Truck Tech

Why Tesla Matters – Beyond the Electric Powertrain

Blog commentary by Jack Roberts, Senior Editor

November 17, 2017

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What does the Tesla Model S display tell us about truck interiors of the future? Photo: Jack Roberts
What does the Tesla Model S display tell us about truck interiors of the future? Photo: Jack Roberts

The long wait is over and the all-electric Tesla Semi is here for all the world to see. Expect predictions over the next few days as to its future: Will it be a disrupter? Or a dud?

For now, it’s obvious that electric trucks won’t make massive inroads into North American fleet operations in the immediate future. So maybe your inclination is to dismiss the Tesla truck as a high-tech oddball that doesn’t affect you or your business.

But I'm going to argue that powertrain aside, the Tesla truck is a glimpse of the future of trucking and will be a game-changer for trucks very soon.

About 10 years ago, General Motors was kind enough to supply me with a rotating fleet of editorial demonstrator vehicles to drive, evaluate and write about. This was at a time when the first GPS, infotainment centers and other real-time driver tools were coming on line. It was really stunning technology at the time, and I remember crowding friends inside the vehicles so they could see and play with the navigation screens and other features.

Over the summer, I bought myself a new-to-me car — a sweet little ride that is about a year old. This little car is also loaded with the latest suite of automotive driver aids — which are almost identical to the systems I first encountered a decade ago.

Those systems, which were mind-blowing at the time, are pretty much no big deal today. In fact, they’re clunky to use, hard to see, and impossible to manipulate safely while driving the car.

Compare and contrast my newish car driver aids with the systems in the new Tesla truck, however, and you suddenly realize how woefully far behind auto makers — and yes, truck OEMs — are in terms of integrating new driver assistance technology with a smart vehicle. While in California for the Tesla Semi launch, I also had the opportunity to experience Tesla's technology in its Model S car.

The Tesla approach to driver assistance is an absolute revelation compared to what you find in car and truck interiors today. It features big, bold, bright graphics with easy-to-read details, icons and features. Navigation between various menu screens is an intuitive snap that can easily — and safely — be undertaken while driving. Virtually every feature can be programmed to meet specific driver tastes. Moreover, you can synch many of the functions to a smartphone and activated by voice command.

My first impression on seeing the Tesla interior up close was that I was looking at the control panel on a starship from the latest “Star Trek” movies. But none of this is for show. Everything in the vehicle is manipulated and controlled in exactly the same way we use our laptops, smartphones and tablets in our daily lives when we’re not driving down the road. It’s smart, clean, efficiently and easy to use.

And then there’s Tesla’s autonomous technology, which is a game-changer in its own right.

I’ve said for awhile now that our first experiences with autonomous vehicle technology would essentially be “Cruise Control on Steroids.” And that’s exactly what Musk and Tesla have delivered with their Autopilot system on the new truck: This isn’t a system that drives the vehicle down the road. It’s a system that HELPS a driver drive a vehicle down the road. And that’s a crucial difference.

The potency of the Tesla Autopilot system is impressive in its own right. It watches your blind spots. It watches for merging vehicles. It watches for suddenly-stopping vehicles. Its sensors are so precise that if you opt for the display screen that shows a graphic of the traffic pattern in front of you, it even shows vehicles that are displaced or cross-wise in the traffic lanes.

Today, fleets are spec’ing and adding various safety systems to their trucks in a piecemeal fashion. But what Tesla has shown us is that autonomous vehicle systems and safety systems are one in the same. They are wholly-integrated and complimentary systems that will, very soon, be standard equipment and in every day use on every vehicle sold in in this country.

The Tesla Truck is a game-changer. The technology and the thinking behind it will soon influence vehicle design from compact four-wheelers all the way up to big rigs. The benefits for drivers — and fleets — of these new systems are obvious to anyone who climbs into the cab of this new truck — regardless of how you feel about all-electric drivetrains.

I’ve seen the future. And it’s pretty damn cool.

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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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