Tesla Debuts Electric ‘Beast’ Semi Truck

CEO Elon Musk hypes over-the-road electric truck, but analysts wonder if it distracts the company from its goals for the all-important Model 3.

At a grand public event before throngs of cheering enthusiasts, Tesla Inc. CEO Elon Musk last night unveiled a sleek new electric semi-truck with a 500-mile range.

The new over-the-road electric truck is said to combine powerful acceleration, driving simplicity, low drag coefficient, low operating costs, and the ability to prevent jack-knifing, along with the 500-mile range.

“Because the vast majority of routes are under 250 miles, it means you can go to your destination and back without recharging,” Musk told the raucous crowd at Tesla’s design studio in Hawthorne, CA.

After months of pre-announcement hype, Tesla Inc. unveiled an electric semi-truck that reportedly has a 500-mile range and an unloaded 0- to 60-mph time of five seconds. (Source: Tesla, Inc.)

The new truck has been a hot topic among Tesla’s devoted followers for months, and last night Musk fanned the flames of their enthusiasm with amazing claims about it. The new semi truck, which he has called a “beast” in tweets, will accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in five seconds unloaded, and in 20 seconds while pulling an 80,000-lb load, he said. He guaranteed it would not break down for “a million miles,” and would prevent jack-knifing by employing independent electric motors at each wheel.

“It will dynamically adjust the torque at each wheel, so that jack-knifing is impossible,” he declared. Musk added that it is “super easy to drive” because it requires no gear-shifting, and bragged that it has a drag coefficient (0.36) that’s lower than that of a Bugatti Chiron supercar.

During last night’s event, however, Musk offered few technical details, especially with regard to the size, cost, or capacity of the batteries involved.

Industry analysts agreed yesterday that Tesla’s strategy has potential, especially for applications that don’t involve cross-country driving. “Cross-country driving is never going to be battery electric because charging is impractical,” Christopher Robinson, an energy storage analyst at Lux Research Inc., told Design News. “So what we’re really talking about here is trips of a few hundred miles, and there are plenty of trucks that do that now. That area is ripe for innovation.”

Sam Abuelsamid, an analyst for Navigant Research, suggested that Tesla may turn out to be its own best customer for the new technology. The 270-mile drive from Tesla’s Gigafactory to its production plant in Fremont, CA, may be the ideal application for the new truck, he said. “Since they are shipping batteries, imagine if the racks in the front part of the trailer held charged packs that powered the truck,” Abuelsamid wrote in an e-mail to Design News. “That way, you could have enough battery to make the trip, but it’s also payload.”

Tesla CEO Elon Musk unveils the company's electric semi at a live event in Hawthorne, CA. (Image source: Tesla, Inc.)

Analysts expressed concern, however, over the timing of the truck introduction. Recently, the company has struggled with automation issues on its affordable new Model 3 electric car, and Musk himself has described the situation as “production hell.” “Certainly their time would be better spent figuring out the Model 3,” Robinson told us. “That’s what the company’s profitability hinges on – the ability to ramp up and get their automated production lines running.”

Historically, however, Musk has relied on futuristic pronouncements to rally public support and boost stock prices, even as the company has continued to post financial losses. In 2013, he announced his intention to build the Model 3 at a time when Tesla was struggling to roll out the Model X SUV. He has also announced home storage batteries, rooftop solar panels, glass roof tiles, autonomous vehicle technology, and the Gigafactory at key moments during the company’s ongoing business efforts. “I don’t think Musk intentionally does this to distract, but it has that effect,” Mike Ramsey, research director for Gartner, Inc., told Design News. “Still, he ends up having a level of success beyond what other people can achieve.”

Indeed, past announcements have almost always benefitted the company. Earlier this year, Tesla passed both Ford and General Motors in market capitalization, largely based on the strength of its high-tech image. Many analysts view yesterday’s truck introduction as another piece of the company’s master plan.

To be sure, the idea of building an over-the-road electric truck is not unique to Tesla. In August, engine maker Cummins, Inc. unveiled the Aeos 1, a fully-electric heavy duty truck and powertrain. Similarly, Daimler announced that it has an all-electric semi-trailer truck. Showing it off at the Tokyo Motor Show in October, Daimler representatives said the truck would have an 11-ton payload, a 300-kWh battery, and a range of 220 miles.

Last night, however, Musk didn’t express any concerns about competition, either from electric or diesel truck manufacturers. Instead, he told the crowd that the Tesla truck is better than any diesel from a feature standpoint and from an economic standpoint, especially when operating costs are considered.

Last night’s salesmanship followed a week in which Musk built public relations momentum for the announcement. On Sunday, he tweeted that the truck “can transform into a robot, fight aliens and make one hell of a latte.” He also wrote that it would “blow your mind clear out of your skull and into an alternate dimension.”

As he has with so many previous announcements, Musk used last night’s public forum to whip up interest in Tesla’s technology long before the company plans to roll out any actual product. “Production begins in 2019,” he told the cheering audience, which likely included few over-the-road truck drivers. “So if you order now, you can get the truck in 2019.”

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Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 33 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.

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