After wowing SpaceX fans with his plan to replace long-distance airliners with rockets, Bond-villain-slash-prophet Elon Musk dazzled automobile enthusiasts last night by announcing two new vehicles at the company’s Hawthorne, California, facility. One is the Tesla Semi, an electric truck that looks like an Imperial storm trooper transport, and the other is the Roadster, an electric sports car that allegedly accelerates faster than any other car in the world.
By expanding into trucking, Musk has his eye on a potentially very lucrative market. Still, questions remain about Tesla’s ability to deliver on these new vehicle types.
A Truck Like No Other
The design of Tesla’s new 18-wheeler is a radical departure from what you see on roads today. For any other manufacturer it would be a concept vehicle, not a production truck. Its looks are consistent with the rest of Tesla’s automobile lineup, but it goes beyond pure aesthetics. The South African inventor claims that the Semi has a drag coefficient of 0.36. To put that in perspective, the $2.7-million Bugatti Chiron supercar’s drag coefficient is 0.38. This aerodynamic profile allegedly gives it more efficiency and shaves every volt off its battery pack, saving power and hopefully helping reduce carbon emissions even more.
The Class 8 truck, which weighs more than 33,000 pounds, is fully electric. No diesel engine, no liquified gas supplemental engine. It is capable of freighting a maximum cargo of 80,000 pounds more than 500 miles at typical speeds over highways. That statistic is even more impressive if you look at the declared charge time: 30 minutes on a Tesla megacharger will give drivers 400 miles. Musk told the audience at Hawthorne that its full operational cost per mile is 20% less than a typical diesel 18-wheeler. According to some studies, electrical vehicles will not only save drivers and companies money but are also better for the environment. And since the EPA says that trucks account for 23% of all transportation emissions, an electric semi is good news.
He also claimed that the semi-autonomous Semi is “the safest and most comfortable truck” ever, with lane tracking and automatic braking to avoid accidents. These measures may help reduce accidents involving trucks, which the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration set at 4,311 fatal crashes in 2015, an 8% increase over 2014. It also has what Musk qualified as a “nuclear explosion-proof glass” windshield, which means this:
Even if you take all these claims with a few pinches of salt, the truth is that the truck world has never seen anything like this. Not even Volvo, which arguably invests more than anyone else in truck safety and environmental technologies, has a vehicle with a feature list anywhere Tesla’s Semi.
What remains to be seen is how the trucking industry, and drivers, will respond to this radical departure from traditional truck aesthetics and mechanics. But perhaps the bigger question is cost effectiveness. Musk didn’t disclose the Semi’s price but said it “is going to be expensive,” like all Tesla stuff. A recent study claims that a battery capable of the feats claimed by Tesla will cost $400,000. A typical diesel truck will go for about $120,000, which means that “Tesla’s semi would need to drive in the region of a million miles to break even against a diesel truck,” according to MIT Technology Review.
The transportation market is markedly different from Tesla’s typical customers. The latter buys Tesla for a variety of reasons–the environmental benefits, the aesthetics, the technical features–but economics is not one of them. The former always takes cost into consideration. Given the potential price tag for this beast, it seems unlikely that its futuristic features and design will be enough to cause truckers and truck companies to trade in their diesel engines for space-age comfort, safety, and good conscience.
“The quickest car in the world”
Musk’s other big announcement was the Tesla Roadster, a fully electric car that drives at a “more than 250 mph” top speed and it is the “quickest car in the world”– capable of accelerating from 0 to 100km/h in just 1.9 seconds. For comparison, the fastest car acceleration ever recorded was 2.3 seconds, a record shared by the Ultima Evolution Coupé, the Dodge Challenger SRT Demon, and Tesla’s own Model S P100D. If you believe Musk, the final production Tesla Roadster may accelerate even faster. At this rate, people will need SpaceX astronaut training to drive his cars.
At the event, Musk also claimed that Tesla’s new sports automobile can drive for 630 miles without recharging thanks to its 200 kWh battery pack. Obviously, if you keep accelerating or driving like an electrified Steve McQueen, its range would be greatly reduced, but the figure is still impressive at typical public road speeds. Apparently, it’s a “family” car, since it can sit two very rich people and their two very rich kids on the back seats, starting at $200,000. The first 1,000 vehicles, however, will come in 2020 labeled as the “Founder’s Series” for $250,000 a pop.
On paper, the Roadster sounds like an outstanding piece of technology that could compete against supercars from Ferrari, Porsche, Lamborghini, and Bugatti. But, given Tesla’s multiple problems with production, it is yet to be seen if it will truly materialize in 2020 and live to all its promises. Perhaps those problems are a clear sign that Musk may be spreading his resources too thin by adding this Roadster and the Semi to Tesla’s lineup.
I, for one, don’t care about the Real World. I want them both. I want a black Tesla Semi with a golden chess piece on its side, and a black Tesla Roadster with red LEDs to match my black leather pants and jacket. I’ll become an old “loner on a crusade to champion the cause of the innocent, the helpless, the powerless, in a world of criminals who operate above the law.”