Tesla Semi Rolled Out to Enthusiastic Crowd

At an event reminiscent of Steve Jobs rolling out the iPhone, Elon Musk showed off his new Tesla semi, a vehicle that, if it delivers on half of its promises, can remake the trucking industry.

Typically for Musk, the event started about 40 minutes late, but as usual he did not disappoint.

Musk introduces Trucking: The Next Generation

The sight of a massive tractor-trailer moving onto the stage in almost complete silence was surreal. Aside from the typical Tesla “look”, two things jumped out to the observer. The rear wheels of the truck where completely shrouded to reduce drag and the driver’s seat was centered in the cab as opposed to the usual left-hand location. Musk claimed this was a “safer” way for the driver to sit. I will leave that claim for auto engineers to evaluate, but one immediate advantage to that design is it eliminates the need to have separate assembly lines for right-hand/left-hand drive vehicles. This truck can be sold anywhere in the world.

All right, let’s get to the specs:

Range: 500 miles

Performance: 0-60 in 5 seconds. 20 seconds will full 80,000 lbs load, 2 kWh per mile.

Drive system: 4 independent motors, allowing the truck to continue moving even if two of its motors fail.

Recharge time: 400 miles in 30 minutes using a new Tesla “Megacharger”

Safety: Enhanced Autopilot providing lane keeping, emergency breaking, collision warning and anti-jacknifing software, and hardened windshield glass (resistant to breakage and cracking)

Warranty: (Should be said in Doctor Evil’s voice) 1 MILLION miles.

No specs so far on battery size and some unconfirmed rumors that the truck would run $200K-$250K with operating expenses 20% cheaper than current trucks, 50% if the trucks travel in “platoon mode”, meaning a convoy. Details on the mechanics of this were missing, but with AP mode and the ability of the trucks to talk to each other, it would be easier to run trucks close together with each truck’s brakes linked to the truck in front of it. Meaning that if a lead truck must brake suddenly, it automatically signals the truck behind to automatically brake as well.

The design of multiple motors to enhance performance and reliability is a masterstroke of engineering, and something not really practical, or economical, on a diesel rig. Electric motors are small, yet very powerful, so Tesla has one driving each wheel on the rear axles. Since the motors are software controlled, performance can be optimized and altered to prevent the rig from “jack-knifing” by altering power to each wheel.

Tesla will have to “show its work” to convince skeptics about a lot of these specs like battery range and charging times, but the rest looks pretty much within Tesla’s capability.

Doing some back of the envelope calculation, I was able to infer a few facts. Tesla claims the semi will expend 2 kWh of electricity per mile, which means that for a truck to have a 500 mile range, will require a 1,000 kWh (1 megawatt hour) battery. The newest, most modern and fuel efficient diesel semi gets 10 mpg, which at $3.00 a gallon, works out to 30¢­ a mile. Tesla is promising that its solar-powered Megachargers will deliver electricity at 7¢ a kWh, which translates into 14¢ a mile.

This is where Tesla will have to convince a lot of skeptics. Can it build a viable charging station powered by a solar array (with battery packs to store power to supplement the station at night and in inclement weather) which can realistically perform as promised? If we take a more realistic rate for grid electricity of 12¢ per kWh (the national average) Tesla still outperforms a standard diesel by 20% (6¢ a mile). But, to be fair we should then use the more realistic average fuel efficiency of 6 MPG for diesel trucks, which drives the price per mile for to 50¢ a mile, leaving the Tesla again with roughly 50% less fuel cost.

Tesla has zeroed in on the main issues of importance to freight haulers: Operating cost and keeping trucks moving. An electric motor will always outperform its internal combustion counterpart by at least a factor of two and electricity is more ubiquitous, easier to make, and safer to be around, compared to diesel. In order to make money, a truck must be on the road as and moving as much as possible. A truck that isn’t moving due to a cracked windshield, a motor/transmission/emissions problem, or an accident is a truck losing money.

Tesla has addressed all of these challenges elegantly and economically.

And since no reveal with a Steve Jobs flavor would be complete without “Oh, and one more thing…” Musk ended his presentation, went to black as his trucks pulled off, then lit the overhead screen with “plaid” graphics, while his truck silently backed up and disgorged its cargo of one Tesla Roadster, Mk II.

The car was stunning, but the specs were definitely something Tesla critics will want proven to them. The base model promises “Plaid” mode, 0-60 in 1.9 seconds, 0-100 in 4.2 seconds, with a top speed of 250 MPH. Next we get to things that are really difficult to believe. First is a 200 kWh battery promising 620 miles for range. The second, and certainly most difficult to accept is that the Roadster is a 4 passenger vehicle. I think they are definitely using a flexible definition of passenger as in person larger than 5′ tall or weighing more than 100 pounds.

And with those caveats, let the debate begin.

Update: Here is a synopsis of the even from The Verge: