Elon Musk’s 10-Ton Challenge: Turning Tesla Into A Semi Truck Powerhouse

Taking a break from the troubled rollout of the Model 3 sedan that Elon Musk describes as hellish, Tesla’s billionaire commander-in-chief is reimagining heavy-duty trucks with a futuristic behemoth he says is sleeker, faster, safer and more efficient than anything on the market. Oh, and if that weren’t enough he’s also bringing back the Roadster sports car.

Unveiled as Queens of the Stone Age’s thumping “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” blared over the audio system late Thursday, Tesla’s Semi will travel up to 500 miles per charge, accelerate from 0 to 60 miles an hour in five seconds and is guaranteed for 1 million miles of usable life, Musk said. If all goes to plan, production and sales begin in 2019, he told an audience of more than a 1,000 packed into an airport hangar next door to SpaceX’s suburban Los Angeles headquarters and Tesla’s design studio.

“We designed the Tesla truck to be a bullet,” Musk told the crowd of fans and journalists in attendance. “It’s like driving a Tesla. It’s just big.”

Jumping into the heaviest, costliest class of vehicles is an audacious move by the youngest U.S. automaker, particularly as it struggles to build and sell affordable electric cars and scale up battery and solar panel production. Creating a viable, 10-ton, battery-powered truck capable of hauling up to 60,000 pounds for hundreds of miles, with batteries that can be recharged in under an hour and with durability to last for years is a gamble that perhaps only Musk, a remarkably shrewd marketer, would want to undertake right now.

The company reported its biggest-ever quarterly loss this month and delayed its goal of high-volume production for the Model 3, priced from $35,000, until early 2018. While it tries to resolve battery pack production problems for the car at its Nevada Gigafactory, it’s also contending with labor issues at its Fremont, California, vehicle plant. The stock is also down from a peak of $389.61, and its various difficulties contributed to an 11% share price decline in the past month through Nov. 16.

Although Musk said the truck’s cost per mile of $1.26 versus $1.51 for a diesel-powered truck would make it more affordable to operate, he didn’t announce its base price. A new diesel-powered Class 8 tractor trailer ranges from $140,000 to $175,000, according to Fleet Owner, citing figures from researcher Frost & Sullivan.

Additionally, he didn’t detail how large the battery packs would be to deliver the promised 500 miles of range. Even with a fully loaded trailer and cab, topping out at a combined 80,000 pounds, the truck accelerates from 0 to 60mph in an industry-best 20 seconds, Musk claimed.

To accommodate the large amount of electric power required to recharge the Semi, Musk said Tesla will build a network of “Megachargers” that can provide 400 miles range in 30 minutes. Those stations will get their electricity from solar panels that charge up banks of Tesla Powerwall battery storage units, said Musk, who was notably more upbeat than when he handed over the first 30 production units of Model 3 to Tesla employees in July.

Four electric motors identical to those used in the Model 3 will power the Semi’s rear wheels. Even with its heavy battery packs, the company said the goal is to keep the weight of the cab on par with conventional Class 8 diesel cabs.

“There’s a great deal of weight involved with this type of vehicle so there’s a durability challenge,” Venkat Viswanathan, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, told Forbes. “But I don’t think it’s going to be a showstopper.”

Musk didn’t say where the truck would be built or set a potential volume goal.

Two sleek prototype Tesla Semis sporting carbon fiber body panels drove into the event, one in silver carrying Musk and the other in chic matte black. Along with Model 3 motors, the trucks also share components with the compact electric sedan including flat panel screens and door handles.

Aside from an aerodynamic exterior, the cabin has stairs for easy entry and exit, a centered driving seat and enough headroom to stand fully upright. There’s a jump seat for passengers and overhead airplane-style baggage compartments are installed at the rear of the cabin.

And because it lacks a bulky engine block and multi-gear transmission the cabin is also roomier than a conventional diesel truck and the truck has a Tesla hallmark— a front trunk, better known as a frunk.

Large touchscreen displays on either side of the driver’s seat allow for blindspot monitoring and data logging. The truck has built-in connectivity linked to a fleet operator’s management system to for routing, scheduling, remote monitoring and diagnostics.

For added safety, the cab is ringed with cameras to monitor blind spots and road conditions, and it has onboard sensors to detect instability and adjust torque to individual wheels to prevent jackknifing. The cab also has Tesla’s Enhanced Autopilot for semi-autonomous driving, automatic emergency braking, automatic lane keeping and lane departure warning systems, the company said.

Just as it seemed the event was winding up, the black matte truck’s trailer opened up to reveal a revamped Roadster, the car that initially got Tesla into business.

Like its predecessor, the car is designed for rapid acceleration. In this case, record-breaking acceleration of 0 to 60 miles an hour in 1.9 seconds and up to 100 mph in just 4.2 seconds delivered by a 200 kilowatt-hour battery pack, double the size of the current top-of-the-range Model S.

“People always ask: When are you making a new Roadster? We are making it now,” Musk said. “It will be the fastest production car ever made, period.”

Unlike the original version which used a modified Lotus Elise chassis, the new car appears to be derived from the Model 3 platform. Along with speed it seats four and has a removable top for open-air driving. And if that weren’t enough, the Roadster will travel 620 miles per charge should go into production in 2020, Musk said. As with the Semi he gave no pricing details.

Tesla’s products have often come out later than Musk’s initial goals, so whether the Semi or Roadster will arrive on time with all the attributes promised remains to be seen. And along with those new products and fixing Model 3 production, the company also has the Model Y electric crossover due in 2019 or 2020.

The company will have to find a vast amount of additional capital to fund all these products and figure out where and how to build them, but those are questions for another day.

At the Thursday night bash, Musk’s appreciative audience (one of whom shouted “Elon for president!”) was visibly excited as he wrapped up the presentation, departing the stage as “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys blasted through the hangar.

 

Forbes | November 2017
Alan Ohnsman

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