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Tesla’s truck could change everything

Nobody saw this product introduction coming

Who would have thought the maker of sexy electric cars could be bothered to build a truck? PHOTO FROM TESLA

While it certainly stole much of the limelight, the unveiling of the new Tesla Roadster wasn’t actually the highlight of the American EV manufacturer’s latest event. The main reason Elon Musk asked the global media to come to his facility in Hawthorne, California, was a bigger one, literally: The company unveiled its first-ever electric truck. Simply called the Tesla Semi, the futuristic-looking machine comes with all sorts of high-tech features and could bring big changes to the way freight is transported on roads around the world.

Sporting a strikingly aerodynamic design, the new Semi is touted as having a better drag coefficient than the Bugatti Chiron, a point that is at least partially true (0.36 for the truck versus 0.38 for the Bugatti in EB mode), and that it will accelerate from zero to 100km/h in five seconds, meaning it has the potential to humiliate boy racers in ways they never thought possible. Even when towing the maximum allowed load of around 40 tons, it’s not exactly slow—doing the same sprint to 100km/h in 20 seconds, and going up a 5% grade at up to 105km/h, which is significantly faster than a diesel truck could manage.

This looks like a future character in a 'Transformers' movie. PHOTO FROM TESLA

Of course, the Semi being electric, the focus always switches to the range it can travel on one charge, and here Tesla is confident that it can go the 800km distance at highway speed. The EV maker is also planning to install a worldwide network of solar-powered “Megachargers” that can get 640km of range into the batteries with one single 30-minute charge. Here’s hoping this will include the Philippines, as we desperately need more modern and cleaner trucks on the road.

On the inside, things also look very different from a conventional truck, with the first thing to catch your eye being the central seating position for the driver, with a passenger seat tucked behind and to the side of it. Tesla-typical touchscreen interfaces, taken from the Model 3, surround the driver, with the left screen controlling vehicle functions and settings, while the right one handles navigation, radio and similar features. Tesla says these screens can also be configured in other ways in the future.

Driving a truck has never looked this futuristic and cool. Your kids might actually covet the job. PHOTO FROM TESLA

While there is no sleeper version available at launch, the company has tried to create more space in the cabin, making it big enough to stand up in with plenty of storage space and other features developed based on feedback from truckers. Big wing mirrors have been replaced by surround-view cameras that also eliminate blind spots around the vehicle, while special stability software helps prevent jackknifing by detecting a dangerous situation and torquing as well as braking each wheel when needed, thereby (hopefully) averting disaster.

Tesla is well known for having developed advanced autopilot technologies for its vehicles, and the Semi is featuring a number of these, including automated emergency braking, lane-keeping and lane-departure warnings, as well as the ability to create a three-truck convoy, a feature that still requires regulatory approval before the first real road trains can be unleashed. Once legal, convoying will involve a lead truck setting the pace and providing guidance, while the trucks following it can employ autonomous features to drive in extremely close proximity, saving huge amounts of energy in the process.

Carrying goods with a Tesla Semi could even be cheaper than transporting them by rail

While the electric truck is already anticipated to be cheaper to maintain than a diesel equivalent, the cost savings that might be achievable using convoys could be the real kicker for many commercial customers, to a level where carrying goods with a Semi could even be cheaper than transporting them by rail. Retail giant Walmart is one of a handful of companies that have placed initial orders for the truck, and the success of it will largely depend on how the transport industry accepts these new players on the road (and, of course, if these are proving to be reliable and worthwhile investments).

In theory, there should be little reason for the truck to break down, with four independent motors attached to the two rear axles providing plenty of power while needing little maintenance. Musk even claimed during the presentation that the truck would be guaranteed not to break down for “a million” miles of driving, while brake pads on it would “last forever” due to regenerative braking taking much of the stress away from them. Only time will tell if Tesla is really on to a winner with its first truck, but the company has yet again shown that it is a pioneer and trendsetter for the future. Now the pressure is on other manufacturers to follow suit.

Frank Schuengel

Frank is a German e-commerce executive who loves his wife, a Filipina, so much he decided to base himself in Manila. He has interesting thoughts on Philippine motoring. He writes the aptly named ‘Frankly’ column.