be all-electric.

Although as a fleet they only emit around half the carbon of light vehicles, and in spite of the technical difficulties they pose, commercial vehicles are some of the least clean vehicles around and traditionally have a much longer working life than private cars. With this in mind, it would seem of utmost importance that fleets are converted sooner rather than later in order to curb emissions effectively in the long term and, as expected, Tesla is keen to have skin in the game early.


About Harry Locke

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