February 3, 2023

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Tesla delivers the first electric semitrailer tractors three years late

Five years after their initial unveiling, the first Tesla semi trucks were delivered to customers Thursday at an event at the company’s Gigafactory in Sparks, Nevada.

The trucks, first revealed in concept form in 2017, were scheduled to go into production in 2019 but were delayed for a variety of reasons, including the COVID-19 pandemic and a global parts shortage. PepsiCo representatives, who reserved 100 Semis shortly after their unveiling, were on hand to receive the first batch of trucks.

According to Tesla, the Semi is powered by four independent motors on the rear axles, can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 20 seconds and has a battery range of up to 500 miles. Prices can start at $150,000, and there have been a number of orders in the bottom dozen from companies like Walmart and FedEx.

Standing on a stage flanked by four Tesla Semis, two of which were wrapped in Pepsi and Frito-Lay logos, Musk spoke about the need to reduce the amount of carbon emissions caused by shipping goods around the world will. But after paying lip service to the mission of fighting climate change, he quickly turned to his own brand of showmanship.

“It looks sick,” said Tesla CEO Elon Musk on stage at the event. “You want to drive that. I mean, this thing looks like it’s from the future.” Musk later called the Semi “a beast.”

Tesla semi truck

Screenshot: Tesla

Musk listed a number of features that he said would make the semi the most efficient, desirable and drivable truck on the road. The truck will feature a new 1,000-volt powertrain architecture, which Musk said will feed into future product development at Tesla. The Semi features traction control to prevent jackknife, regenerative braking for increased battery efficiency, and an automatic clutch for seamless highway cruising.

“It’s a technological step in many ways,” Musk said.

Over the weekend, Musk revealed that one of Tesla’s Class 8 battery-powered trucks had completed a 500-mile trip fully loaded with 81,000 pounds of cargo. The journey led from Tesla’s plant in Fremont, California to San Diego on the southern tip of the state. At the event, Musk clarified that the ride was conducted without charging the battery.

Tesla is positioning the Semi as the future of trucking. But while the company has struggled to ramp up production, the rest of the truck industry has already embraced electric vehicles. Major equipment manufacturers such as Daimler, Volvo, Peterbilt and BYD have been working on long-haul electric vehicles of their own. The Tesla Semis delivered today were the final piece of a $30.8 million project partially funded by the California Air Resource Board, according to Bloomberg. Even Nikola Motors, which has been struggling with fraud allegations and executive turnover, has delivered a hydrogen-powered truck before Tesla.

Still, battery electric vehicles will face major challenges, from weight limitations to the availability of convenient charging stations, before they can become widespread. Truck stops, for example, are largely unprepared to handle the power demands of electric semitrailer trucks and their gigantic batteries.

Two years ago, Bill Gates said that electric vehicles “even with major breakthroughs in battery technology” just weren’t ready to handle long-distance travel. “Electricity works when you need to travel short distances, but we need a different solution for heavy, long-haul vehicles,” Gates wrote. (Musk’s response to Gates was to post gross memes on Twitter of course.)

Slide showing a plot of charging current of Tesla's V4 charging cable reaching 35 amps per square millimeter and showing how the conductors are immersed in coolant tubes.

Tesla’s “V4” charging cable dips the conductors into coolant tubes.Image: Tesla

Musk spoke about charging during the event, revealing that Tesla has developed a new liquid-cooled charging connector capable of delivering 1 megawatt of DC power. “It’s also used for Cybertruck,” Musk added to cheers from the audience. (The similarly lagged Cybertruck is expected to go into production in the second half of 2023.) He also discussed the need to unplug Tesla’s superchargers to ensure they can continue to provide power during an outage.

Trucks are a key component of Musk’s “Master Plan Part Deux,” in which he vowed to expand the company’s vehicle lineup to “cover the major forms of ground transportation,” including a tractor-trailer.

During the event, Musk spoke about Tesla’s current lineup, which has been criticized for being outdated compared to other automakers that frequently release updated versions of previous models. Standing in front of a picture of Tesla’s lineup of vehicles, including the upcoming Cybertruck and a cloaked vehicle that says “Robotaxi,” Musk said Tesla isn’t like other automakers.

“So what is our actual mission? Our real mission is to accelerate the advent of sustainable energy,” Musk said. “That’s why we make this wide range of cars that don’t really make sense from a brand perspective.”