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With a 500-mile range, Tesla Semi arrives with great promise

The Tesla Semi is capable of up to 500 miles on a single charge and can be recharged for 400 miles of range in 30 minutes.

Elon Musk’s electric truck offers far more than anticipated

Tesla unveiled its Class 8 “Semi” at a reveal party of nearly 1,200 press, Tesla officials and employees, held Nov 16th in a hanger at Jet Center Hawthorne, CA. It confirmed what the spy and tease photos had already revealed: a cab forward Class 8 truck with exceptional smooth lines and promised great aerodynamic performance.

CEO and product architect of Tesla Elon Musk stepped down from the cab of the much heralded truck to highlight its features before a sea of fans. But the message was clear and commercial: the Semi is a thoroughly practical, high performing and an economical product that can do to diesel power what Teslas Model S, Model X and model 3 have done to gasoline engine cars, hastening the demise of the internal combustion engine in commercial transportation.

J.B. Hunt is among the first carriers to publicly reveal it has reserved the truck, saying it has reserved “multiple Tesla Semis.”

“Reserving Tesla trucks marks an important step in our efforts to implement industry-changing technology,” said John Roberts, president and chief executive officer at J.B. Hunt. “We believe electric trucks will be most beneficial on local and dray routes, and we look forward to utilizing this new, sustainable technology.”

Grocery chain Meijer also said it has placed down $5,000 to reserve four models.

The Semi is purely battery-electric, carrying enough storage capacity for 500 miles. In his presentation, Musk said that 80% of truck distribution is less than 250 miles, so the Semi can get out and back on those tasks on a single charge. For longer trips, the batteries can pick up a 400-mile charge in the short half-hour break mandated by hours of service regulations. And Tesla Fast Chargers are popping up all over the world, wherever Tesla sells a passenger car. So Tesla Semi trucks can realistically be recharged at shipper and receiver docks. With the electrical distribution infrastructure in place and robust, there’s no need to stop en-route at a truckstop to fuel any more.

But the economic analysis, which passed over the heads of the cheering audience, was compelling. Musk said that total cost of ownership would be $1.25 per mile, comparing favorably to today’s diesel truck cost of $1.51. He did not specify the trade cycle or the structure of the financing but did say that Tesla was aiming for zero breakdowns in a million miles of operation.


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As accurate as they proved to be, those sneak previews could never show the interior that features a centrally located driver’s seat behind the enormous curved windshield. The side glass flows smoothly around the A pillars that are surprisingly thin, so the driver’s view forward is unobstructed. The steering position with a small, car-like wheel on the model at the walk-around intro was flanked on either side by flat panel displays from the Model 3 that are customizable as in the Tesla cars. In fact, this not only represents a major advance in driver controls, it is actually cheaper for Tesla to integrate the same flat panel technology it uses in the cars.

On the walk-around day-cab truck, there was a small passenger seat against the back wall for a riding helper or driver instructor. For anyone who attended the launch of the Nikola truck last year, there are obvious similarities. But there are significant differences, too. The 6 x 4 walk-around truck featured two conventionally air sprung drive axles featuring a power pack from a model of the nose of the differential. The air-ride is conventional Class 8 with regular looking frame rails. The Tesla guide said the battery pack resides beneath the cab, and a conventional fifth wheel allows for trailer coupling. The cab looks like a sleeper from the outside but that’s because the cab sides extend well back from the back of cab.

In Musk’s presentation he said that the range was enabled by exceptional aerodynamics, with the “Semi” scoring a 0.36, better even that the Bugatti Chiron’s 0.38. He also noted the cab side extenders that actively fill the gap between tractor and trailer also contribute to the overall low drag.

Access to the cab is to the rear of the seating position with three steps tapering in toward the center of the cab. The floor is stepped, presumably to allow for the batteries beneath. There’s a step up to the driving position. The side glass forward of the door is hinged down its leading edge and opens for ventilation or to pass documents down to gate guards or enforcement officers. The door glass and opposite side-fixed glass do not open, eliminating the need for any lift mechanism that could fail in use. The door and cab sides have generous storage for driver necessities.               

Interestingly, the door hinges are hidden and the door handle recessed (from the model 3) so the sides are super clean. Of the two models on display, one featured conventional mirrors, the other a visibility system with cameras mounted high toward the back of cab. There was a single pantograph-arm windshield wiper.

Drivers will love it if they are millennials. Hate it if they prefer “real” trucks.

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Steve Sturgess, Contributor

Total 35 years as a trucking commentator. Since 1980 -- year of Motor Carrier Act in the United States -- has been on the North American scene. Mutiple winner of Jesse H NealAwards including Grand Neal for Heavy Duty Trucking and RoadStar Magazines Specialties: Heavy-duty engines and drivetrains. Future heavy duty technical trends.