Tesla Motors will be dabbling in the commercial freight industry when it unveils its electric semi-trailer next month. But, with news of it only possessing a 200- to 300-mile range between charges, dabbling may be a best-case-scenario. Diesel-powered rigs traditionally run in excess of 1,300 miles between stops, even though they also go through hundreds of gallons of fuel in the process. And it’s all that burned fuel that makes the concept of an electric tractor-trailer so appetizing to the trucking industry.
However, the EV prototype “long-hauler” won’t be fit for cross-country trips due to its limited range — meaning the inevitable Smokey and the Bandit remake probably isn’t going to have the Bandit or Snowman driving Teslas.
According to Reuters, Scott Perry, chief procurement officer at Ryder, said he met with Tesla officials earlier this year to discuss the technology at the automaker’s main facility in Fremont, California. Perry explained the manufacturer’s goals centered around an electric day cab rig with no sleeper compartment, capable of traveling roughly 200 to 300 miles with a complete payload before needing to be recharged. But even among shorter distance day cab trucks, Tesla’s rumored range isn’t exactly competitive. Non-sleeper diesel tractors can easily clock 600 miles before having to worry about refueling.
“I’m not going to count them out for having a strategy for longer distances or ranges, but right out of the gate I think that’s where they’ll start,” Perry explained.
Tesla Motors is famous for teasing details and not providing the full story until the very last minute. It may already have something better waiting in the wings. Company CEO Elon Musk has expressed his desire for large-scale production of the Tesla Semi within a couple of years. It’s conceivable that the prototype could represent a modest offering, with longer range variants to follow. The company is also promising autonomous features that would eventually limit the need for a human operator.
“We’re getting [the trucking industry] closely involved in the design process, so the biggest customers of the heavy duty Tesla semi are helping ensure that it is specified to their needs, so it’s not a mystery,” Musk told shareholders in June. “They already know that it’s going to meet their needs, because they’ve told us what those needs are. So it’ll really just be a question of scaling volume to make as many as we can.”
The trucking industry has been monitoring Tesla’s trucking plans with healthy dose of skepticism, though. Servicing these already expensive vehicles could be extremely problematic and no fleet manager is going to green-light spending if the logistics don’t work. Range is also a critical factor within the commercial freight industry and these hypothetical EV trucks offer diminished distances and a lengthy recharging period.
Electric semi trucks are believed to lose their economic feasibility past a 300-mile range. Present-day battery technology would effectively limit it to around that threshold. Anything more and rigs would need to be equipped with heavy external power supplies, probably in the trailer — which would limit their usefulness.
“There is a certain amount of hype to Tesla’s announcement,” said Antti Lindstrom, an analyst at global research firm IHS Markit, last April. “It doesn’t seem that long-distance trucking is ready for electrification right now.”
Musk disagrees, obviously. “A lot of people don’t think you can do a heavy-duty, long-range truck that’s electric, but we are confident that this can be done,” he said.
Roughly 30 percent of U.S. trucking jobs are regional trips of 100 to 200 miles, according to Sandeep Kar, chief strategy officer of Toronto-based Fleet Complete, which tracks and analyzes trucking routes. “As long as [Musk] can break 200 miles he can claim his truck is ‘long haul’ and he will be technically right,” Kar said.