In many ways, the Tesla truck launch in California last week pointed the way toward trucking's future.  Photo: Jack Roberts

In many ways, the Tesla truck launch in California last week pointed the way toward trucking's future. Photo: Jack Roberts

It’s been a busy 18 months or so in trucking, with new diesel and electric trucks debuting seemingly every time we turn around. And, of course, here at the eleventh hour, Tesla finally unveiled what was perhaps the most anticipated launch of them all, that of its new, Class 8 all-electric Semi truck.

The Tesla event was all about making a splash. Actual details on the new truck were fairly sparse, and the company will have to clarify several points made during last week’s launch, as well as address additional issues that were skipped over.

In the meantime, there was in fact, a lot to be learned from the Tesla Semi launch: Five things we know now... and five things that remain to be seen.

Five Things We Know Now, Thanks to Tesla:

1.Trucking is going to change

We might as well get this one out of the way first: Regardless of what you think of Elon Musk and his new truck, bear in mind that he is a visionary. It was apparent the other night in Hawthorne, that he knows enough about trucking to be dangerous. And that is a reality that is going to impact this industry in one way or the other in the coming months and years.

And Musk is hardly alone in this space. There are any number of visionaries eyeballing trucking right now. Some of them, like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos or Peloton’s Josh Switkes, are fairly well known to us. But there are also a lot of very talented unknown people working behind the scenes at companies like Apple, Google, Intel, and Walmart who are looking at trucking with fresh eyes. And that means new ways of doing business using new technology to move goods more efficiently.

2. Nothing is carved in stone

All that said, anyone who has ever studied the history of technology knows there is simply no way to predict how, what, or when anything is going to happen moving forward. There will likely be several technological dead ends encountered on trucking’s new path to the future. Other technologies will likely work extremely well in one niche market or specific application, while not working well at all in others.

Other technologies will either be game-changers in their own right, or integrate with other emerging technologies to become game-changers. And it’s also likely that over time, several disparate systems will evolve and integrate – disparate safety systems merged into a single safety system that is fully integrated with ELDs, autonomous vehicle systems, and blockchain, for example.

But the point is that now that the Tech Genie is out of the bottle, it’s going to be impossible to predict how, and exactly, things will play out. The next few years may be particularly disruptive and chaotic for fleets as they struggle to get a handle on multiple tech curves. The winners, however, will stand to make a lot of money in the industry that emerges on the other side.

3. Electric trucks are coming

Checking the mainstream media headlines, you’d be forgiven for thinking Tesla launched the world’s first-ever electric truck the other night in California. Reality, of course, is far different.

In the past year or so, this industry has seen either major product reveals or investments in electric trucks by a whole host of companies, including, Navistar, Volkswagen, Daimler, Volvo, Cummins, Nikola, Isuzu, and Paccar as well as newer players such as Uber, Embark, Einride, and Waymo.

Volkswagen alone, for example, said recently it would be investing $1.7 billion in electric vehicle research, and that it considered Tesla one of its primary competitors in the market today.

And don’t forget that according to several industry experts, the Chinese are ahead of the United States and Europe in developing electric vehicle technology – which means there are a whole host of companies out there most Americans have never heard of (with names most Americans currently can’t pronounce) pushing the envelope on electric truck technology. It’s only a matter of time before they decide to bring their products to market here in the West.

All of which means you can sneer if you like. But electric trucks will be an everyday component of fleet operations in the very near future.

4. Autonomous tech is coming far faster than most realize

Perhaps looking back years from now, the most remarkable takeaway from last week’s Tesla launch may be the fact that it will be the first truck offered with standard autonomous vehicle controls when it goes into production in 2019 (assuming another OEM doesn’t beat Tesla to the punch next year, of course).

And also bear in mind that Peloton has said repeatedly it will be ready to roll out its much-anticipated platooning service sometime next year. And all of this is coming on the heels of well-publicized autonomous pushes by a whole host of “traditional” automotive OEs, from BMW, Ford, General Motors, Nissan, and Toyota all the way up to heavy-duty players such as Daimler, Paccar, and Volvo.

And, yes, I know full well that there are a whole host of technological and regulatory issues that have to worked out before we see full-scale autonomous deployment on cities streets and highway roads. But it’s starting to look like we’ll see autonomous vehicles enter the market in small, limited applications – and that will begin happening next year!

Depending on where you live, you will likely see or experience autonomous vehicles in the real world sometime in the next five years. It may be a robot shuttle running to your hotel in Las Vegas, or a refuse truck slowly working its way up your San Francisco street, or a three-truck platoon running west on I-80 out of Ogallala, NE.

My guess is the adoption rate for autonomous technology will likely increase at an exponential rate after those initial trial runs prove out and we all become comfortable and familiar with the technology.

5. A  new frontier in driver-vehicle interfacing is dawning

Not everyone is in love with the cab interior on the new Tesla truck. I found it a bit spartan for my tastes and wonder if driver retention concerns will push Tesla to gussy things up a bit by the time the first production models appear.

For me, however, the most revelatory aspect of the Tesla interior (which the company has pioneered on its automotive line) was the fresh way it uses large, intuitive, easy-to-navigate display screens to quickly relay information to drivers while allowing them to easily operate various vehicle control systems.

This is another area where the trucking industry is in new territory: There are obvious concerns about relaying information and entertainment to drivers in a way that minimizes distractions and enhances safety. And yet, at the same time, every single indicator today points toward a near future where having drivers fully engaged, in real time, in a completely transparent logistics chain will be crucial for efficient fleet operations.

This is another one of those areas where it is impossible to predict exactly how things will play out. But, as I noted in my TruckTech blog immediately after the Tesla launch, it seems to me that Tesla is substantially ahead of the “traditional” automotive and commercial vehicle OEMs on this front (although Volvo has clearly been thinking about this issue a lot recently, as its new VNL and VNR launches showed). My sense is that Tesla has shown the way forward in terms of how a near-future driver-information system is going to function, and that other OEMs will soon follow suite with vastly improved systems of their own.

Tomorrow: Five Things We Still Don't Know about the Tesla Truck

About the author
Jack Roberts

Jack Roberts

Executive Editor

Jack Roberts is known for reporting on advanced technology, such as intelligent drivetrains and autonomous vehicles. A commercial driver’s license holder, he also does test drives of new equipment and covers topics such as maintenance, fuel economy, vocational and medium-duty trucks and tires.

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