Tesla plans to sell trucks: big semis, pickups, too

Tesla will unveil its latest project in September: a semi truck. That’s according to CEO Elon Musk, who tweeted the news Thursday: “Tesla Semi truck set for September.” Tesla also will debut a pickup truck within the next two years, although that’s old news for those who read the Tesla master plan of 2016. And Tesla will return to its roots with a second-generation convertible roadster.

This is good news for investors who like to see Tesla expand its horizons beyond two, soon to be three, kinds of electric cars. This is bad news for investors who wonder how well Tesla can scale, and if Musk has enough bandwidth to shepherd all the products to fruition. Still, a company that delivered 76,230 vehicles in 2016 this month has surpassed both Ford and General Motors in market capitalization, or total value.

Tesla product plans: semi tractor, pickup, roadster, small SUV

Tesla appears to have four new vehicles in the offing. All will be full-on EVs, not plug-in hybrids. This week’s tweet says Tesla will unveil a tractor (“semi”) for a tractor-trailer rig in September. A pickup truck has been announced as part of Tesla’s plans since Musk unveiled Master Plan, Part Deux in July 2016, when Musk wrote:

Today [July 2016], Tesla addresses two relatively small segments of premium sedans and SUVs. With the Model 3, a future compact SUV and a new kind of pickup truck, we plan to address most of the consumer market.

In a separate tweet this week, Musk wrote, “Pickup truck unveil in 18 to 24 months.”

In response to a question, “Any chance for a convertible?” Musk tweeted back, “Next gen Roadster will be convertible.” Tesla’s first vehicle was a two-seat convertible built from 2008-2012.

A small crossover-SUV would be a natural to help Tesla build volume. Compact crossovers such as the Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4 are the largest market segment now in the US.

Nicola One tractor

How far will a big battery take a big truck?

Big trucks weigh a lot and many of them drive long distances, which is not where battery electric vehicles shine. Tractor-trail rigs can weigh up to 80,000 pounds fully loaded, including up to 40,000 pounds of cargo.

Tesla is not alone in developing electrified trucks. Others include Nikola (photo above), Via, BYD, and Bollinger Motors.

One possibility is to go after the short-haul market, taking cargo off a ship, rail car, or airplane to a warehouse, taking cargo from local warehouses to customers, or moving cargo between nearby cities. That would be within the range of a large lithium-ion battery on the order of 500 or 600 kWh. The biggest Tesla vehicle batteries are 100 kWh. That would give big trucks a range of 200-300 miles, enough for many trucks to do a day’s work, return to the depot, and recharge there overnight.

For long-haul trucks, they primarily travel the interstates, and it would be possible to site Supercharger networks there. The amounts of power needed would be immense: 100 trucks drawing 150 kWh is a draw of 15 megawatts, about what you’d need for a city of 10,000 homes. Some proponents say stopping every couple hours to charge up is not a problem because truckers are legally required to take breaks.

Actually, it may be an issue. Truckers in the US are limited to 70 hours of work per week and 14 hours on-duty in a day (including waiting time, meals), of which no more than 11 hours can be driving. In the first eight hours on duty (whether driving or not), the only requirement is a 30-minute rest period. So a trucker who wants to push along might still have to take a rest-and-recharge break of 60-90 minutes 4-5 hours into the trip whether he’s ready or not.

By “semi truck” Musk means the tractor (engine, transmission, cab, sometimes a sleeping area, and two or three axles) that pulls a semi-trailer up to 53 feet long. A diesel-engine semi truck carries enough fuel to drive 500 to 1,000 miles at 5-7 mpg. A trucker might cover 400 to 600 miles per day on interstates.

One advantage Tesla carries is that long-haul trucks are perfect candidates for its Autopilot semi-autonomous driving technologies. A truck that keeps its distance from vehicles ahead of it and stays centered in its lane takes a lot of stress off the driver.

Now read: Best cars of the 2017 New York auto show

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