Tesla unveils semi-autonomous electric truck

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Tesla Inc. on Thursday unveiled its long awaited electric big-rig truck, which the company said includes semi-autonomous driving features.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said during a boisterous rally in Los Angeles that his company’s electric trucks will have a 500-mile driving range at maximum weight and highway speed and they will be capable of going from zero to 60 miles per hour in five seconds, or 20 seconds if they are carrying an 80,000-pound load.

Musk said production of the Tesla electric truck is scheduled to begin in 2019.

A Tesla truck will be 20 percent less expensive than a diesel truck over the life of the vehicle, and they will be capable of operating in convoys, he said.

“It blows my mind,” Musk said to cheers. “I think it will blow yours.”

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Musk compared the experience of driving the big rig to the feeling of being behind the wheel of one of his company’s other electric vehicles that feature its semi-autonomous “Autopilot” feature.

“It’s as though you’re driving a Model S or a Model X or a Model 3,” he said. “It’s just big. It’s super easy to drive.”

Musk said Tesla’s autopilot system will come standard on all of its electric trucks.

“The truck will automatically brake,” he said. “It will actually automatically lane keep as well. Even if you’re in the truck and you have a medical emergency, the truck will actually stay in the lane and gradually come to a halt ... This is a massive increase in safety.”

Musk also touted the reliability of his company’s electric trucks, saying Tesla is guaranteeing the big rigs will not break down for a million miles because they have will have multiple motors.

“You can lose two of the four motors and the truck will still keep going,” he said.

Tesla has been touting its development of a semi-autonomous electric big-rig since 2016, when Musk released an updated “master plan” that spoke of electric heavy-duty trucks and high passenger-density vehicles that would be used for urban transportation.

“We believe the Tesla Semi will deliver a substantial reduction in the cost of cargo transport, while increasing safety and making it really fun to operate,” Musk wrote in the blog post dated July 20, 2016.

Tesla was originally scheduled to unveil its electric big-rig in September and then again on Oct. 26, but the reveal was pushed back in a move the company attributed to bottlenecks in production of its Model 3 sedan.

“Tesla Semi unveil now Nov 16,” Musk tweeted on Oct. 6. “Diverting resources to fix Model 3 bottlenecks & increase battery production for Puerto Rico & other affected areas.”

Tesla’s unveiling of its semi-autonomous electric big-rig was highly anticipated. It comes at a time when lawmakers in Congress are debating whether self-driving trucks should be included in legislation that would legalize driverless passenger cars.

Michelle Krebs, executive analyst for Autotrader, said the truck industry presents a large opportunity for Tesla, although she noted that there are already other semi-autonomous truck manufacturers, including Daimler and Uber’s Otto.

“The truck market, for a variety of reasons, is ripe for change, from electrification, self-driving and connected,” she said. “Tesla clearly sees the promise. However, Tesla will be up against some formidable challengers, Daimler being one which knows this market well and already has customer trust and loyalty.

Krebs added: “In contrast to Tesla’s current buyer bases, the priority for truck drivers and fleet operators is reliability and uptime. The truck is a tool for making money. When a truck is out of commission, money is lost. In contrast, a Tesla car owner has other vehicles in the household fleet to drive if the vehicle isn’t operational.”

Other analysts have questioned the timing of Tesla’s entry into the truck market.

“While Tesla’s truck announcement will unquestionably create a lot of buzz, the company has incorrectly aimed its sights,” Michael Harley, group managing editor for Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book, said. “Diesel fuel is readily available and relatively efficient for heavy long-haul trucks that cruise open highways at a fixed speed. A more appropriate target for the electric vehicle maker would be the short-haul, or so-called last mile delivery, which would benefit from regenerative braking, low noise and emission-free EV motoring.

Brian Moody, executive editor for Autotrader, said Tesla is betting that self-driving trucks would ultimately be approved to operate on U.S. roadways.

“In many ways, Tesla building a heavy truck makes sense, especially given Tesla’s well-publicized driver assist and/or self-driving features,” he said. “Long-haul trucking is likely the most logical arena for self-driving vehicles ahead of private passenger cars. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Model X and S are just big marquees for where the real money is – fully autonomous over-the-road cargo trucks.”

Tesla also unveiled a new four-seater electric roadster on Thursday that Musk said will have a top speed of above 250 miles-per-hour and be capable of going from zero to 60 miles-per-hour in 1.9 seconds. Musk said the new electric roadster will have a 200 kilowatt-hour battery pack and it will be capable of achieving a driving range of 620 miles.

"This will the first time an electric vehicle breaks 1,000 kilometers," Musk said. "You'll be able to travel from LA to San Francisco and back at highway speed without recharging. The point of doing this is just to give a hardcore smackdown to gasoline cars. Driving a gasoline sports car is going to feel like a steam engine with a side of quiche."

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing