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Tesla launches long-awaited Semi heavy truck and delivers to PepsiCo and other early adopter companies.

Will Tesla’s BEV Semi Crack the Heavy Truck Market?

Tesla introduces its battery-powered Semi heavy truck and says its technology is better than the hydrogen fuel cells favored by other companies for big rigs.

Tesla delivers the first production version of its long-awaited electric Semi heavy truck to inaugural customer Pepsi, five years after CEO Elon Musk revealed the concept.

The soft-drink/snack (Frito-Lay) giant placed an order for 100 trucks, and other big companies including Anheuser-Busch, UPS and Walmart have also placed orders.

The reveal, in Sparks, NV, was an invitation-only event with most of the in-person audience comprising customers, policy makers, industry consultants and thought leaders.

Back in 2017, Tesla said Autopilot, the automaker’s advanced driver-assistance system, would be on the Semi. At the Dec. 1 event neither Musk nor Dan Priestley, senior manager of Tesla Semi Engineering, discuss any automated capabilities of the truck, or the placement of cameras needed for Autopilot to “see.”

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Musk introduces Tesla Semi in November 2017.

In typical Musk fashion, important technical details are not forthcoming or revealed. When Musk revealed the Semi five years ago, he said the truck would be able to travel 500 (805 km) miles on a single charge when fully loaded. The company appears to have solved this, saying it goes that far with a 60,000-lb. (27,216-kg) load – including the battery. Tesla is touting a video showing the truck going from Fremont, CA, (where it is built?)  to San Diego, a distance of 475 miles (765 km).

The Semi uses the same powertrain as the Plaid Model S and Model X and relies on a “tri-motor system.” That means one of the motors is constantly engaged for maximum efficiency and the other two are for acceleration and torque. “It can basically pull 82,000 pounds (37,195 kg) at cruise, and the only thing that’s doing it is a tiny little motor on one axle,” Musk says, noting the motor was about the size of a football. Priestley says the Semi has three times the power of any diesel truck on the road today.

The Semi is built with regenerative braking, meaning the brakes deliver power to the battery when the driver takes their foot off the accelerator. “We get to the bottom of the hill, and we have cold brakes,” says Musk. “That’s, like, mind-blowing in the trucking world.”

The cab of the truck (pictured, below) is built with the seat in the middle. Priestley says drivers are able to stand up and change clothes within the cab, which is built with cargo space for tools, as well as charging ports.

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“You’ve got efficiency in every aspect of the vehicle. There’s one-touch suspension dump so it gets very easy to attach to the trailer. It saves time and money,” says Musk.

To facilitate charging, Tesla says Semis will be charged with a “megawatt-class charger” that features an immersive cooling system. These chargers, to be installed at truck stops and fleet depots, are similar to Tesla’s Supercharger network.

While having such big fleet operators accept the Tesla truck in its first phase is a big boost to credibility, real market success will be determined by whether those companies extend their orders after a period of use.

Battery or Hydrogen Heavy Trucks?

Most analysts forecast that zero-emission heavy trucks will be defined more by hydrogen-fuel-cell propulsion than by batteries like Tesla’s because of the weight and space of batteries required to move such heavy loads. Fuel cells also require fewer raw materials like lithium, nickel or cobalt, supplies of which come mostly from China and have been rising in price.

Musk, not surprisingly, has been a naysayer on hydrogen fuel-cells, describing the technology as “the most dumb thing I could possibly imagine for energy storage.” 

The International Energy Agency, however, said in 2019 both hydrogen and hydrogen-based fuels were able to “transport energy from renewables over long distances – from regions with abundant solar and wind resources, such as Australia or Latin America, to energy-hungry cities thousands of kilometers away.”

The IEA and most of the trucking industry also sees hydrogen as a more ideal source of energy for heavy trucks. To that end, the U.S. is funding with $6 billion the development of hydrogen hubs that will be situated regionally to optimize refueling for heavy trucks based on truck traffic volumes and patterns.

Turning heavy trucks now running on diesel into zero-emission vehicles is seen as a priority by the Biden Admin., California, the European Union and China because of the particulate emissions from diesel trucks.

California, for example, which is home to the busy of ports of Los Angeles and San Diego, has set a goal to phase out diesel trucks.

New big rigs and other trucks running on diesel will have to be zero-emissions in 2040 under a proposed regulation unveiled in September 2022 by the California Air Resources Board (CARB). Under the proposal, manufacturers won’t be able to sell new medium-duty or heavy-duty trucks fueled by diesel or gasoline that operate in California – instead turning to electric and hydrogen fuel-cell hydrogen models. In addition, large trucking companies would have to convert their existing fleets to zero-emission vehicles by 2042.

Tesla is also at odds with established heavy-truck manufacturers, as well as one notable start-up. Nikola Motors in Phoenix, for example, plans to deliver its first hydrogen-powered trucks in the second half of 2023. Nikola's truck has a range of up to 500 miles, will refuel in 20 minutes and maintains 645 hp. Daimler Truck and Volvo Group formed Cellcentric, a joint venture to accelerate fuel-cell-powered trucks, and both companies intend to be producing fuel-cell trucks at scale the second half of this decade. Kenworth and Toyota are in a JV that plans to start rolling out fuel-cell trucks by 2025, funded in part by a CARB grant.

Fleet operators tend to be loyal to the established truck builders and rely on fleet-management support services that those companies provide. Whether Tesla’s sales force can crack this market in a big way remains to be seen.

Musk is clearly in the minority in insisting his battery-powered trucks will be superior to, and smarter than, the hydrogen fuel cells pushing big rigs across the country. But he has been underestimated before.

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