Experts Talk Tesla In The Semi-Truck Business

Tesla Semi Rendering


Tesla Semi Rendered By Peisert Design

Tesla Semi Rendered By Peisert Design

According to experts, successfully bringing electrification to long-distance trucking will prove a monumental task for Tesla.

Although research firm IHS Markit speculates that the electric hauling industry will grow by a whopping 10 percent over the next decade following 2020, the research shows that it will be slow going over the next few years. IHS is looking at about one percent by 2020. The technology is just not ready, for the concept to take off quickly. IHS analyst, Antti Lindstrom shared:

“There is a certain amount of hype to Tesla’s announcement. It doesn’t seem that long-distance trucking is ready for electrification right now.”


Elon Musk is arguably the world’s number one advocate for clean energy. If Tesla can’t pull off electric semi-trucks, who can? (Image Credit; flickr via Brad Holt)

Over the years, many an analyst has called much of Tesla’s plan “hype.” Heck, many have called the entire company “hype.” But Tesla has pushed through the adversity, and delivered.

The Silicon Valley automaker was first to market with production-level long-range all-electric vehicles, and remains the leader in the segment. Unfortunately for Tesla, General Motors won the race to an “affordable” version of the latter, but Tesla is well on its way to releasing its competitor, and perhaps in a timely manner.

With all of this being said, what is Tesla truly up against when it comes to a successful electric semi-truck? Most of us – especially EV aficionados – have a pretty good idea about how to answer that question when it come to passenger cars, but it’s probably better to leave it to industry experts, when it comes to commercial trucking.

Let’s see what they had to say about the prospects, as Teslarati has done a nice job of compiling industry opinions (that article here), with our summary to follow:


Cost is, of course, the number one barrier. This is no surprise, and no different than that of any electric vehicles. However, consumers (many of which are wealthy or at least well off) choose to buy Tesla’s cars. The trucking industry may not feel the same way about Tesla’s semi-trucks. Michael Baudendistel, a Stifel Financial Corp. analyst, said:

“Tesla cars don’t need to prove an economic case to their buyers; Tesla trucks will.”

If Tesla can build a reasonably-priced semi-truck, that aims to save trucking companies money once fuel savings are factored in, then maybe this will work. Although it will likely be a long time before this is probable.

Charging Infrastructure

At this point, there isn’t a highway charging network for electric trucks. Baudendistel explained:

“You can’t put the cart before the horse. Widespread adoption hinges on the availability of fueling stations, and the infrastructure built for Tesla autos was not designed for Class 8 trucks.”

“Battery swapping and refueling overnight are both options which would require significant additional investment in infrastructure and logistics.”

There was a time not too long ago that there also wasn’t a Supercharger network. Tesla was able to construct its own exclusive, global fast-charging network. The company has proven that it can be done. But, it’s not plausible to think that it’s going to happen in a very timely manner.

Though battery swapping didn’t work out for Tesla’s passenger cars. it may be a more viable option for semi-trucks. If range is such that charging can happen overnight, while drivers are on mandatory rest, this will be less of an issue.

Battery Size, Weight, and Range

The trucking industry has voiced concerns that the batteries would take up weight and capacity that could otherwise be used for cargo. VP of research for the American Trucking Research Institute, Daniel Murray, told


Panasonic is working on alternative battery technology that could completely change the way we think about batteries today. The Tesla Gigafactory gives the electric automaker a substantial edge when it comes to being able to deliver.

“No one has clarified for us how much extra battery weight will accrue, which, of course, decreases revenue weight. We believe at least 600-800 miles of range is needed for the truck to be competitive in the line-haul market. We have heard indications that the Tesla semi’s range will be 200-300 miles, which would limit its addressable market.”

However, Tesla and Panasonic are obviously aware of this, and are looking to various alternatives. The batteries that we know today may be completely revamped in years to come, and energy density is increasing at a consistent pace.

Low Diesel Fuel Prices

Diesel is cheap right now, and stands to stay that way for some time. This makes adoption of EVs in general a hard sell. Murray continued:

“The very low fuel prices we see now and will for a long time are making most alternative-fuel vehicles appear to be very expensive.”

The EPA and the NHTSA have established strict guidelines for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles through 2027. If the guidelines remain in place, the trucking industry will have no choice but to seek alternative energy sources, in order to comply. Also, gas and diesel prices will not remain inexpensive forever.

Service and Repair

Is Tesla going to service these trucks? It’s not as if there are electric truck repair centers throughout the country to keep freight moving. Baudendistel shared:

“This has been an inconvenience for Tesla cars … For trucks, though, if the wheels ain’t turnin’, you ain’t earnin’.”

Being that Tesla keeps everything in-house, it is assumed that if the company follows through with an electric semi-truck, there is a plan in place for servicing said vehicles. But to get functional service centers strategically located across vast trucking routes throughout the entire country is an exorbitant task.

Market Saturation

The trucking industry already has all of its major players and manufacturers in place. Much like the franchise dealership situation, the industry may not be to keen on Tesla breaking in. Baudendistel continued:

“Given the happily consolidated nature of the domestic truck manufacturing market, the prospect of a new competitive threat, from a company with previous success in disrupting established industries nonetheless, is undoubtedly unwelcomed news.”

Tesla is a disruptor. The company is proving this in the automotive and energy industries, and aims to do the same wherever else the need arises.

If Tesla can overcome these obstacles, it will be a huge step forward for vehicle electrification. According to Apex Capital, 70 percent of all freight transportation in the U.S. is performed by semi-trucks.

Elon Musk and Tesla are the most substantial crusaders and innovators for global electrification. Baudendistel concluded:

“If nothing else, Elon Musk—and by extension, Tesla—is a great disrupter. We are keeping a watchful eye on Tesla as a new entrant.”

He admitted that despite the multitude of roadblocks:

“We wouldn’t count Tesla out long-term.”

Source: Teslarati

Categories: Tesla, Trucks

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53 Comments on "Experts Talk Tesla In The Semi-Truck Business"

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I hope Tesla gets either some decent cooperation from the reluctant Trucking Industry, or some sharp elbows and some accountants with sharper pencils. Nikola is going to be a big help in paving the way for alternative propulsion business propositions. The more competitive the trucking industry space becomes, the better off the goods and services industry will become.

Nikola doesn’t have a practical vehicle. They’ve decided to make their semi tractor a hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicle, which will make it even more of a non-starter than “fool cell” passenger cars. Long-distance freight hauling by heavy truck is even more sensitive to fuel prices than passenger cars are, and H2 will never compete with either petro-diesel or electricity. Heck, H2 can’t even compete with biodiesel or fully synthetic fuels, such as synthetic methane.

This is why I think they are aiming at the local hauling market, not long haul interstate trucks.

Which also means fleet buyers, not individual operators.

Not all trucking is long distance. To the extend electric trucks are a practical solution it’s all about the bottom line: if Tesla trucks are cheaper to run players in this cut throat competition business will find it hard to ignore them.

BYD already makes battery trucks for yard work, and it works where it works. But they can’t work all the time, you need long breaks to charge or expensive battery swapping setup, just like with any material handling (forklifts). Except that battery trucks are more expensive, so the market needs to be multi-shift operations to recoup invested capital, which is impossible due to charging time restriction. Kind of Catch-22 situation, leaving market a bit limited.

Like I said: to the extend these are a practical solution and cost competitive they will be hard to ignore.

In due time we’ll hear what Tesla has to offer, until that time I reserve judgement. Because it’s clear by now that betting against Elon Musk is a rather risky business.

I’ll bet against his Mars colonisation fantasy but won’t live to collect my winnings!
Hyperloop [in it’s current design] is also a good 1:500 bet, I reckon.

“Except that battery trucks are more expensive, so the market needs to be multi-shift operations to recoup invested capital…” No, the fleet operators save money on electricity over diesel. That’s why BEV semi tractors are already successfully competing in the niche of yard mule trucks. If Tesla can go beyond that niche to local and short-haul semi trucking, then bully for them! However, my guess is that what Tesla is going to show will be just a concept vehicle, and not one headed for production. The article outlines pretty well the barriers to using a BEV semi truck for anything more than very short runs, and I doubt Tesla has any magic to overcome those barriers to practicality and affordability. Eventually Tesla might offer a production BEV semi tractor, but I seriously doubt it will be within 5 years or less, unless it’s aimed at the yard mule truck niche. And in that niche there are already multiple players, so Tesla’s ability to capture that market niche seems questionable to me. Would it even be worth the effort to develop and tool up to make a vehicle with such limited sales potential? Perhaps someone who knows the market can give… Read more »

Who cares if these pie in the sky batter trucks will work or not some years later.

Regardless, they will certainly accomplish their main task – pump and dump shares right now, in 2017.

Exactly. The whole Semi truck thing is a Tesla promotion. I’m sure we’ll see futuristic shiny white Tesla tractor trailers rolling up and down the 80 corridor between the giga factory and the Fremont plant. I’m sure we’ll see a charging/battery swap station placed somewhere along the line to keep the wheels turning. Everyone will see these rolling Tesla billboards and a vision of the future and feel even warmer and fuzzier than they do now.

I’m also sure the trucking industry will say “Thanks, but no thanks.” until the problem of much greater energy density in batteries is solved. The whole world is waiting for better batteries.

Not sure why you are so negative. A semi with 6 or 7 Tesla P100 packs doesn’t sound that unrealistic to me.

What does a 100kWh pack weight? Around 300kg? Making the whole semi battery 2.1 t heavy. Thats around 1t havier than the old fashioned diesel or 2,5% less revenue (40t limit, european maximum).

Absolutely true but there are significant weight savings in other parts of the drivetrain.

In Europe at least there is also the bonus of being able to access planned no-tailpipe zones in city centres.

There would be plenty of opportunities for weight reduction, which would likely offset the heavy batteries. Electric motors are lighter than a diesel, perhaps no need for a multi-ratio gearbox, separate motors per wheel on a single axle – cutting out one or more diff.

I have an idea Elon and his team have a fair idea what they’re doing. . .

There is no way that they can offset the weight of a very heavy battery pack by swapping out a diesel drivetrain for an electric one. Sure, that will save some weight, but only a small fraction of the weight of the batteries. For comparison: diesel semi typical engine weight 2880 lbs Eaton Fuller 18-speed transmission weight 738 lbs estimated weight of half the diesel fuel for 750 mile run at freeway speed: 409.5 lbs (I’m counting only half because the weight will disappear as it’s used up over the trip) Estimated per-kWh weight of a Tesla Model S battery pack: 11.5 lbs/kWh If we need a 1800 kWh battery pack for that 750 mile run, that weighs 20,700 lbs, which would cut substantially into the maximum weight (including cargo) for an 18-wheeler rig: 80,000 lbs. Of course you can use different assumptions and come up with different figures. Obviously if you assume the truck will be used for only short runs, the weight problem pretty much goes away. Tesla might well be able to make a lighter battery pack. If they can reduce the weight by 1/3 (possibly the 2170 cells from the Gigafactory might have that much savings… Read more »

Some basic math to figure battery size?

It shouldn’t be that tough. If I remember the numbers right it gets to be quite a challenge if you put a requirement of 600-700 miles range.

And then if you want fast charging the power requirement goes thru the roof.

It’s a really challenging engineering problem to solve. I can’t wait to hear Tesla’s solution.

OK how about this math:

Maybe 1 mile/kwh fuel consumption. 600 miles= 600 kwh.

So 6 P100 packs…..Hmm sounds doable.

If you want to charge in 1 hour then you need 600 kw supercharger. Good app for some of Tesla’s utility scale power packs.

The whole project is perfect for Tesla. They just created more demand for batteries.

No wonder Elon is interested:)

@100$/kwh= 60,000$ pack…ouch

Here in Sweden the diesel savings would be ~$4 per 10 km. Or $60k in 150k km (not counting interest).

That is what an truck here drives on average in a year.

Are we talking disruptive? Hell yes. A Pay back time in less than two years and no one, I say no one would consider anything but electric.

I did a little googling and it looks like 600-700 kwh might do it.

Nikoli One truck said they were getting 0.6 miles/kwh

Also new semi tractors can run upwards of 180k$.

So at 60k$ for the battery that would be roughly 1/3 the cost of the truck tied up in batteries.

That’s a lot of money but you habe to compare fiel cost. It’s one oft the biggest cost factory. A truck can run in normal duty around 10.000km/month (7k miles). This will lead to 2.500-3.000€ (~1.10€/l) per month in fuel cost.

If you assume cheap electricity (0.15 €ct/kWh) and 1kWh/km. The electricity will cost you 1.500€/month.

So you could save around 1.000€/month with a electricity truck. If the elwctric truck is 50.000€ more expensive you could write positive numbers roughly after 2 years.

But a truck must be reliable (think 5-10 times as reliable as a normal car) and offer fast refueling in the road. Only a rolling truck brings money.

1 kWh/mile is a fantasy. Highly aerodynamic SuperTrucks are around 1.5-1.6 kWh/mile but they lack mirrors and have some impractical trailer mods. That’s also measured at the engine output shaft, so real world battery kWh/mile would be 1.8-2.0 kWh/mile. I’d have to see more details on Nikola’s 1.67 kWh/mile claim, my gut says it’s a marketing number and/or is based on a highly modified trailer.

I’d figure 2.0 battery kWh/mile for Tesla semi with a standard trailer. Maybe a bit better.

It’s more like 1km/kWh or 3kWh/2miles.

Mr M.,

Yes, that’s what the people at Nikoli One were saying their semi takes-0.6 kwh/mile.

It seems important then that drag be low. It should be interesting to see how Tesla gets the Drag down on this new truck.

Also this truck has to charge quickly. Lot’s of these trucks run a 2 man crew so they can run the truck nearly 24 hours a day.

That says if you don’t swap then you need a 600-700 kw charging power and with demand charges you have no choice but install huge power packs to store juice off peak…..

or swap which is a definite possibility.

georgeS said: “Some basic math to figure battery size?” Size isn’t a problem. If you lose the large diesel motor and 18-gear transmission, you save a lot of space which can be used for the battery pack. Weight and cost of that very high capacity battery pack are the problems. I’m re-posting my “napkin math” analysis for those who haven’t seen it before: ==================== BALLPARK FEASIBILITY CASE FOR BEV SEMI TRUCK (revised April 14, 2017) FACTS & FIGURES A modern diesel semi pulling a load gets 6.5 MPG; therefore uses 0.1538 gallons of diesel per mile 1 gallon of diesel contains 40.7 kWh of energy 1 gallon of diesel varies in weight between 6.85lbs. and 7.5lbs per U.S. gallon, depending on temperature. (I’m going to use the figure of 7.1 lbs/gallon) diesel semi typical engine weight 2880 lbs Eaton Fuller 18-speed transmission weight 738 lbs Tesla Roadster upgrade battery pack: 70 kWh in ~10 cubic feet standard sized semi trailer dimensions: 110″ high x 96″ wide, or 9.167′ x 8′ DOT weight limit for a six-axle semi tractor-trailer: 80,000 lbs Typical price of a relatively high-end new semi tractor: $150,000 Typical trucker may drive as much as 600-700 miles in… Read more »

Physics is about the only thing in Musk’s corner with an electric semi. Sure I think a short haul local delivery truck could find a market, but a long-haul OTR semi. I don’t think so, anytime soon, or at least not in any numbers.
A decade away.

My guess is that Tesla will identify a small number of fixed highway routes with distances in the 300-500 mile range.

Instead of charging, which would take many hours even at supercharging speeds, they’ll install a battery swap station along the route.

This would mean driving for ~3 hours and stopping for ~20 minutes to swap batteries. The removed battery would then be charged and eventually given to another truck.

Though, admittedly, for the “swap station” to charge multiple battery packs at a futuristic 300kW rate would probably require a power station nearby, as well as the storage space and handling infrastructure for multiple 1,000 pound battery packs. All doable but likely at a large cost.

Before we even get to the Tesla Semi part of this story, the “Unfortunately for Tesla, General Motors won the race to an “affordable” version of the latter”, must be explained that these new players are already limited production, and if I ordered one now in Canada, it would likely be 2018 before delivery! Then, to Daniel Murray’s comment “We have heard indications that the Tesla semi’s range will be 200-300 miles, which would limit its addressable market.” It seems as if they think that ‘Limiting its addressable Market’ is an issue, but its not! The Roadster had a Limited addressable Market, but accomplished the twin goals of showing EV’s were Quick, and they could Go the Distance! Early Tesla Semi’s need not haul produce from Mexico to Nova Scotia, just to find first market buyers! There are lots of needs to Haul Freight and Food 200-300 miles, too! As I see it, in 18-24 months when Tesla is announcing 1st Semi Deliveries, they will a) have access to many more cells from the GF1, and b) might even have access to new chemistry to choose from. Also, a fleet buy from a Company like Wall Mart would be a… Read more »

You have it right, Robert. So many people seem to think no electric semi is viable unless it rolls off the line with the capability of the most extreme situations. Two drivers to run 24/7? Those are the exception, not the rule. It’s frustrating to see so many complaints by people who focus on one task while ignoring huge numbers of perfectly capable situations.

If the recent announcements about solid state batteries holds true we should see significantly better batteries around 2020. Then a fully electric long haul truck might be perfectly feasible but not before then I think.

The cost opportunities of scaling solid state batteries, for the long haul trucking fleet, might be a better business venture for those investors patient enough to wait It out a little longer. In the next few years, we may see some significant incremental progress, in battery manufacturing, that will give solid stare batteries a business case for scalability, into an already competitive battery market place.

Solid state batteries may have substantial reduction in weight, but will they be cheaper in price? Unless the price can be brought down substantially over today’s battery prices, then long distance BEV trucking is still a non-starter.

One important consideration is the longevity of the batteries. Fleet freight haulers might well be willing to invest in expensive battery packs if they could be assured they would last the expected life of the truck, which is about 20 years. With current li-ion battery tech, they’d have to replace the pack multiple times over that 20 year life span, assuming the normal heavy use for a commercial semi truck. (Trucks just sitting around unused are wasting the owner’s investment.)

Will solid state battery packs last longer? Let’s hope so, but I have no idea whether their lifespan will be longer or shorter than the li-ion batteries in current use.

When Tesla started building cars, their plan was 1 limited number of two seat roadsters, 2 expensive luxury sedan and 3 affordable mass market vehicle.

Jumping into semi-trucks seems too much of a jump. I would think a more logical path might be 1 small van (think Transit) 2 full size van, 3 delivery (step) van then 4 semi. 150 – 200 mile range would work for the first three.

This is one of several reasons why I think Tesla’s BEV semi tractor will be just a concept vehicle, altho the formidable problems outlined in the article above are more important reasons.

Freight is hauled across Siberia, including all winter, with electric vehicles. In Switzerland, for a premium price, freight can be hauled with electric vehicles at 100 mph (160 mph).

This requires no new technology or even new engineering. Just electrify our freight railroads !

“Experts talk Tesla semi-Truck business”

There ARE NO experts in the electric truck business!!! All the semi trucks that carry goods from distribution centers to local Wall-Marts and the like are prime for electrification. Tesla will build them and they will sell like hotcakes. Nobody else’s opinion matters one little bit.

I don’t know what would or wouldn’t qualify as an “expert” by your criteria, but the people who run Smith Electric Vehicles should at the very least have an informed opinion about the engineering challenges regarding medium (not heavy) BEV trucks, and how disappointingly small the demand is even when TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) favors the BEV truck.

Semi does not mean long-haul. There are plenty of semis doing short haul duty, especially in places like LA with a major port and major industry within the same metro region. In a metropolitan driving cycle, electric semis are totally viable right now. By the time that market is saturated, batteries will be ready for long-haul, and Tesla will have millions of miles of electric truck data.

Very true. In metropolitan traffic an electric semi will have the huge advantage of recapturing braking energy during stop and go traffic. And, the miles traveled are generally low enough for a single charge to cover an 8-10 hour work shift. Recharge in a few hours at the central facility while being reloaded and driver shift change … easily get two shifts in per 24 hours.

So tell me why Tesla isn’t looking at the local delivery market of the Postal Service?

Comparatively low speeds, short routes, moderate load, and a place to park at the end of the day.

Mix with this, the LLV’s were designed with the possibility of swapping out the power plant.
I wonder what the ROI would be, to upgrade those old “four-bangers” to a 60KW battery and drive train.

I’ve been asking the same question for 30+ years. Lead acid batteries can supply enough power to run several hundred thousand postal delivery trucks, efficiently and cheaply. It’s been a no brainer for decades and no one has done it.

How do you know they aren’t?

Because I share the road with them, and at least here, they all have tail pipes with exhaust coming out.

I read about a year ago that the US postal service was looking to replace their entire fleet over the next 10 years or so. They were taking bids for the next delivery vehicle. The article I saw said they were considering some electric vehicles in the mix. I don’t know if anyone has stepped up with a proposal.

I doubt the USPS (the Post Office) is serious about switching to BEVs using current tech. I read a proposal for replacing current USPS delivery vehicles with BEVs back in 2001, and even at that time it wasn’t a new study.

I expect UPS and FedEx will start switching their fleets over to BEVs before USPS does. The Post Office isn’t exactly innovative, and it’s hard to get major changes approved due to its congressional oversight.

Battery packs are still too expensive and still too short-lived for use by USPS (the Post Office), and by UPS and FedEx. The USPS is hidebound and hobbled by its congressional oversight, but we can be sure UPS and FedEx will convert to BEV delivery trucks as soon as the economics works for that. Both UPS and FedEx use electric vehicles on an experimental basis, so it’s almost certain they are keeping a close eye on whether or not they are economically viable.

Keep in mind that delivery trucks are expected to last longer than passenger vehicles. UPS and FedEx expect their trucks to last at least 20 years, and at least in the past the USPS has expected their delivery trucks to last even longer; 25-30 years.

Any company making delivery truck for USPS is going to have to adhere to a very long list of very specific requirements and durability standards. I seriously question that Tesla’s approach to building vehicles is a good match for that specific market.

If the goal is also autonomous driving, then you don’t want “charging overnight”. You’ll need mega fast charging or battery swapping.

If the cost is significantly lower to operate these trucks, a mixed fleet of EV/diesel trucks is going to want to run the cheaper asset as much as possible, so it would be desirable for these to be used by teams or slipseat and operate as close to 24/7 as possible. Also requiring mega fast charging or battery swap.

Another major consideration is trying to keep the battery weight from pushing up against the 80,000 lb limit. In other words, the heavier the battery, the less cargo they can potentially carry.

Also from a planning/optimization standpoint, when a driver’s HOS clock is up and they have to take their break, they have to take their break.

Adding in trying to make that break land at a location with charging infrastructure while also hitting stops on time is going to be an extreme challenge (read: more dwell) before the charging infrastructure is ubiquitous.

You’re the expert here, not me, but my idea is that the “toe in the door” could hypothetically be truck fleets which move semi trailers from point A to point B — no stops in between — on regularly scheduled routes. That would allow the company to place its “mega fast charging” stations at the endpoints of the routes and/or at the mid-point. The latter would enable charging when the driver is taking his lunch break.

As you point out, though, that would introduce a certain inflexibility to the situation. If the truck had a breakdown en route, let’s say the trailer lost a tire, then that could throw off the entire schedule, possibly resulting in a longer delay than there would be if it was a diesel semi tractor.

“Unfortunately for Tesla, General Motors won the race to an “affordable” version of the latter”

We won’t know if this is unfortunate until the sales numbers come in. My guess is that the M3 will outsell the Bolt by about twice as many units.

Everyone wants a Tesla, they just can’t afford one right now. This is shown by how many more people are buying the MS than the Volt and the Bolt. The M3 will change that for a lot of people.

“My guess is that the M3 will outsell the Bolt by about twice as many units.”

If the sustainable market for the Tesla Model 3 is only twice what GM’s production will be for the Bolt EV, then Tesla will be losing massive amounts of money on its investment in Gigafactory 1 and in tooling up to produce, eventually, about 400,000 Model 3’s per year. If Model 3 sales are that disappointing, Tesla will also have under-priced the Model 3 substantially.

But the 400,000 paid reservations for the M3 indicate a much higher level of demand for that car, so hopefully Tesla isn’t out on a limb here.

What if they put solar panals on the trailer? How much range would that add?