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Trucks.com | Trucking Industry Sees Tesla Semi as Source of Disruption

11.28.17 | Jerry Hirsch, Trucks.com

After seeing Tesla’s Semi - the 500-mile range, heavy-duty truck unveiled last week by Elon Musk - the trucking industry is asking if it’s all hype or radical disruption.

Already there are some electric heavy trucks on the road, mostly working Southern California’s giant twin port complex. But none are Teslas. And although seemingly late to the electric truck game, the brand has a magic name in the transportation world.

“Elon Musk is bringing more energy to the truck market,” Antti Lindstrom, trucking industry analyst at IHS Markit, told Trucks.com. “I wonder if some of the larger manufacturers are in fear of missing the boat now.”

Daimler, Volkswagen, Navistar, Cummins and others are all working on battery-electric trucks. Toyota and Kenworth are testing hydrogen fuel cell trucks with electric drivetrains.

The Tesla Semi is a smooth, aerodynamic tractor. There are few protrusions from the body save for side mirrors and surround-vision cameras on the cab roof. Its hoodless nose slopes sharply down from a curving windshield.

The wheels are covered by fairings. The cab’s body panels extend almost to the road, giving it a taller and narrower look than diesel big rigs.

The driver’s seat is located dead center in the cab, a departure from traditional trucks.

Placing the driver in the center of a bullet-shaped nose makes aerodynamic sense. It gives the driver better visibility and control, Lindstrom said. The cab doesn’t have to be as wide, allowing it to reduce drag.

“Other manufacturers know that market will eventually go to this shape because it is optimal, but for now they haven’t as a matter of market acceptance,” Lindstrom said.

The trucking industry is conservative and slow to change, he said.

Acceleration is race-car quick, about three times faster than a standard Class 8 diesel. The Tesla zooms from zero to 60 mph in 20 seconds when fully loaded. The zero to 60 mph time is just 5 seconds with no trailer.

It will travel up to 500 miles on a single charge, he said.

Low diesel fuel prices dampen the economic need for alternative fuel vehicles, said Noël Perry, a trucking analyst with FTR Transportation Intelligence. The only expectation is in a handful of states where air-quality rules are driving truck electrification.

“Maybe in 10 years, as the range improves, the demand might be there,” he said.

Many industry analysts say that battery and  charging technology remains far away from working economically for long-haul trucks. The near-term market for electric trucks will be in the short-haul delivery, drayage and regional-haul categories.

“But battery technology is coming down in price, and improvements are coming really fast,” said Max Fuller, executive chairman of long-haul freight shipper US Xpress. “We realize that electric trucks are going to be a big thing in the future.”

One lingering question is Musk’s timetable. He said the truck will go into production in 2019.

Based on his track record of delays with passenger vehicle production, that’s unlikely, Lindstrom said.

“He is always overly optimistic,” he said.
 

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