Tesla's New Semi Truck Might Be Its Biggest Challenge Yet

Photo: Tesla

As it continues to grapple with a serious production logjam for the Model 3 sedan, Tesla is set Thursday night to reveal its long-awaited, supposedly “unreal,” all-electric semi truck. There’s a number of questions surrounding the vehicle: How far can it go on a single charge? Where, and when, will be it produced? Does it have automated tech? But while Tesla’s truck has garnered outsized attention, other manufacturers have stepped up with electric semis of their own. More: Does the trucking industry even care?


Let’s go through the notable players Tesla’s up against.

Daimler, Cummins, Bosch

The trucking industry includes both long-range hauls and smaller trucks that stay within a regional route, and, not unsurprisingly, the initial wave of electric semis shown to the public primarily fall into the latter category, with Cummins being one of the earliest companies to deliver a prototype.

Cummins revealed the truck, dubbed Aeos, in August, and it’s a Class 7 Urban Hauler Tractor that was built by Roush. Production of a 140 kWh battery back for bus operators and commercial truck fleets is expected to begin in 2019.

Early on, Cummins’ setup will be able to handle a range of 100 miles, well-suited for short drives, and Cummins says it’ll only take an hour to charge. By 2020, it’s looking to cut that number by two-thirds. A later hybrid platform is expected to be offered down the line, and can hold up to 300 miles in range.

Photo: Cummins

Tesla was initially supposed to debut its semi late last month, but Model 3 production troubles forced a brief delay. That didn’t change Daimler’s plans. Coincidentally, that same week, Daimler stepped in and introduced a fleet of electric truck prototypes at the Tokyo Motor Show.


Daimler Trucks debuted an electric cargo truck dubbed the E-Fuso Vision One that has a 217-mile range on a single charge. Daimler claims the Vision One’s going to come equipped with a 300 kWh-capacity battery in its top configuration, and it’s expected to be able to carry up to 11 tons.

Photo: Daimler

The world’s largest auto supplier, Bosch, is also in the game with a plan of its own.

In September, Bosch announced it was teaming up with Nikola Motor Co. to develop a Class 8 hydrogen-electric truck by 2021.

Photo: Bosch

The company thinks electrification is a bigger market than most realize, and it’s aiming to pack a bunch in the big-rig truck, with 1,000 horsepower and 2,000 lb-ft of torque—all while producing zero emissions.


Bosch says the long-haul powertrain platform is going to be scalable, with the motor, transmission, and power electronics packaged together in one unit. With that sort of power, the truck should be capable of covering serious ground on a single charge, but having the necessary charging infrastructure in place seems to be a more pressing question.

That’s where Tesla could set itself a part from the crowd tonight. The company’s been working on this project for some time, and long-haul capabilities could be an immediate draw for prospective customers.

Graphics credit Jason Torchinsky

But How Soon Can It Be Made?

That’s the obvious question. Tesla’s already behind on the Model 3 production schedule, and it doesn’t have another factory idling by to start pumping out massive semis. If Musk doesn’t have an answer for this tonight, it’ll be hard to come away from the reveal feeling anything but puzzled.


The truck’s range is another notable point. Tesla Superchargers take about 40 minutes to an hour to get an adequate charge, but long-haul rigs are going to be impossible without the capacity to either move as much as 500 miles or even more on a single charge, or find ways to charge the vehicle fast.

Reuters reported in August that Tesla’s truck will be capable of traveling 200 to 300 miles on a single charge. But chief executive Elon Musk has said the specs are “better than anything I’ve seen reported.” Whether that’s 301 miles, then, or significantly higher, is definitely of interest. If the trucks are expected to handle long hauls, though, how’s Tesla going to power them? There’s a big gap in what’s out there, and that’s also a big looming Q for Musk to address.


Tesla’s rollout of the second-generation Autopilot suite also hasn’t gone smoothly, and the company’s clearly fallen behind on its own goal for self-driving technology. So it’s expected the semi’s going to have some automated functions. That makes sense. The trucking industry’s an obvious first choice for automated driving, with trucks moving hundreds of miles at a time on the highway.


That’s still an obvious sore spot for the trucking industry. Union reps managed to exempt long-haul rigs from legislation currently being drafted by the U.S. Congress, over fears that automated driving could eat away at the headcount of drivers quicker than anyone expects.

But it’s expected to take many years for the technology to improve enough to a point where drivers can be completely removed from the equation. A demonstration from Uber’s self-driving truck program showed how drivers will be utilized early on: more so as operators than drivers themselves. The truck will handle highway commuting; the driver will handle exits and more localized streets.

At the very least, this thing looks neat.

Spy shots captured the vehicle sitting on a flatbed at an undisclosed location in California last month. It looks more aerodynamic than what’s on the road today.


Musk has promised the truck’s going to have massive torque, and it’s a clear-cut selling point to boost the vehicle’s quick acceleration compared to diesel counterparts.


Does The Industry Even Want To Be Electrified?

If Tesla introduces a truck that has a range of anywhere between 300 to 450 miles, that can cover half the semi-truck market, according to Toni Sacconaghi, a Bernstein analyst cited by Reuters this week.


Even still, a shorter range could be attractive, as Trucks.com explained this week:

California and New York are big boosters of transitioning regional freight hauling and port truck traffic from fossil fuels to green technology.

The annual market for short-range, heavy-duty electric trucks in the U.S. will hit 15,000 units by 2025, Walter Rentzsch, a Michigan-based trucking industry analyst with consulting firm Roland Berger, told Trucks.com.

Those sales will all be in states, such as California, with heavy financial incentives that will help truck operators offset the higher purchase costs of electric models, Rentzsch said.

Rentzsch and colleague Stephan Keese said that a short-haul electric truck with about 100 miles of range and a five-ton, 600 kWh battery — a lesser truck than the Carnegie Mellon study envisioned — could earn payback for its price premium in three to five years if that premium were no more than $60,000 over the cost of a comparably equipped diesel model.


The company has copped to quality issues in the past with its expensive all-electric Model S and Model X models. So even though Musk is projecting a big vision for the truck, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that smaller routes make sense. Companies aren’t going to shell out significant cash to carry their haul across town, or the country, only to find their Tesla semi needs extensive service.

That leaves another question for Tesla to answer—if a customer buys this, how are they going to get it fixed? Are the mobile Tesla operators going to convert into semi repairpeople, too? Is this work going to be contracted out? That would seem to go against Tesla’s penchant for keeping things in-house, in an effort to build a vertically-integrated auto behemoth.


How To Watch

Tesla’s known to host lively parties to reveal new cars, so tonight shouldn’t be any exception—even as the company’s noticeably struggling to produce the Model 3 still ongoing. You have to wonder if an expensive, hulking piece of machine like a semi is going to be anything but a distraction for Tesla, as it tries to escape “production hell” and push out thousands of all-electric sedans.


Musk’s hyperbole aside (can your mind blow anything but clear out of your skull?), it’s going to be interesting to see how he delivers the presentation tonight. Back in July, at the Model 3 launch, he gave a rather rambling dialogue. And if a new Rolling Stone profile’s any indication, he hasn’t been in high spirits as of late.

If you’re interested in a late night viewing session, Tesla’s hosting a webcast to reveal the truck at 11 p.m. EDT. You can watch it at Tesla’s website.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter

About the author

Ryan Felton

Senior Reporter, Jalopnik/Special Projects Desk

PGP Fingerprint: C2D6 26D4 7E43 ADD2 9229 23F7 CE72 0426 0831 BC76PGP Key