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What to make of the new Tesla truck?

Tesla's new truck is the talk of the town. It offers some impressive specs, but does it make sense for potential buyers?

Tesla’s new truck is the talk of the town. Revealed last Thursday in typical Elon Musk fashion with a lot of fanfare, the truck offers some rather impressive specs.

Acceleration

The Tesla truck is touted to accelerate from zero to 60mph (96km/h) with a loading weight of 80,000 pounds (36mt) in 20 seconds. Most industry commentators though rightly ignore this stat. It’s not a relevant dimension a commercial owner evaluates trucks on.

Furthermore, as many highlighted, it is not immediately clear if such an acceleration can be used, or if it poses a risk to driver and load safety.

Energy consumption

Energy consumption of less than 2kWh/mile is incredibly efficient. That’s equivalent to about 16.8 mpg or 14 litres per 100km. This substantial improvement is mainly achieved by a chassis that has a 0.36 CD drag coefficient.

The drag coefficient (CD) describes the aerodynamical properties of the truck. A typical modern truck has a coefficient of around 0.6. Tesla’s value is closer to a sports car than it is to another truck (Tesla’s car models are in the 0.24 area; the iconic 1984 Ferrari Testarossa has the same 0.36).

The Ferrari Testarossa has the same aerodynamic qualities than a Tesla truck

The Ferrari Testarossa has the same aerodynamic qualities than a Tesla truck (Source: Gaschwald / Shutterstock)

A lot of the efficiency gains come from the ability to move from a central engine block in an internal combustion engine powered vehicle, to four electric motors per axis. This change allows a wholly new approach to designing the cockpit that cannot easily be replicated by more traditional engine concepts.

Tesla certainly isn’t the first company to experiment with an electric truck, but it is the first that takes such a drastic step to its cockpit design. Compared to that, Mercedes-Benz’s, Scania’s and everyone else’s electric trucks look like, for the lack of a better word, normal trucks.

Tesla's new semi truck

Tesla’s new semi truck (Source: Tesla Motors)

Tesla’s design concept is the first to try to reap the gains from getting rid of the central engine block. I think this radical approach will motivate competitors to take a close look at their own designs and probably spark similar changes.

Range: 300 to 500 miles

Range and recharging are critical issues in evaluating the commercial viability of an electric truck. The upper limit of the range at 500 miles may sound sufficient.

Tesla’s own experience from its cars though reveals that with battery degradation, and realistic wind and weather influences the actual number is lower. Any commercial truck operator will look at a reliably achievable distance. That number is probably closer to the lower end of the range.

As a result, the trucks will most likely be unsuitable for long-haul operations as recharging even with the promised Mega-Charger infrastructure in place will still take at least 30 minutes. And such an evaluation doesn’t take into account that currently exactly zero of those Mega-Chargers are deployed globally.

Tesla’s pre-orders though reveal where commercial operators see a place for the new truck. Wal-Mart and Loblaw both ordered a handful of trucks. While this may just as well be an order purely for marketing purposes, it is interesting that two large retailers with substantial fleets of owned assets are the first two prominent orders. It’s easy to imagine them installing dedicated Mega-Chargers at key distribution centres and rely on the trucks for secondary distribution. Similarly, J.B. Hunt, the third confirmed order, has publicly mentioned their desire to test in closed operations.

Summary

I think it is best to view Tesla’s truck as an interesting concept. In particular, the radical approach to cockpit design will most likely spark other OEMs to look at their own concepts and create some creative competition.

Whether Tesla succeeds at producing the truck in time, and how much commercial sense it makes for them to pursue such a different market remains to be seen. There are some interesting thoughts out there, and I can only recommend the reader interested in the Tesla company side of the story to read this.