In usual Elon Musk style, the hype was supercharged as the technology entrepreneur finally took the wraps off his much vaunted Electric prime mover at a glitzy ceremony held at the company’s design centre in Hawthorne California on Thursday night California time.
Musk has chalked up more than a decade as a niche car manufacturer and purveyor of solar panels and batteries but now wants to take on the heavy truck market with a vehicle that will, if it lives up to the hype, really shake the market up.
Originally scheduled to be unveiled in September the Tesla Semi Truck finally emerged with some bold claims for its performance and capabnilities on Thursday 16 November.
First up the question on everyone’s lips was what sort of range will the Tesla Semi have. Musk told the gathered crowds and the millions watching on web feeds that the semi will capable of traveling around 800 kilometres on a single charge when loaded to 36 tonnes or about six tonnes short of a single semi maximum weight allowed in Australia.
Musk also boasted that it will cost less than a diesel semi considering fuel savings, lower maintenance and other factors.
He went on to say that customers can put down a $5,000 deposit for the semi now and production will begin in 2019.
“We’re confident that this is a product that’s better in every way from a feature standpoint,” Musk preached to the crowd of Tesla believers gathered for the launch however like all good salesmen Musk didn’t reveal the price.
Despite this Tesla says it has already received advanced orders for the truck. US retail giant Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, issued a press release late last week saying that it has pre-ordered five Tesla trucks for its U.S. division and another 10 for its Canada operation. Another retailer Meijer based in the US Midwest said it had reserved four trucks while Arkansas based trucking company J.B. Hunt has announced it has reserved “multiple” trucks for deployment on the West Coast but didn’t specify how many.
Like its cars the Tesla truck will come equipped with the Tesla Autopilot system, which can maintain a set speed and slow down automatically in traffic. It also has a system that automatically keeps the vehicle in its lane. Musk said several Tesla semis will be able to ‘platoon’ in a convoy.
Musk also announced Tesla plans a worldwide network of solar-powered “megachargers” that could get the trucks back up to 600 km of range in only 30 minutes.
Musk’s stated aim has been for his company to accelerate the shift to sustainable transportation and the Semi clearly fits with this.
The bottom line is however that the launch of yet another ambitious Tesla project puts more pressure on an already chaotic and overloaded operation at the Tesla HQ in Palo Alto, California.
It is way behind on production of the Model 3 lower-cost sedan, with some customers facing waits of more than 18 months.
It’s also ramping up production of solar panels after buying Solar City Corp. last year. Tesla is working on a pickup truck and a lower-cost SUV and negotiating a new factory in China. Meanwhile, the company posted a record quarterly loss of $US619 million in the last quarter.
If that is not enough Musk also used the launch on Thursday night to surprise fans with yet another product, an updated version of its first sports car, the Roadster. Tesla says the new Roadster will have 1000 km of range and a top speed of 402 kp/h and will arrive in 2020 with a base price of $US200,000.
Elon Musk is also focussed in many directions including leading rocket maker SpaceX while also having interests in several other projects, including high-speed transit, artificial intelligence research and a new company that’s digging tunnels beneath Los Angeles to alleviate traffic congestion.
“He’s got so much on his plate right now. This could present another distraction from really just making sure that the Model 3 is moved along effectively,” said Bruce Clark, a senior vice president and automotive analyst at Moody’s.
Tesla’s semi is venturing into an uncertain market. Demand for electric trucks is expected to grow over the next decade as the U.S., Europe and China all tighten their emissions regulations. Electric truck sales totaled 4,100 in 2016, but are expected to grow to more than 70,000 per annum by 2026, according to Navigant Research.
But most of that growth is expected to be for smaller, medium-duty haulers like garbage trucks or delivery vans. Those trucks can have a more limited range of 160 kilometres or less, which requires fewer expensive batteries. They can also be fully charged overnight.
Long-haul prime movers trucks, on the other hand, would be expected to go greater distances, and that would be challenging. At this point in time charging infrastructure is sparse on global highways. Without Tesla’s promised fast-charging, even a mid-sized truck would likely require a two-hour stop, cutting into companies’ efficiency and profits, says Brian Irwin, managing director of the North American industrial group for the consulting firm Accenture.
Irwin says truck companies will have to watch the market carefully, because tougher regulations on diesels or an improvement in charging infrastructure could make electric trucks more viable very quickly. Falling battery costs also will help make electric trucks more appealing compared to diesels.
But even lower costs won’t make trucking a sure bet for Tesla. It faces stiff competition from long-trusted brands like Daimler, which unveiled its own medium duty prototype in Tokyo last month.
“These are business people, not fans, and they will need convinced that this truck is better for their balance sheet than existing technology. It probably is, based on the specs provided, but this isn’t necessarily a slam dunk,” said Rebecca Lindland, an executive analyst at Kelley Blus Book.
Musk said Tesla will guarantee the semi’s powertrain for one million miles to help alleviate customers’ concerns.
Only time will tell if the Tesla Semi is everything it is cracked up to be or just an over hyped pipedream.