In a cloud of hype, the long-promised Tesla semi breaks cover and Diesel News US Correspondent, Steve Sturgess, got to see and feel the truck first hand.
Tesla unveiled its heavy duty prime mover, its ‘Semi’ at a reveal party attended by nearly 1,200 of the world’s press, Tesla officers, investors and employees, held in November in a hangar at Jet Centre in Hawthorne, California. It confirmed what the spy and tease photos had already suggested – a cab-forward, heavy-duty truck with exceptionally smooth lines promising dramatically improved fuel economy and vehicle performance.
CEO and Product Architect of Tesla, Elon Musk, stepped down from the cab of the much-heralded truck as it rolled in and went on 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 Tesla’s Model S, Model X and Model 3 have done to petrol engine cars, hastening the demise of the internal combustion engine in commercial transportation.
The economic analysis that passed over the heads of much of the doting audience was compelling. Musk said that total cost of ownership would be US$1.25 ($1.60) per mile, comparing favourably to today’s diesel truck cost of US$1.51 ($1.98). He did not specify the trade cycle or the structure of the financing but did say that Tesla is aiming for zero breakdowns in a million miles of operation.
The announcement of the promised range – 500 miles (800km) – brought a rousing cheer from supporters. Significantly, Musk said the Semi could pick up an 80 per cent charge in just 30 minutes, which would add another 400 miles. Since a driver must take a meal break under hours-of-service rules in the US, that gives the truck a 900-mile daily range, providing a fast charger is available at the rest point.
Despite the enthusiasm at the launch, the troubled reliability of Tesla’s Model S and the introduction issues of the Model 3, on which much of the powertrain of the Semi is based, has been a point of contention among critics. Against this, Musk recognised that reliability and durability were prime requirements for a commercial vehicle and promised million-mile reliability for the Semi when it is introduced in 2019.
In his presentation, Musk said that the range was enabled by exceptional aerodynamics, with the ‘Semi’ scoring a 0.36CD – better even than the Bugatti Chiron’s 0.38. He also noted the cab side extenders that actively fill the gap between prime mover and trailer also contribute to the overall low drag. Worth noting – the prime mover at launch looked like a sleeper because of these long side extenders.
Access to the cab is to the rear of the driving position, with three steps tapering in toward the centre of the cab and a ‘suicide’ door. 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 (from the Model 3) recessed, 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. In another reference to the working character of the new introduction, Musk joked that the glass, “can withstand a nuclear explosion – or the customer gets a free refund,” while emphasising the point that the truck is optimised for minimum downtime, citing the out-of-service implications of a broken windshield.