By Seth Clevenger, Transport Topics –

Tesla Inc. unveiled its long-anticipated, all-electric Class 8 tractor Nov. 16, marking the electric car maker’s entry into the commercial truck business and reimagining the heavy-duty truck as we know it.

Tesla co-founder and CEO Elon Musk at an introductory event here drove the sleekly styled truck into a hangar at the headquarters of his SpaceX aerospace company, then emerged to pitch the waiting crowd on why he believes it has a place in commercial fleet operations.

The battery-powered Tesla Semi, slated for production in 2019, is a day cab with a range of up to 500 miles on a single charge, achieved while traveling at highway speeds and hauling 80,000 pounds, the company said.

“Since the vast majority of routes are under 250 miles, it means that you can go to your destination and back, even if your destination has no charger,” Musk said.

The truck is propelled by four electric motors, one at each wheel end on the drive axles. Its battery resides under the cab floor, and the hood lifts to reveal storage space. The truck’s chassis features an aerodynamic sloped design to improve energy efficiency and prolong battery charge.

“We designed the Tesla truck to be like a bullet,” Musk said.

What the truck is not — unlike Tesla’s cars — is a luxury item. Musk presented a business case for trucking companies built around the total cost of operating the vehicle.

Factoring the as-yet-unstated cost of the truck’s lease, along with insurance, maintenance and fuel, Musk argued that from the day it went into service a Tesla Semi would be less expensive to operate per mile than a diesel truck.

A key component of that calculation is maintenance savings from the electric drivetrain, which Musk guaranteed will last 1 million miles.

Without an internal combustion engine, transmission or emission aftertreatment systems, the truck has fewer moving parts and will require significantly less maintenance than a diesel counterpart, the company said.

The Tesla Semi also features a radically different setup for the driver.

The driver’s seat is located in the center of the cab, a choice aimed at improving visibility.

“You’re positioned like you’re in a race car,” Musk said. “You have complete visibility of the road and all the surroundings.”

The driver is flanked by two touchscreen displays, one on either side of the steering wheel. Those screens replace the traditional dash display and contain all instrumentation, including the speedometer and controls for heating and air conditioning. The screens also display turn-by-turn navigation and video from blind-spot cameras.

Tesla showcased two mechanically identical versions of the truck — one optimized for aerodynamics with a high roof and fairings covering the drive wheels and another outfitted for shorthaul operations.

Details about the truck’s weight or its battery pack were not revealed, nor was the location or locations where the trucks will be built.

The Tesla Semi’s 500-mile range could make it well-suited to dedicated regional operations where the vehicle can recharge at a fleet’s terminal. But Tesla plans to build a network of charging stations to enable the truck to travel anywhere, much like its expanding charging infrastructure for its passenger cars.

And Musk made the case that recharging the Tesla Semi will not require a huge chunk of time.

The vehicle could plug in at its destination while unloading freight, or drivers could recharge it when they stop for meal or bathroom breaks. Charging stops could align with drivers’ required 30-minute rest breaks under federal hours-of-service rules, he said.

“What this means in practice is by the time you’re done with your break, the truck is ready to go,” Musk said. “You will not be waiting for your truck to charge.”

The Tesla Semi also will come equipped with a Level 2 automated driving system dubbed “Enhanced Autopilot,” which includes automatic emergency braking, automatic lane keeping and lane-departure warnings.

“Every truck we sell will have Enhanced Autopilot as standard,” Musk said.

The driver-assist technology is similar to the Autopilot system available in Tesla’s passenger cars. When engaged, that feature automatically maintains the vehicle’s lane while keeping a safe following distance, but requires the driver to remain attentive and keep his or her hands on the wheel.

With the Tesla Semi, that technology goes a step farther.

If the driver has a medical emergency and becomes disabled, the truck will stay in its lane and gradually come to a halt and even call emergency services, Musk said. “This is a massive increase in safety.”

Tesla also has designed the truck to automatically prevent jack-knife accidents, which Musk described as a trucker’s “worst nightmare.”

With its independent motors on each wheel end, the truck will dynamically adjust the torque on each wheel so that jack-knifing is “impossible,” he said.

Musk began the presentation by touting the truck’s performance compared with that of a diesel truck.

The Tesla Semi can accelerate from zero to 60 miles per hour in five seconds. Even pulling 80,000 pounds, it can reach 60 mph in 20 seconds, he said. The Tesla Semi also can do 65 mph going up a 5% grade, Musk said.

Tesla said the truck will integrate directly with a fleet’s management system to support routing, scheduling and vehicle tracking.

Musk also highlighted advantages for reliability and maintenance.

Because the truck has four independent motors, it can lose two of them and keep going, he said.

At the same time, the electric motors can turn the brakes into generators. The kinetic energy of braking goes back into the battery pack instead of wearing down the brake pad, Musk said. “The brake pads basically last forever.”

The truck also comes with “armor glass” to prevent cracked windshields, a common repair issue.

“This detail matters a lot,” Musk said.

With the Tesla Semi, Musk has added commercial trucking to his list of business ventures.

The inventor and business magnate also is pursuing space travel and solar power with SpaceX and SolarCity as well as transportation via pods in sealed tubes with Hyperloop.

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