23 Nov 2017 13:45 IST

Tesla’s truck and the road ahead for goods transport

Tesla unveiled the Tesla Semi, an all-electric heavy-duty truck, this week

Elon Musk’s riding in on a new truck?

Yes. Just this week, the maverick entrepreneur and founder of electric vehicle maker Tesla unveiled the Tesla Semi, an all-electric heavy-duty truck, which is, of course, a testing prototype, but could may enter mass-production mode. Tesla Semi, which Musk presented at the Hawthorne Municipal Airport Parking lot near his SpaceX headquarters, claims to sport a remarkable 500-mile (over 800-km) range in one charge and has no transmission, clutch, big engine or any such typical components one generally finds in a conventional truck. And the battery and motor can last up to one million miles. This is a first and epochal, to say the least.

Wow, I’m curious!

Tesla says the Semi will run for a million miles without a breakdown. Musk has said it’s brake pads will last “forever” and the glass on the truck is “thermonuclear explosion-proof”. Tall claim, yes. But if you if you know the larger-than-life claims of Musk and Co you wouldn’t be surprised. This is someone who’s planning to colonise Mars and make inter-planetary travel a reality and has millions of dollars invested in the idea.

Yes, for him not even the sky is the ‘limit’!

You said it. So now the question auto sector analysts, investors and even technology enthusiasts seem to be asking is: Does the Tesla Semi actually mean the road ahead for goods transport? Is it feasible? If not, how long will it take for such e-trucks to become commercially viable and if they do, how are they going to jell with or negotiate the existing ecosystem of goods transport?

I thought I was the one asking questions!

Well, Tesla — which has a market capitalisation of $52.5 billion as we speak — says it has all the answers to our concerns. To start with, the Semi can hit 60 mph three times faster than a regular truck. Experts say the mileage can be around $1.26 a mile. That’s impressive, given that a regular diesel trucks takes $1.51 for the same distance. And a 30-minute charge can add 400 miles to the Tesla Semi. The Semi will enter production stables in 2019.

But at what price?

There you go! Musk didn’t reveal a price tag for the Semi. He says, “Tesla stuff is expensive.” But analysts estimate that an electric truck which can cover some 600 miles in one charge may cost $400,000, owing to the expensive batteries that power them. In comparison, a regular truck of the same metrics takes only $120,000.

That’s miles apart!

True, but only for now. Some experts suggest that if an e-truck has to be economically viable it should run at least 1,000 miles in one charge. And the battery and motor should last double that of the current range of 1 million miles. But that could be a matter of time. And of course, there is the so-called economies of scale. No doubt, electric trucks could make a big difference in cleaning up the transportation sector which is a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. In the US itself, about 30 per cent of GHG emissions comes from transport and big trucks account for a significant chunk of it.

Agreed, but will other vehicle makers follow suit?

They are, already. Tesla’s claims maybe overblown for now, but the idea is a game-changer. And stakeholders are listening. China, has plans to phase out combustion engine-powered vehicles from 2020. Daimler has recently unveiled a few battery-powered prototypes this year. Premium truck maker Paccar is reportedly testing electric and hybrid models. So is Swedish giant Volvo. Which means, e-trucks are not going to stay in the realm of fantasy or prototype. The road ahead for goods transport must be clean and electric. Watch this space.

(The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine.)