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Tesla Reveals Electric Semi to Industry Buyers


Tesla unveiled its long-awaited Class 8 “Semi” tractor-trailer vehicle Thursday in Nevada with PepsiCo taking delivery of the first of these trucks. 

Tesla semi truck delivery event
Tesla rolled out its first two production-ready semi trucks, delivered to PepsiCo.

Tesla began production of the Semi in October of this year, and expects to produce up to 100 examples before the end of the year. Tesla’s Semi truck production has been plagued by delays; PepsiCo ordered 50 trucks five years ago this month, and package delivery giant UPS ordered 125 trucks at the same time. 

Federal tax incentives are significant

There are large incentives for transport-dependent corporations to invest in electric trucks. Per the Inflation Reduction Act, Federal tax credits up to $40,000 are available for each clean commercial vehicle purchased. 

The Inflation Reduction Act provides a Qualified Commercial Clean Vehicles Credit of $40,000 or 30% of the vehicle cost, whichever is lower, for vehicles greater than 14,000 pounds that operate on batteries alone. Additionally, the act provides an Alternative Fuel Refueling Infrastructure Credit for 30% of the cost of installing EV chargers, up to a lifetime benefit of $100,000 per charging site.

Competition from established brands

Tesla CEO Musk at semi delivery event
Tesla CEO Elon Musk laid out the specifics of the new Semi truck.

The Tesla Semi is arriving late to the game, with competition from Freightliner, Volvo and Mercedes-Benz already on the road. For example, the Freightliner eCascadia comes with dual motors that deliver 395 horsepower and max torque of 23,000 pound-feet or a single motor that’s good for 195 hp and max torque of 11,500 lb-ft. Buyers also have a choice of thee lithium ion batteries: a 194-kWh battery that charges in 1.5-3 hours, a 291-kWh unit that replenishes in 2-4 hours, and a 438-kWh pack that takes 2-6 hours to recharge.

The eCascadia has a maximum range of about 230 miles, depending on configuration, and a combined gross weight capacity of 82,000 pounds. This makes the Freightliner a solid choice for local and regional trucking applications.

“The eCascadia is our heavy-duty electric product,” said Alexander Voets, e-mobility sales and marketing manager for Daimler Trucks North America. “It’s the electric version of the Freightliner Cascadia that we have on the road today. This is a full class 8 truck, so it has 80,000-pound capacity.”

In addition to the eCascadia, Daimler has also previewed its eM2 box truck. As a Class 6/7 truck, it’s smaller than a full 18-wheeler, and compares to trucks commonly used for furniture or appliance deliveries today.

Tesla semi cab overhead shot
The cab on the new Tesla semi is driver focused, starting with a center-mounted seat.

“The eM2 is the electrified version of the M2 product in Class 6 and 7,” Voets said. “With a 315 kWh battery pack, this truck will have a range of about 230 miles.”  

With those range estimates, Daimler expects both its eCascadia and eM2 trucks to see extensive use within urban areas rather than cross-country long-distance applications. 

“These are for drayage applications; pick-up and delivery, and regional delivery,” Voets said. “That’s really what these trucks are designed to do.” 

Most urban-area delivery trucks in classes 6-8 work from a central warehouse and make deliveries to retail locations within a given metropolitan region. Daimler’s research indicates that most trucks working this kind of routine travel fewer than 100 miles each day, making the Freightliner products well-suited to the needs of operators. 

An uphill fight for credibility

As a new manufacturer, Tesla will have to earn its credibility in the commercial truck segment. Orders for 50 or 125 trucks amount to a tiny test case for companies like PepsiCo or UPS with massive transportation operations. In a business where getting products distributed smoothly and on time is a critical business requirement, managers are likely to be skeptical of a company not especially known for reliability. 

Freightliner Electric Trucks
The new Freightliner eCascadia and eM2 semis that are part of the efforts to lead the move into battery-electric semi trucks.

“Tesla is very much the new kid on the block here. It has everything to prove, and it will be proving it against very, very strong legacy competitors,” Oliver Dixon, senior analyst at Guidehouse Insights, told Reuters.

Among the other new kids is commercial EV startup Nikola, which has faced a series of legal and financial problems. Nikola announced that it would reduce its production in the face of a steep climb in battery costs, and acquired its own battery maker. 

Are EV trucks good for the long haul?

Tesla claims a range of 500 miles for the Semi, and Tesla CEO Elon Musk has boasted the truck achieved that range with a gross combined vehicle weight of 81,000 pounds. However, Tesla has not published the unladen weight of the Semi, so it’s not clear how much of the 81,000 pounds was payload. Industry experts have estimated that that the Semi tractor might have a curb weight of about 27,000 pounds, compared to about 15,000 to 25,000 pounds for a conventional 18-wheel tractor. 

What is known is the Semi will use a large number of battery cells, up to five times the capacity used in a Tesla passenger car. With battery production becoming a critical chokepoint for automakers, the net ecological benefit of a long haul electric tractor may be less than replacing several short-range trucks. As Toyota’s President Akio Toyoda explained in October, “Toyota can produce eight 40-mile plug-in hybrids for every 320-mile battery electric vehicle and save up to eight times the carbon emitted into the atmosphere.”

Toyoda’s logic indicates that it may be better to use the same battery capacity to produce several shorter-range drayage trucks. This is especially true when widespread ultra-fast “megacharger” recharging capability for the Tesla Semi is not yet available. Shorter-range trucks from Freightliner, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo can be charged at conventional DC Fast Charging stations. 


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