The much-anticipated new Tesla Semi is a case study depicting the changes currently resonating in the automotive design industry. With the increasing importance of electrification; aerodynamicists, designers and engineers collaborating more closely than ever before; and UI/UX being considered from the outset, the Tesla Semi could revolutionize the trucking industry when it arrives in 2019.
According to statements made by Elon Musk at last night’s unveiling, the truck’s technology and aerodynamically efficient design will enable it to achieve a 500-mile range, completely alleviate the need for fuel stops and prevent the Semi from ever jackknifing. It will also be 20% cheaper to run than a diesel-powered competitor. Even if you only consider these four points, they make for an appealing proposition.
Designed in California by a team led by Tesla design director Franz von Holzhausen, the truck isn’t a revolution in overall aesthetics — though the exterior design sketch (above) clearly demonstrates the abilities of former NDA designer Randy Rodriguez. With certain elements that recall some of Tesla’s current vehicles — the headlamps, front-to-bodyside surfacing and interior devoid of any skeumorphic reference to circular gauges — the Semi is, above all, a reasoned proposition that addresses a problem: efficiency.
One of the obvious benefits of an electric powertrain is maintenance. The powertrain consists of four electric motors — one for each wheel behind the cab — and powerful batteries in the floorpan. With fewer moving parts, the Semi doesn’t require a clutch pedal or oil changes, while 98% of kinetic energy is recovered to the battery via its regenerative braking system. Because of this, the drivetrain is guaranteed for one million miles and the truck will never require replacement brake pads. Cost is a big factor in fleet purchase decisions, and the Tesla Semi is ahead of the competition in this respect.
Judging by numbers alone, the .36Cd figure bests that of a Bugatti Chiron while its 0-60mph acceleration time unladed is claimed to be just five seconds. When packed to the maximum allowable 80,000lbs. gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) on US roads, it can reach 60mph from a standstill in 20 seconds. Both figures are astounding, and enable the truck to travel up a 5% grade 20mph faster than a conventional diesel truck. Musk says he and the team coined the ‘BAMF’ acronym to define the truck’s incredible performance achievement. I’ll let you decipher that one.
While most truckers don’t associate outright speed with their rigs, citing this performance gives Tesla another opportunity to position itself as a leader and tout its technology in the eyes of the public. It also serves to reinforce the notion that electric powertrains are no longer reserved for the A-B commuter car, a point many new electric car companies are looking to drive home. Faster also means more efficient in delivery terms, where drivers are required to take rest stops at specific intervals.
Besides speed, safety is a brand element that Tesla’s been touting for a while. This remains one of the company’s USPs in the new Semi, which features a low center of gravity (thanks to its battery pack placement) as well as Tesla’s Enhanced Autopilot driver assistance features, such as automatic lane keeping, emergency braking and a forward collision warning.
The optimized central seating position gives the driver the clearest view of the road ahead and to either side through generous glazing, while the position of two screens on either side of the steering wheel provide access to vehicle information, navigation, HVAC controls and infotainment functions as well as displays for the outside cameras that replace conventional mirrors.
The truck also features Tesla’s Armor glass, which Musk claims is resistant to thermo-nuclear explosions. This will not only improve driver safety but also deliver consistent reliability, which is all-important in this sector. An independent front suspension also promises to deliver a more comfortable ride for drivers while an app connected to Tesla’s Mobile Service can enable location tracking and communication with dispatchers as well as perform remote diagnostic checks and inform of predictive maintenance.
Though there’s no mention the Semi’s curb weight, the battery pack itself could make it a heavier proposition than a diesel-powered rival. This would ultimately impact the payload capacity and render the truck less competitive in terms of moving heavy goods. That remains to be seen in real-world tests.
Ultimately the Semi is a great way for Tesla (and Musk) to further the ‘greater good’ narrative and illustrate the potential for electric powertrain applications in large vehicles. If Musk’s objective is to create a better and more sustainable world through the use of technology, the massive trucking industry (and the current environmental impact of these vehicles) is an ideal sector in which to further the initiative.