Elon Musk’s boast that Tesla’s glitzy electric truck launch on November 16 would “blow your mind” has yet to convince leading scientists from elite universities with some of the technical details during the presentation.
Furthermore, the UK’s Road Haulage Association (RHA) has said the anticipated price range for these trucks is totally unrealistic for most hauliers. However, Tesla insists the truck will challenge diesel truck’s supremacy and earmarked production to start 2019.
In the first of a series investigating decarbonising freight transportation, we look at the viability of the Tesla electric truck. The move to an electric truck is part of an ongoing industry and government-backed strategy to move to fuels that release no net carbon into the atmosphere, thereby decarbonising freight transportation.
Some of the specifications given by Tesla during their much-hyped unveiling of the new electric-articulated lorry have left seasoned automotive journalists astonished. The BBC’s Top Gear says Tesla’s claim that the electric Semi will be able to reach speeds of 60 miles per hour in five seconds without its trailers was compared to outrunning a Golf GTI. Its “futuristic” lines were noted by the Top Gear team, helping to produce a coefficient of drag – its aerodynamic performance comprising an important element in energy consumption – “lower than a Bugatti Chiron”.
In a series of comparisons vis-à-vis competitors, the promotional video demonstrates how the Tesla Semi will outperform diesel trucks in a series of metrics. During his presentation, Musk showed how his electric truck would climb gradients far quicker than diesel trucks; he explained that the Tesla Semi requires no clutch changes for smooth acceleration or deceleration; how its braking capacity recovers 98% of kinetic energy to the battery. The Tesla has infinite brake life.
He added, “Overall, the Semi is more responsive, covers more miles than a diesel truck in the same amount of time, and more safely integrates with passenger car traffic.”
Graphics showcased during the presentation by Musk illustrated how the Semis cabin is designed around the driver experience; has outstanding built-in safety features; how built-in connectivity integrates directly with a fleet’s management system to support routing and scheduling.
Some of these striking performance details have been dismissed as hype by veteran battery expert commentator, Gerry Woolf, who gave his candid opinion to Forward with Toll.
The BBC also outlined other important details of the Tesla Semi from the launch: a 500-mile range on a single charge; a battery that can be charged repeatedly for up to one million miles; similar motors to those installed in Tesla’s model 3 cars; and mega chargers that can add 400 miles in half an hour. According to Musk, this high-speed DC charging solution will allow recharging during loading, unloading and driver breaks. They can be installed at origin or destination points and along heavy traffic routes. He also mentioned that they will utilise solar power.
Other technological features included a lower centre of gravity than a standard long-haul truck, autopilot features, and semi-autonomous capabilities for braking. Musk also claimed the Tesla electric trucks could be deployed in a convoy formation. He said the costs reductions flowing from this deployment of trucks would be more cost competitive than utilising rail.
All of this means “economic suicide” for hauliers using diesel trucks.
Crucially, the selling price was left undisclosed, but reservations can be made at $5000 per truck. The company maintained reduced fuels costs would mean owners can clawback at least $200,000 over a million miles based on fuel costs alone. With 80% of freight transported a distance below 250 miles, according to Musk, the financials stack up, especially with US electricity prices of USD0.12/kWh, if not lower for commercial or industrial users, and falling further when combined with solar power.
The demand for this vehicle remains unclear at this stage. Speaking on the BBC, Robert McKenzie of the RHA, anticipated the pricing point for these new electric lorries at around £200,000, which is “way beyond the budget of most hauliers in the UK.”
However, another leading UK freight organisation representing hauliers, the Freight Transport Association (FTA) gave a mixed review of the launch. Christopher Snelling, FTA Head of National and Regional Policy, said, “This development from Tesla marks an exciting step forward in freight transport technology, as electrification will undoubtedly play a significant role in the future of logistics.”
However, Snelling remained cautious about developments, “At the moment, even an electric van costs six times as much as a conventional one and batteries remain extremely heavy, which means electric vehicles still have a long way to go before they are a viable option for the majority of freight operators.”
He added, “It’s unlikely this new truck will address all of the current operational and cost limitations. However, Tesla has been at the forefront of technological development both in transport and battery design, which means it is bound to feature some of the innovations which we will see in commercial vehicles of the future.”
What the future holds for freight transportation is open to speculation. The near-term demise of the internal combustion engine for freight transportation has been dismissed by Felix Leach, Research Fellow and Tutor in Engineering Science, Keble College, University of Oxford.
Leach stated, “Put simply, the energy requirements for road freight are too high for current or currently projected battery technology to cope.”
He insisted, “However, based on current information I think electrification of long haul (heavy trucks) is exceedingly unlikely before 2050, and this seems to be the consensus.”
Commentating on the Tesla launch, Leach contests that some of the technical details of the project are sketchy at best. He maintains the feasibility of the Tesla Semi is questionable thus far as relatively few technical details have been released – and even those technical aspects open for review are leaps of faith. For instance, he suggests the drag coefficient (Cd) of 0.36 for their truck is lower than a Ferrari F50 sports car’s Cd of 0.37. He also claims the energy usage for the project is less than a quarter than he would have predicted for such a project.
Utilising Tesla’s energy-usage calculations, he added, “This might mean that their battery pack is 1000kWh, which would give a battery price of $100,000, weight of 4 tonnes (6.3 tonnes assuming these are the same batteries as in a model S), and a charge time of half a day on a supercharger.”
Leach has other misgivings. Musk has not revealed the size of his battery nor are details available about the mega charger. He notices cost details are virtually non-existent, especially perturbing given carbon fibre structure involved and advanced battery technology.
He added, “Only a significant step forward in battery chemistry will make it commercially viable. They have not announced any such improvement. Tesla has not released enough information – for example on battery size – to enable a proper scientific analysis. I have had to make a number of assumptions!”
He adds, “One thing to be very careful of with Tesla is to separate technical innovation from brand – for example, light-weighting (carbon fibre), aerodynamic improvements, “autopilot”, and touch screens could all be fitted to conventional trucks.”
He then added, “What economy and emissions could a diesel truck achieve if these improvements were fitted without having to drag around a 6.3-ton battery?”
He also doubts the viability at this stage for a global roll-out of this Tesla. He explained, “One final thought – if this does roll out to the whole global trucking fleet – where will all this electricity come from? Musk is promising an electricity price 30% below current market (7c/kWh vs today’s 10c/kWh) – with the investment required to do all this, is that feasible?”
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University recently conducted in-depth research into the viability of next-generation batteries for an Electric Semi Truck. Sripad, Shashank, and Venkatasubramanian Viswanathan. “Performance Metrics Required of Next-Generation Batteries to Make a Practical Electric Semi Truck.” ACS Energy Letters 2.7 (2017): 1669-1673.
Sripad and Viswanathan suggested that that for a truck with a driving range of 300 miles, the lithium-ion battery system would cost roughly $200,000. Furthermore, with a driving range of 600 miles the cost of the battery will be as much as $400,000, weigh over 16,000 kg (18 tons), more than the available payload capacity of 12 tons. These statistics cast doubt on the feasibility of Tesla’s long-haul truck.
Leach also worries about Tesla’s inability to turn in a profit. It was reported in recode that the company has only had two profitable quarters in its history as a public company. Mounting research and development costs could also weigh heavily on the company’s profitability, and Tesla has previously struggled to meet production deadlines as a luxury carmaker, according to Leach.