ELON MUSK HAS always dreamed big, and tonight he showed off his biggest reverie yet: the fully electric Tesla Semi. Powered by a massive battery and capable of hauling 80,000 pounds, it can ramble 500 miles between charges. It’ll even drive itself—on the highway, at least.1
And Musk promises production will start in 2019.
The big rig, which Musk unveiled at SpaceX’s Hawthorne, California headquarters Thursday night, is just the latest step in his mission to make humanity forget about planet-killing fossil fuels and embrace the gospel of electric power.
That is, of course, if he can convince the trucking industry it’s time for a new way of moving stuff around—and if he can actually make the thing.
The Truck for the Job
Musk believes that going after the big boys is the best way to have a real impact on climate change. In the five years since Tesla started producing its Model S sedan, it has sold about 200,000 cars. The US has more than 250 million passenger cars on the road, making the impact of this, roughly, zero. Even if Tesla scales up production of its “affordable” Model 3 sedan, it will still be a very long time before the Silicon Valley automaker can change the way humanity moves about enough for any dip in emissions to register as more than a blip.
Trucks offer a more effective way to do that, because they are particularly toxic. “Heavy-duty vehicles make up a small fraction of the vehicles on the road, but a large fraction of their emissions,” says Jimmy O’Dea, who studies clean vehicles at the Union of Concerned Scientists. In California, that category (which includes buses as well as trucks) accounts for 7 percent of total vehicles, but produces 20 percent of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions and a third of all NOx emissions (those are the ones linked to asthma attacks and respiratory illnesses).
Every truck you move with electricity instead of diesel has an outsize effect on the health of the planet and everything living on it. 18-wheelers are the ultimate force multiplier.
Musk has done the math. And while lots of players are moving into electric trucking space, none have the star power of Tesla, the kind of clout that makes the whole country pay attention.
From the outside, the carbon fiber cab is all smooth lines. Aerodynamics are a real big deal when it comes to fuel economy and making every electron count, and Tesla promises the Semi will cut through the wind more efficiently than some sports cars.
Look inside the cab of the Semi, and there’s no doubt Tesla knows how to (re) design a vehicle. Like the famed McLaren F1 sports car (Musk owned one until he crashed it while driving around with Peter Thiel), the driver’s seat is now in the middle of the cab. (There’s a jump seat behind it, to the right.) Because it didn’t need to build around a bulky diesel engine, Tesla made the nose of the cab a vertical slab, and the main seat is so far forward, you can see the ground just in front of the vehicle. In a design touch that recognizes that truckers are human beings, there are overhead bins for storing stuff, and at least four cup holders.
The cab is about 6’6” tall, so most anybody can stand up inside. The suicide doors stretch from the bottom to the top of the cab, making access extra easy. The human in charge gets two 15-inch touchscreens, one on either side, to handle navigation, data logging (for hours of service and the like), and blind spot monitoring. The only button in sight operates the hazard lights, everything else is done via one of the screens, or the two stalks coming off the three-spoke steering wheel.
Tesla piled on the safety-related bits, too. The battery is reinforced to keep it from exploding or catching fire or whatnot in the event of a crash, the reinforced windshield glass shouldn’t chip or crack, and onboard sensors will look for the signs of jackknifing and adjust power to the individual wheels to keep everything in line.