Elon Musk Says He Is Working on Tesla Semi

 

Not content with taking on franchise car dealers across the country, the US Congress, NHTSA, NTSB while landing rockets safely back on land for reuse, Elon Musk says he is working on vehicles for the rest of the automotive market. That includes SUVs, pickup trucks, buses, and tractors to haul freight.

Will Tesla Semi look like the Nikola Motors Nikola One





We have heard about a number of companies who say they have the answer to the pollution from heavy trucks. Some are fairly realistic, like Ian Wright’s garbage trucks that use batteries and an onboard gas turbine to keep them charged. His company, Wrightspeed, has working prototypes on the road and has recently signed a deal with a company in New Zealand to re-power its fleet of diesel buses.

Wright was one of the founders of Tesla Motors, but decided to go his own way after Elon Musk came on board. Wright thought building a sports car was a silly idea when heavy trucks are responsible for far more carbon emissions than passenger cars. The turbine he invented runs so clean, it doesn’t require a catalytic converter to meet California’s stringent emissions standards.

The problem with electric trucks is that batteries large enough to move heavy loads long distances would be prohibitively expensive. They would also be so large and so heavy they would take up a good chunk of the available space for cargo. Earlier this year, we ran a story about a company in Florida that said it had developed a battery that could haul an 80,000 lb load 400 miles on a single charge. That claim turned out to be vaporware.

Another entrant in the electric truck sweepstakes is Nikola Motors, a rambunctious startup that claims it will build a tractor with 2,000 horsepower and 3,700 lb-ft of torque. it will have a 325 kWh battery. 6 wheel drive with torque vectoring, and 1,200 miles of range. The company says it already has 7,000 pre=orders worth about $2.3 billion. Of course, it has no factory and no battery making facility. It also relies on a natural gas turbine to charge the battery along the way.

How will Tesla resolve the size/weight/cost/range conundrum presented by all-electric heavy trucks? We have no idea, at the moment. But it’s in Elon’s Master Plan Part Deux, so somewhere within Tesla Motors the wheels are turning. Elon says we can expect to see something in about a year’s time. Figure by the end of the decade, knowing Musk’s reputation for flexible timetables.

Solving the freight truck dilemma is a big part of Musk’s avowed goal to get the world off fossil fuels. Diesel trucks spew far more pollutants into the atmosphere than all the Volkswagen diesels combined. To make matters worse, they are often on the road for a decade or more, pumping toxins out their tailpipes for millions of miles before they are replaced. Anything that can cut those emissions significantly will be good news for the environment.

Photo credit: Nikola Motors





About the Author

I have been a car nut since the days when Rob Walker and Henry N. Manney, III graced the pages of Road & Track. Today, I use my trusty Miata for TSD rallies and occasional track days at Lime Rock and Watkins Glen. If it moves on wheels, I’m interested in it. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.

  • Brunel

    I wish Musk built hybrid trucks until a global 300kW plug is developed.

    Tesla nearly went bankrupt – but because it did not, most people think Musk made a great decision to build a roadster first.

    • Joe Viocoe

      It won’t be a plug at higher power levels. The connectors will be large and automated. From either the top or bottom of the vehicle.

    • GregS

      Musk is not going to build anything that uses hydrocarbons, so no hybrids

      • Brunel

        Where does his rocket fuel come from.

        Not saying that we should keep burning oil – but batteries are not cheap enough yet.

        • GregS

          He doesn’t have any choice with rockets, but on road transportation he is pretty adamant that hybrids are a compromise.

    • nitpicker357

      I think Musk made a great decision to build a roadster first. Not that I think that hybrid trucks are a bad idea, but it does mean more complexity. At the extremes, one of the systems that power the hybrid is better. In the medium term, BEVs will have a lower TCO. If Wrightspeed or whoever builds a hybrid truck, Yay! But it doesn’t really make sense for Tesla to invest in that.
      Battery costs are coming down largely because of Tesla, even when they aren’t Tesla batteries.

      My first approximation was that he would need 480 kW charging, somehow, but that was very rough.

      • Brunel

        Battery prices were coming down before the gigafactory.

        The GF1 helps a lot – but is not fully built yet.

        • nitpicker357

          They were. However, prior to Tesla, Li ion batteries were used mostly for electronic devices. In order to push the experience curve (which lowers the price) faster, large scale vehicular use is critical. And to a first approximation, the EV market is due to Tesla.

  • El Cid

    What about Wrightspeed?

    • Kieran Delaney

      They use gas turbines to increase the mileage and efficiency of current ICE engines so…they are going to lose out unless they can compete with Tesla.

      • neroden

        Tesla’s going to make a one-size-fits-all semi. Wrightspeed is focusing on repowering specialized vehicles like garbage trucks (construction equipment might be next). It’s never going to be worth Tesla’s while to work on those — market is too small.

        • Kieran Delaney

          Agreed.

  • Marcel

    Even when it has nothing to do with them, you can’t give VW a break, can you?

    • AaronD12

      Why should we?

      • Marcel

        Because their cars pollute no more than the 10 year old junk people drive in north america. It’s very one-sided to always pick on VW when american cars pollute a lot too. Those big V8s aren’t producing oxygen but CO2, a very nasty gas as well.

        • Kieran Delaney

          It’s not one-sided at all, they lied…consistently, with no concern for the consequences of those actions. Those American cars you speak of are not pretending to be greener than they are.

          Trust is important, and VW has lost all of ours.

          • Marcel

            Ok then, keep buying your cheaply made local junk. It’s very obvious it’s one sided, since when did americans care about the environment? If you did you wouldn’t be using 60 year old engine technology.

          • Kieran Delaney

            I see nothing but nonsensical arguments here. You keep changing the point of your complaint, but in reality, I think your patriotism is just offended.

            I’d rather buy a Mercedes-Benz than a VW right now…

          • Marcel

            You don’t even know where I’m from so your argument is nonesense. Hint: not Germany. Talk about patriotism? ok lets see who is most full of their shit country. Any guesses? That’s right americans who think they’re the centre of the universe. By the way, I’d rather buy a Tesla than a VW. But I’d buy a VW any day over any other american brand.

          • Kieran Delaney

            1/ I’m not American.
            2/ I agree, a VW is better than the vast majority of the other car brands that exist out there.

            The end.

          • Kieran Delaney

            1/ I’m not American.
            2/ I agree, a VW is better than the vast majority of the other car brands that exist out there.

            The end.

          • I’d rather buy a Tesla but can’t yet afford it. Bty I live in the U.S. and have no choice but to buy the smallest (used) V8 truck for my business. If i was smarter, i wouldn’t need a truck and would buy something that gets better than my approx16mpg (15 liters/100km).
            Agreed, we need ELECTRIC trucks and FAR more solar and electrical storage. Bty, most people would only get 12 mpg because they don’t know how to drive (constantly gunning it then stopping).

  • JP

    Why do people think it will be soooooo difficult to electrify a semi? Torque? Not an issue. 6 X 500 = 3000 ft lbs. Battery? Seems an issue, but truly isn’t. There are truck stops every hour or less on the interstates. Range doesn’t have to be 500 plus miles. It needs to only be 200 to 300 in the beginning. Haul for 3 or 4 hours, then take a 30 minute break to supercharge. Could be even shorter with multiple chargers. Not only does this solve the weight and extra cost issue, it ensures truckers don’t drive too long without a break to stay focused. As tech gets battery density higher, so shall go the range.

    • Freddy D

      Realistically they could probably begin with a 600kwh pack for parts of the market and work up to larger packs later. And/ or battery swaps.

    • Kieran Delaney

      Seems like a no-brainer right? Let’s hope the haulage industry agrees with you!

    • Mike Dill

      The ONLY thing stopping the electrification of semi-trucks right now is the total lack of infrastructure. In my opinion, each truck stop would need about twenty 350kw chargers, on average. The build-out has not started, and the charge connector is not yet even in the prototype stage.

    • neroden

      A short haul trucking route often only goes 500 miles per day, *or less*. Much higher efficiency for batteries than for diesel in stop-and-go traffic on local roads means you need less batteries for the short hauls than you might think.

      Short haul trucks can mostly recharge overnight. It’s really the obvious initial market.

  • JP

    P.S. Fuel and maintenance on a semi is CRAZY high. They spend hundreds just for a simple oil change.

  • nitpicker357

    Weight matters. Road wear increases polynomially with the fourth power of weight/axle. Battery/electric motor is still much heavier than ICE/tank for 200 mile range. It still ought to be economical, assuming adequate charging infrastructure, which would have to be about six times faster than a Supercharger.

  • Geo T

    Reality check: We can’t rid the world of fossil fuels by building things that demand fossil fuels in the first place! Ore mining & smelting takes intense, sustained energy, as just one part of the production chain. Same with recycled metals. Another “fossil fuel extender” is wind turbines, in addition to their huge landscape impacts.

    The societal approach to fossil fuels should involve purposeful conservation, treating them as black gold vs. squandering them casually with things like idling. There’s no real way to avoid a mass behavior change instead of banking on some future technology to keep gluttons satisfied.

    • neroden

      Obviously we need to have a completely renewable society. However, you do not have a clue — you’re claiming that things “demand” fossil fuels which actually don’t.

      Metal recycling is done almost entirely with electricity, which we can produce with solar panels. It’s perfectly straightforward to run an electric arc furnace off of (lots of) solar panels. Mining is already switching to electric power (this doesn’t change the fact that the minerals can only come out of the ground once, however, and must be recycled in order to be renewable.)

    • Carl Raymond S

      Ah, intense energy… Is that measured in kWh, or does it have a special SI unit, the ikWh?
      Reminds of the question posed to third graders – which is heavier, a kg of feathers or a kg of lead.

  • Kenneth Ferland

    I suspect battery packs located between the first two axials along the side of the vehicle (aka where gas tanks are now but longer) and these huge packs will be built from the used batteries off cars as the Model S’s get their first replacement batteries. The charging method will be battery swapping at a truck stop via a reservation system days in advance, Tesla will own the battery pack allowing the vehicle to be sold at a competitive price compared to conventional semi’s. Tesla will charge a considerable premium for the swap over the raw electricity value but it will be less then the equivalent Diesel which will draw customers rapidly.

    • Frank

      We’ll see about the used part. I really like the idea of swapping the batteries. It really opens up the ability to charge them when renewable generation is high, and if prices go way up, maybe even put some power onto the grid. If you have a couple of spares, it shouldn’t be a big problem.

    • neroden

      For semis, there’s something easier than a battery swap. Swap the tractor.

      • Kenneth Ferland

        Ridiculous, the Tractor is where all the capitol investment is and it is what needs to be utilized so it can be paid back with revenue, maximizing Tractor up-time is the whole job of and competitive advantage of a fleet operator.

        • Carl Raymond S

          Seems like the major costs of running the tractor are the driver, the diesel, the hardware and maintenance.
          Think like Elon. My guess is he aims to eliminate the driver, eliminate the diesel, slash the hardware cost by removing anything driver related and slash the maintenance by eliminating most moving parts.
          Now, you can afford two tractors.

          • Kenneth Ferland

            Your not thinking like Elon, your throwing out wishes without thinking from first principles.

            Two complete vehicles cost more then a single vehicle and two sets of batteries. If you swap the trailer between two tractors that takes time, manual labor and space for maneuvering far greater then what an automated battery swap would consume. The location for this swapping then has to have parking for charging tractors. If you try to charge them quickly the current draw is enormous but if a bank of swap-able batteries is charging continually the power demand is much reduced.

          • Carl Raymond S

            Good points. A tractor without pilot can almost be thought of as a battery with motorised wheels. It comes down to what is simpler/ cheaper. Have a surplus of these things, or do all the extra design and build (at smaller scale number) necessary to swap batteries. Factor also that the battery release mechanism adds weight, and places design restrictions on battery location.
            I don’t see any people required for either mode.

          • Kenneth Ferland

            I think autonomous semi’s is a LONG way away, a decade or two AFTER full passenger car autonomy, the public expects a higher level of driving skill on the part of a semi due to their size and clear danger to other vehicles. This is why we have commercial drivers licenses and regulation of the drivers work schedule.

            Second we can not neglect that when we talk about autonomous semi’s were talking about the elimination of a huge number of jobs, many of which are owner-operator jobs and they are not going to be interested in obsoleting themselves. My expectation is that the Tesla semi is not going to be autonomous, so all speculation along thouse lines is moot in my opinion, and the economics of eliminating drivers really has no bearing on the economics of fuel, charging-time and the like. What Tesla needs is a drop in replacement for a diesel semi that yields to lowest operating cost per mile, battery swap is in my opinion the best bet to achieve that.

          • Carl Raymond S

            I think it will come SOONER than car autonomy, as will bus autonomy.
            It will happen in select places, probably outside of the USA, where there is no culture of litigation, the unions weak, the roads well marked and the routes are fixed.
            From there, it will be proven and gradually spread.

          • Kenneth Ferland

            The long list of necessary factors to allow development of autonomy for larger vehicles is exactly why it won’t happen sooner. So your conclusion is at odds with your own logic and is thus nothing more then a wish.

          • Carl Raymond S

            To grow corn, you don’t need soil that is perfect for corn everywhere, you just need it somewhere, and to plant your corn there.

  • neroden

    I want to be very clear about one point: short-haul trucks and long-haul trucks are *different markets*. The short-haul truck market is ripe for the picking by electric trucks, in my opinion.