Tesla Semi Truck and Roadster Revealed: World’s Fastest Truck and Car, and a Few Other Superlatives and Questions

Unless you’re a hermit, you’ve most likely heard about Tesla’s big media event Thursday night, where the electric Tesla Semi was unveiled, along with the unexpected appearance of the new Roadster. The performance numbers and vital stats for both these vehicles were unprecedented, and exceeded even optimistic guesses. We don’t usually cover new vehicle reveals much here, but having a long-time interest in trucking and other heavy transport as well as new technologies, it’s an irresistible subject. And of course, a controversial one, given the swirling questions as to whether Tesla should be expanding its product range while still struggling with current production issues.

Elon Musk’s abilities to add two more balls to the many he is already juggling will be tested. But in the meantime, the vehicles make for two highly compelling stories.

The Semi’s battery-electric drive train will power the truck and trailer, at gross weight of 80,000 pounds, from zero to sixty mph in 20 seconds, about 40 seconds faster than a conventional diesel truck. The Semi without a trailer will outrun most cars from 0-60, in 5.0 seconds. It will climb 5 percent grades at 65 mph compared to the 45 mph of a diesel truck. Thanks in part to its superb aerodynamics (CD: 0.36), it has a range of 500 miles, and a 30 minute charge will take it another 400 miles. It will be warrantied against breakdowns for one million miles. And its total cost to operate (including purchase price) will be some 20% less than a diesel truck.

First off, it’s important to note that Tesla is not the first or only company to show (or even build) electric large trucks. It’s a hot arena right now, as it is in cars (VW just announced a $40 billion investment program in EVs). But the rest of the electric trucks are less radical than the Tesla (no surprise there), and the trucking industry is pretty conservative. This really is a bit of a potential game changer. The current EV trucks are mostly short-range, and typically essentially conversions of existing designs. Both Mercedes and Cummins have unveiled longer-distance concepts. But not with specs to match these.

The Tesla prototypes are built out of carbon fiber, but it’s not yet decided what the production version (due in 2019) will be built of. But the need to offset the very heavy battery pack, of which there will be two versions, with 300 and 500 mile range, is located low just above the frame between the front wheels and the first rear axle, will almost surely require aluminum and composites. Unfortunately, the vital stats for the battery were not yet announced, which suggests that exact details (in typical Tesla style) are still being worked out. But mules and prototypes have been running for some time now. And rough calculations suggest that it will take a pack with 1,000 kWh capacity for the 500 mile version, or ten times the capacity of Tesla’s current largest battery pack in the Model S 100.

These packs are of course very heavy, which will make the Tesla Semi decidedly heavier (up to 33k lbs) than a diesel semi. That will cut into maximum payload, but then realistically, most general freight trucks don’t run at the maximum. Obviously, the Tesla will not be suitable for a number of trucking tasks, but it will be attractive to many of the more common ones.

There are four independent electric motors taken from the Model 3 for each rear wheel, which allows torque vectoring to essentially eliminate fish-tailing. In addition to its electric drive system, the Tesla Semi is equipped with a full slate of electronic safety and driver-assistance systems. That’s sufficient, Musk said, to make it fully autonomous when autonomous truck operation on public highways is permitted. The trucks also will be capable of “platooning,” in which one or more digitally tethered trucks automatically follow a manned lead truck to save fuel.

In typical Tesla style, the cab and interior is a dramatic change from anything before on the road. The driver is positioned centrally. There is a jump seat behind the driver’s seat for a co-driver or passenger. There are no mirrors; cameras display all the vital information on two large touch screens borrowed from the Model 3. It’s a whole different universe from the extremely noisy, rough riding and sparse trucks I drove and rode in back in the day.

The Tesla Semi is initially designed for short- and regional-haul routes, such as those that run goods from ports to distribution centers, but a long-haul sleeper cab model is in the works. A low roof version was also displayed. A sleeper cab version is in the works.

One might be tempted to wonder how limiting its 500 mile range will be, especially until the Tesla Megachargers are in place to recharge them quickly. But trucking has been changing rapidly, and one might be surprised to know that truly long haul trucking is actually shrinking. Nearly 80 percent of freight in the U.S. is moved less than 250 miles. The average length-of-haul in the trucking industry has dropped from about 800 miles 15 years ago to about 500 miles last year, according to the American Trucking Associations, a result of port expansions nationwide and the e-commerce boom. Which explains why even the 300 mile version will be more than adequate on the majority of regional and local runs.

Electricity is far cheaper than diesel fuel. Musk said Tesla will guarantee a cost of just 7 cents per kilowatt for electricity pulled from a Tesla megacharger. Compared to $2.50 per gallon diesel fuel and factoring in insurance, maintenance and lease costs, a Tesla Semi driven 60 miles per hour with an full load on a 100-mile route would cost about $1.26 a mile to operate, versus $1,51 per mile for a diesel.

One factor in these calculations may not have been identified: road taxes. There’s no comparable road tax on electricity as there is on diesel, and trucks are a major source of road wear and damage. In Oregon, truckers pay a separate road tax, based on their weight and distance driven, and their diesel fuel is not taxed. But other states will undoubtedly not be happy to see the truckers’ share of road taxes evaporate. That has already led to annual fees on EVs in some states. If electric trucks make significant inroads, new taxing schemes will undoubtedly arise.

The final part of the story is that a number of trucking companies have already made reservations for the Tesla Semi, including Walmart, which has had a program to bring down emissions (and cost) on its huge fleet of trucks. A number of other trucking firms have also committed, obviously in small numbers to start with. The conversion of trucking to electric power is under way, and it just got quite a bit faster, in more ways than one.

And if that wasn’t enough, there was a totally unexpected surprise that drove out of the back of the Semi’s trailer: the new Tesla Roadster. Its stats make the Semi’s pale in comparison: 0-60 in 1.9 sec. 0-100 in 4.2 sec. 1/4 mile in 8.8 sec. Top speed over 250 mph. Range: 620 miles. And that’s just for the initial base version.

The Roadster has a 200kWh battery pack, which is twice the size of the current largest one used in the Model S/X. Three motors; one in front and two in the rear, and they will provide 7376 lb-ft of torque at the wheels.

The battery packs sit low under the floor, which allows for 2+2 seating and ample storage room.

The design of the Roadster, which has a lift-out roof section, is clearly an evolution of the Tesla “look”, and takes it forward with more complex shapes, sculpting and a contoured hood. It inevitably will influence future generations of Tesla cars.

The Roadster, to be available in 2020 Tesla time, is priced at $200k, which given its absolutely overwhelming performance, makes it somewhat of a bargain. The first 1000 Founder’s series are priced at $250k, and require a full reservation deposit. $50k will hold your seat for a regular one.

Where are the Semi and Roadster going to be produced? Details on the Semi’s battery pack? Pricing on the Semi? The funds to develop them and put them into production? Musk puts the stuff out there first, and then the details get worked out sooner or later. Which is obviously intended to set up Tesla for more likely capital infusions, to feed all these projects and the rest of Tesla’s rapid expansion. The Roadster is the perfect vehicle to keep enthusiasm high.

One thing is for certain: Elon Musk is determined to keep Tesla on the forefront of the rapidly emerging EV market. Some have suggested Tesla should just have stayed a small high-end company, a la Porsche. But Musk’s vision (and ego) are never going to be constrained into just a limited segment of anything he undertakes. SpaceX is determined to send colonists to Mars. His Boring Company intends to riddle Los Angeles (and other metropolitan areas) with worm holes. Hyperloop will send passenger pods through vacuum tubes at 700 mph. The Roadster will have bragging rights for the world’s quickest production car. And now he wants to deliver your goods via his electric truck.

If Elon can deliver them all, within a reasonable period of time, he will confound a lot of skeptics, as he has done repeatedly so far. But if he fails, it won’t be for hedging his bets. He’s all-in, all the time. And that makes for a hell of a show.