By John Brandon
How big is this one going to be?
I'm guessing it will weigh 32,000 pounds, haul enough cargo to build part of a house, and glide silently down the road. The only sound you'll hear is the horn blasting.
That's right, Elon Musk just dropped the news that Tesla is working on an electric semi-trailer that could radically overhaul the over-the-road transportation industry.
There are scant details, but the implication for all of us is huge.
First, there is already a network of superchargers all across the U.S. You can currently drive your Tesla Model S sedan from New York to LA without needing to panic about a recharge. Initially those stations were free for any owner but Tesla recently started using a pay-to-fill model.
For the electric semi-trucks, there's a lot of implications.
First, some stats.
Today, there are well over 130 million trucks in the road. It's a major cause for congestion in every major city. Driving a truck over long hauls is one of the deadliest jobs in the U.S., and there's extremely high turnover.
But what would a Tesla semi do that could help? For starters, there's no question this would impact the gas industry. With a wider network of recharging stations meant for trucks, there's a ripe market for making the industry less dependent on fossil fuels. There are many safety implications as well. A Tesla semi would like use the same autonomous driving sensors as the vehicles on the road today, including collision avoidance and adaptive cruise control. Trucks could be platooned to stay in packs. Drivers could eventually trust that the truck will keep them safe, reducing turnover.
The biggest implication, though, is on transportation costs. If and electric semi can actually replace gas-powered vehicles, there's a chance that the overall cost for transporting goods will go down. The main benefit here is on how the power is distributed. If Tesla can build solar-powered stations, ramp up their infrastructure, rely less on gasoline, and convince drivers to switch, it's possible that the consumer and the companies paying for the transport will realize some of those benefits.
Now for the hard part.
How do you make an electric semi with the torque required to pull a heavy load?
Most of the early electrics were golf carts with a bit more zip. We have yet to see a production-ready vehicle that has enough power to pull a heavy load, let alone a tanker filled with oil. (Irony alert.) electric motors don't use gears or belts; they have plenty of initial torque but the question is how do you maintain that torque all the way up to 75 MPH or more? That's the engineering challenge.
I'm guessing Tesla has figured that out, which is why Musk sent the tweet--they have already proven they have the power required for semi-trailer loads and they are likely finishing the design prototypes. In September, we'll see a prototype.
Here's hoping it gets enough momentum.