Truck Tech

10 Tesla Takeaways: Part II

Blog Commentary by Senior Editor Jack Roberts

November 22, 2017

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Tesla CEO Elon Musk speaks to a racous crowd at the launch of the new Semi Class 8 truck in California on Nov. 16, 2017. Photo: Jack Roberts
Tesla CEO Elon Musk speaks to a racous crowd at the launch of the new Semi Class 8 truck in California on Nov. 16, 2017. Photo: Jack Roberts

In Part I of this two-part series, I looked at what Tesla taught us about trucking's near-term future. But as remarkable as the Tesla Semi launch was, there are still a lot of unanswered questions about the truck, the company, and the technology itself.

Orders for the new Semi are already hitting the books. But fleets lacking deep pockets and a thirst for experimentation are going to need some hard data on several key operating points before they can make a decision on giving Tesla trucks a try:

1. How will Tesla batteries perform in real-world trucking conditions?

Diesel trucks are unbelievably tough. And that toughness allows them to deliver goods consistently in a whole host of conditions – many of them bad, such as wind, ice, rain, and snow. Which brings up several rather pertinent points: How will the Tesla truck perform in a headwind, for example? Or a crosswind? And what impact will extremely cold conditions have on the vehicles’ battery systems in terms of range and power output?

And how will performance degrade over time, as the batteries wear out and their charging capacity is gradually reduced? Will there be a system in place to quickly swap out batteries? And how much will new batteries for the truck cost?

2. When will that network of 'megachargers' be ready?

One important aspect of Tesla’s vision for a long(ish) range electric truck is the ready availability of high-speed charging stations that can give the truck an additional 400 miles of range in about 30 minutes. But those megachargers don’t exist right now, and Tesla has given no indication as to how far along its high-speed charging capabilities are, or what its timeline for releasing truck-specific megachargers is.

3. What About Dealer Support?

Musk made a point during his presentation at the Semi launch to note that an electric truck has far fewer moving parts than one with an internal combustion engine and transmission. And he even got an enthusiastic round of applause when he announced that the Tesla Semi would be “guaranteed” for 1 million miles of service.

But, as any fleet executive or driver will tell you, trucks are marvelous at finding new and highly creative ways to break down – usually in the most remote locations possible, at the worst possible time of the day or night.

What then?

Tesla is going to have to address its lack of a comprehensive dealer network, in one way or the other, in order to support its trucks. It might logically choose to partner with an existing service provider of some sort, or develop a proprietary network of its own. But more than one hard-charging truck builder has burst onto the North American market only to quickly drop out because its customers couldn’t find parts or had no way to get repairs made in a timely fashion.

4. Who’s going to train techs on Tesla?

Somebody is going to have to work on Tesla trucks at some point. Just who will that be, though?

Electric trucks may, in fact, be far simpler to maintain than diesel-powered ones. But these are still highly complex machines stuffed to the gills with cutting edge technology. Not to mention an electrical system that can fry a facility’s power grid – along with a careless technician or two – if they’re not handled properly.

Which means that in the absence of some sort of national dealer network, Tesla is going to have to offer fleets training so that they can maintain these trucks themselves. And while this is hardly a monumental undertaking for Tesla, it may prove to be absolutely vital for the successful launch of a viable commercial truck – especially if a nationwide dealer network is not up and running when the first trucks hit the road.

5. Specs, specs, and more specs

In the days after attending the Tesla launch, my inbox blew up with friends and strangers alike in trucking asking me for details on a whole host of operational issues and details. People wanted to know torque numbers, tare weight, acquisition cost, baseline figures used to calculate operating costs and a host of other numbers they depend on daily to make decisions when spec’ing and operating trucks.

Tesla has promised to make more detailed stats, specs and figures available later on as the truck nears production. But for now, many fleet executives feel they simply don’t have the hard numbers they need to see to make any kind of a decision on buying and running a regional-haul Class 8 electric truck. Nor will they do so until they see those numbers.

It will be very interesting to see what the final, production version of the Tesla Semi looks like, and what kinds of operational numbers it posts as real-world operations begin.

Splashy launches and futuristic concepts aside, a production vehicle will reveal where the current meets the road, so to speak. Elon Musk believes he has a better way to move goods and make fleets money. Time will tell if he is correct.

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Author Bio

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Jack Roberts

Senior Editor

As a licensed commercial driver, HDT senior editor Jack Roberts often reports on ground-breaking technical developments and trends in an industry being transformed by technology. With more than two decades covering trucking, in Truck Tech he offers his insights on everything from the latest equipment, systems and components, to telematics and autonomous vehicle technologies.

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