Tesla is a hype machine. What other company can make a live crowd ooh and ahh over at-home battery storage, or line up hundreds of thousands of pre-orders for a sedan? But even for Elon Musk, making a big rig sexy and desirable is a stretch. However, with his usual hyperbole, that’s exactly what he’s promising to do, and while he’s at it, he’s going to “blow your mind clear out of your skull.”
Elon Musk’s vision has always been for Tesla to be more than a car company. He wants to shift the world to sustainable energy, using electricity generated by the sun to power a range of vehicles, from cars, to SUVs, to busses, and yes, Class 8 trucks—the massive 18 wheelers that loom over all other freeway traffic. So before the 8 pm reveal in Los Angeles, here’s what we know.
Elon has been thinking about trucks for a while. In his Master Plan, Part Deux, a mission statement for Tesla he published in July 2016, Musk said he wanted to “expand the electric vehicle product line to address all major segments.”
In order to be skull-shattering, though, Musk is going to have to unveil something very special. Because while Tesla can take credit for igniting the electric car market, that was a sparse space before the company jumped in. The electric truck market, on the other hand, is already plenty competitive: Startups and established constructors alike all recognize that an electric drivetrain can be greener, cheaper, and easier to drive.
On Instagram he joked his truck will transform into a giant robot, fight aliens, and make one hell of a latte. (Well, he was probably joking.) Tesla has released teaser images of the truck, and we know it’s going to be sleek, probably black and silver, and have LED headlights. Beyond that, all we can do is make some informed inferences.
Bet on Batteries
Elon Musk is perhaps the world’s largest battery fan, so his semi-truck isn’t going to be a hybrid, with a diesel engine tucked away somewhere for emergencies. It’s not going to have a hydrogen fuel cell on board.
Expect the truck to be 100 percent battery powered, probably with lithium ion cells laid flat along the floor, as with Tesla’s cars. That keeps the center of gravity low, and helps with handling, which is especially important in a high sided vehicle that drives through strong cross winds.
Tesla builds its batteries in modules, and then uses as many modules as it takes for each application, whether that’s stationary storage for Powerwalls in homes, large scale grid storage like it deployed in Puerto Rico, or movable storage in cars. Multiplying that up to truck scale shouldn’t be too challenging, technologically, but the logistics are another matter.
Tesla’s big Model 3 bottleneck has so far been the battery pack, after all. The company has struggled to get the automated production line at its Gigafactory in Nevada running, so investors will be looking for Musk to explain how, and where, he plans to build his trucks, and how he’ll avoid the same problem.
Tesla is big on aerodynamics, and Musk cites the physics of air resistance often—it increases with the square of speed. Just punching through the air is a huge power drain, even on a sleek car with retracting door handles to make it as slippery as possible. A Tesla truck will employ the latest aerodynamic science, likely with active spoilers and deflectors that adjust their angle to give the best performance.
Electric trucks will still need charging, even if Tesla manages to stuff in enough batteries to give a range of a few hundred miles. Tesla’s current network of Superchargers can rejuice a Model S car in 40 minutes, but a truck is going to need a commensurately larger charger.
Musk may suggest that the vehicles are best for fixed routes between two points where chargers can be installed, or where the truck can sit overnight. Hauling goods from a port to an inland distribution center would be an ideal use case. Lugging lumber out of an isolated forest and across the country, less so.
The Case for the Cost
Finally, there’s the price. Cost-sensitive fleet operators are much less prone to buying on a whim than car purchasers, no matter how flashy the tech. But Musk will likely make the case that even if his truck is more expensive upfront, over five years it will repay the investment with lower fuel and maintenance costs.