Elon Musk unveiled Tesla’s fifth—and sixth—vehicles at a characteristically glitzy event in Los Angeles last night. An audience of potential customers and current Tesla owners witnessed smooth acceleration, excellent cornering and impressive performance—and those were just the exploits of the electric Semi truck they had turned up to see.
The crowd was then treated to the surprise unveiling of what is destined to be not only the world’s longest-range electric car, but also the fastest production car of any flavor: the new Tesla Roadster.
The unveiling of the two vehicles amounted to a triumphant evening for Elon Musk, who has been struggling through what he admits has been “production hell” with ongoing delays to his company’s mass market Model 3 car.
Although the new Roadster is destined to grab headlines, it was the launch of the Semi heavy-duty truck that could have the most impact on the world’s roads. The truck, which is powered by a Model 3 motor on each of its four drive wheels and boasts a drag coefficient lower than a Bugatti Chiron, can drive 800 kilometers (500 miles) on a single charge of its lithium-ion battery pack.
Tesla would not confirm the pack’s capacity or chemistry, but did say that it is very similar to another product sold by Tesla (probably either the Powerwall domestic or Powerpack utility-scale battery). It says the Semi weighs roughly the same as existing diesel trucks fully loaded with fuel.
The pack will be able to take on 650-km-worth of charge in 30 minutes at a new generation of charging stations, called Megachargers, that Musk will soon roll out to Semi drivers operating “anywhere in the world.” The Megachargers will deliver solar power generated from Tesla solar panels, selling it at a flat rate of 7 cents per kilowatt-hour in the United States. That is just over half the national average rate of 13.1 cents per kWh.
At that price, says Musk, the Semi will cost just 78 cents per kilometer ($1.26 per mile) to operate. The American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) says that operating a diesel truck in 2016 cost an average of 99 cents per km ($1.59/mi). That differential means that the Semi will save truckers hundreds of thousands of dollars, despite it having a higher purchase price than today’s diesel trucks. Musk did not specify a retail cost for the Semi, but Jerome Guillen, the engineer in charge of the Semi project, did say Tesla already has “a lot” of preorders.
Trucking may seem like a departure for the Californian company more commonly associated with luxury cars like the Roadster announced later. But it actually fits neatly into Musk’s long-term strategy of covering all “major forms” of terrestrial transport, with the aim of accelerating the advent of a sustainable energy economy.
According to the International Energy Authority, trucks account for around 20 percent of global oil demand, 35 percent of transport-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and around 7 percent of the planet’s energy-related CO2 emissions. If trucks continue to burn oil, the IEA predicts their oil consumption will rise by nearly one-third again by 2050. Instead, says Musk, “Our trucks run on sunlight."
Tesla says the Semi comes with the same Enhanced Autopilot system as its latest cars, using identical front- and side-facing cameras, computers, ultrasonic sensors and radars—although probably more of them. As expected, it does not have a lidar system. Musk did not talk about the potential of automating drivers out of a job, instead focusing on the safety and efficiency benefits of partial autonomy.
A platooning convoy of three Tesla Semi trucks, he said, would reduce their cost per kilometer to just 53 cents (85 cents/mi). This would be cheaper than sending the same freight by train. “This is economic suicide for rail,” he said.
Tesla is also keen to woo drivers by putting them in a stylish cab that is home to a single, centrally-located seat with 15-inch touchscreens on either side. These come straight from the Model 3, displaying a similar selection of driving information and maps, and access to settings and audio entertainment. In fact, many of the Semi’s components are carryovers from other Teslas, including exterior door handles from the Model 3. But unlike the Model 3, it does not have a driver-facing internal camera.
While the Semi promises cheaper, more efficient freight transportation, the new Roadster is unabashedly presented as a shiny toy for rich speed freaks. Its ability to punch from 0 to 100 km in less than two seconds and reach a top speed of over 400 km per hour, makes it the spiritual successor to the Lotus-bodied Roadster that launched Tesla. With a range of 1000 kilometers (620 miles), it can zip from Los Angeles to San Francisco and back again on a single charge.
The Roadster’s $250,000 price tag is about the same, probably, as the Semi truck. But only one quarter-million-dollar investment has the potential to slash carbon emissions, eliminate air pollution and even reduce accidents.
Mark Harris is an investigative science and technology reporter based in Seattle, with a particular interest in robotics, transportation, green technologies, and medical devices. He’s on Twitter at @meharris and email at mark(at)meharris(dot)com. Email or DM for Signal number for sensitive/encrypted messaging.