- Tesla’s big rig will likely redefine the large tractor-trailer for the future.
- Expect a futuristic prototype, complete with a spaceship-like cab and a huge battery.
- Ironically, the freight business might be a better fit for Tesla’s technologies that the mass-market for passengers cars.
- Market-watchers are dividing on whether this is a good move for Tesla.
Tesla will reveal its big-rig semi-trailer in Los Angeles on Thursday evening, and I’ll be at SpaceX headquarters to check it out. Check back with Business Insider for full coverage.
The Tesla semi was anything but a 10-4-good-buddy move for Tesla. While many observers expected a pickup truck to join the carmaker’s lineup of all-electric cars, the big rig was a surprise.
A logical one, however, as many sustainable mobility experts have for years argued that the best application for electric vehicles isn’t personal transportation but rather freight. We move stuff around on the world’s highways using largely Class-8 diesel rigs. Subtract those emissions and the fight against global warming, which Tesla CEO Elon Musk takes very seriously, is a large step closer to winning.
Big rigs are already cool — there’s a reason why little kids always want drivers to blow their trucks’ massive air horns when they pass them on the freeway. Tesla’s interpretation of a machine defined by the Macks and Peterbilts should be plenty interesting.
Here’s what we expect to see:
A big rig that looks like a spaceship
The exterior and interior design of Tesla’s cars is propelled by a sort of traditional regard for what a car is supposed to look like, although design chief Franz von Holzhausen has applied a powerfully disciplined minimalist approach to the job.
But cars and even the Model X SUV as, when compared with a tractor trailer, small. They’re frigates to the big rig’s battleship, and that opens up some new aesthetics possibilities.
If you think about it, the only thing that that Elon Musk’s companies builds that are as big as a big rig is SpaceX rockets, and of course they’re much bigger. But the star-faring startups space capsules as sort of semi-sized, so it might be worth it to look at them for hints for how the big rig will be put together.
I’m expecting something pretty out-there. As in, “Who needs a steering wheel?” The whole point of remaking freight transport isn’t to electrify it — it’s to eliminate divers. That carries with it some grim prospects on the labor front, but we’d be naive if we didn’t think that’s what Tesla future semi customers are after.
So the Tesla big rig’s cab will be, I think, more like the bridge of a spaceship. There will be lots of screens so that if there is a human technician in there, he or she can monitor the truck’s systems in the same way the helmsman and navigator of the Starship Enterprise do in the movies and on TV. If there are seats, they will be phenomenally cool. And for long-haul duty, the type of sleeping quarters that would be the envy of a luxury boutique hotel.
The rig will also have as different a vibe as is possible, I suspect, on the outside. Sleek and otherworldly. However, given that this will be a prototype, it will probably bear some resemblance to a regular old big rig, as Tesla will have had to consider that the vehicle will be hauling the sort of model-freight containers and trailers that are currently commonplace in the shipping industry.
It could have a gigantic battery that gives it extreme range
The Tesla big rig is going to need a big battery. Even it doesn’t offer ranges on the order of 1,000 miles per charge (what some diesel rigs can deliver today), it’s still going to require the torque and range to serve up something like 200-300 miles per charge to make sense.
Luckily, the conventional shape and size of the semi lends itself to a huge battery pack. Tesla’s biggest pack for a passenger vehicle is a 100 kilowatt-hour unit. It fills the floor of a Model S or Model X.
But Tesla can do larger batteries, for its utility grade Powerpack applications. Powerpack 2 is a 200 kWh lithium-ion unit. And the engineering of a big rig, if it’s all electric, is fairly modular. You need a platform, perhaps two electric motors to power all four wheels, and cab — leaving the motor-free leftover space available for batteries.
The torque should be insane — and torque is what big rigs require, as they’re towing massive amounts of weight. Mack’s MP8 engine, for example, is a Class-8 diesel powerplant that makes upwards of 505 horsepower, but more importantly, over 1,800 pound-feet of torque.
A Tesla Model S P100D can do almost 800 pound-feet of torque. This is speculative, but a pair of 100-kWh batteries could double that torque output.
Charging a battery that large could take a consumer a couple of hours at a Tesla Supercharger modified for big rigs, but trucking is more flexible when it comes to this kind of scheduling that folks taking long trips in their personal cars, who just want to get where they’re going. The logistics industry is an ideal realm for computing power to schedule and optimize freight routes and pickup and delivery times.
Freight companies are also in a better position to absorb substantial battery replacement costs. So ironically, Tesla’s technologies could make more sense in a big than in a personal car.
Self-driving tech, on a massive scale might also be present
Tesla’s approach to autonomous mobility requires a lot of computing power, because the Autopilot system uses cameras and sensors rather than costly laser-radar (Lidar). Crunching the visual data is a major challenge.
Autonomous freight transport in the “over the road” environment — on highways — holds a lot of potential because the freeway is a far more ideal place for self-driving vehicles to operate than in cities.
A big rig is also a great autonomous platform because it has the size to lug around the supercomputer and cooling systems that Tesla’s self-driving tech demands.
The commercial applications are even more appealing as trucking companies would like nothing more than to run their fleets remotely. In the short term, this isn’t even necessarily bad news for truckers, who would still be needed to handle Tesla’s rigs during the “last mile,” picking up and dropping off loads.
They would also be required to monitor the early big-rig Autopilot systems — in the spectacular, spaceship comfort of the semi’s futuristic command center.