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Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, unveiled a truly striking, potentially game-changing semi tractor at a glitzy event on Thursday, November 17th, that he says will be cleaner, faster, and safer on the nation's highways.
The Tesla Semi has Autopilot and other advanced safety features, but it stops short of being truly autonomous. It will still have the ability to “platoon” with other Tesla trucks, creating a kind of highway train of semis driving close together, which could ultimately benefit consumers and the environment, he said, and make the roads safer.
“We’re confident we can do this today 10 times safer than a human driver,” Musk said.
Tesla isn’t the only company betting on high-tech trucks. Traditional players including Volvo and Daimler are also working on developing all-electric trucks, and Tesla rival Uber is working on software for self-driving trucks.
The companies see the potential benefits of autonomous trucking, including fewer crashes, lower prices on consumer goods, less pollution, and perhaps less stress on the road for everyone. But that may be further off than some want to admit. And the nation’s road infrastructure must be adapted.
As we digest the meaning of all of the technological possibilities, here are five things to know about Tesla and the future of trucking.
What Did Tesla Announce?
At the event at Tesla’s facility in Hawthorne, Calif., Musk showed off a futuristic, battery-powered big rig with a surprising 500-mile range. (There’s also a version with a 300-mile range.) It will be able to do round-trip runs on a vast majority of U.S. freight routes, which are 250 miles or less, Musk said. There was no discussion of how much the batteries will weigh, which is a huge factor for carriers. (More on this below.)
Like all Tesla products, the Semi comes with impressive acceleration and horsepower. Using four separate electric motors, the Semi will go from 0 to 60 mph in 5 seconds, compared with 15 seconds in a diesel cab, Musk said. Pulling a full load at 80,000 pounds, it would be 0 to 60 in 20 seconds. Going up a 5-degree-grade hill, the Tesla Semi should maintain a speed of 65 mph, while a conventional diesel truck slows to 45 mph, he said.
The truck is loaded with safety features, including Tesla's Enhanced Autopilot driver-assist system, automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping assist, and forward-collision warning. With a low center of gravity from the battery packs on the bottom of the vehicle, rollover risk is reduced. Torque sensors on the individual wheels, along with software that can correct steering, will make jackknifing impossible, Musk said.
In a nod to the bottom-line concerns of trucking companies, Musk said Tesla would guarantee that the Semi wouldn't break down in the first million miles of operation. Tesla estimates a two-year payback for the added cost of the truck over a traditional diesel rig, and it said operating costs—including power, lease payments, and insurance—would be 20-percent lower for the Semi than a diesel truck.
Leading up to the event, there was speculation that Tesla might deal with the range problem by devising some kind of battery-swapping service at truck stops, but there was no mention of this. Instead, the company showed a truck with a significant range.
Tesla also showed a second, smaller truck model described as a "pickup." But it's a pickup with a bed big enough to fit a conventional pickup truck.
How Much Will It Cost?
Tesla has announced that the expected base price for a truck with 300-miles range would start at $150,000, with the 500-mile range version starting at $180,000. The basic reservation price is $20,000.
Initial trucks, as part of its Founders series, will cost $200,000—paid up front to reserve.
What Does the Tesla Semi Mean for Consumers?
Consumers could benefit if freight costs are significantly lower. Of course, they’re already pretty low since the deregulation of the trucking industry more than 40 years ago. Taking a further chunk out of freight costs could lower prices of consumer goods and perhaps benefit the overall economy.
The biggest boost for consumers would be the overall benefits to society from fewer truck crashes and cleaner, quieter trucks.
And we might not have to wait for fully automated trucks to get the benefits of the advanced safety technology.
Automatic emergency braking is already paying off in current truck fleets, says Michael Cammisa, vice president of safety policy and connectivity at the American Trucking Associations. Eliminating a single crash means injuries avoided, property damage prevented, and avoided congestion, he points out. Other advanced-safety systems could have a similar multiplier effect, he says.
How Close Are We, Really, to Self-Driving Trucks?
The excitement about this idea might suggest that a future with trucks driving themselves is just a few years away, but in reality it could be a much slower rollout.
Even so, trucking seems a likely first application for full-scale autonomous driving. The technology to keep vehicles in their lanes and spaced in traffic on highways is already pretty reliable, and the economics for a big investment in the technology makes a lot of sense in trucking and hauling goods, experts say.
Musk said the Tesla truck would go into production in 2019. Self-driving trucks have been tested on the road already, including last year, when Uber arranged a 120-mile automated beer delivery in Colorado. But in the near term, the industry expects a hybrid system, where a human trucker is behind the wheel and in control from terminal to highway, and he or she remains in the cab when the autopilot button is pushed on the highway.
“We envision a future where truck drivers and self-driving trucks work together to move freight around the country,” Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group said in a blog post last week. “Self-driving trucks will manage long-haul driving on some Interstate highways, but having two hands on the wheel will still be the best way to get a load to its final destination.”
The American Trucking Associations, the biggest trade group in the industry, says drivers’ jobs won’t be eviscerated. Instead, truckers will be more like airline pilots who spend a lot of their time on the road monitoring the computers controlling the vehicle.
Maneuvering huge trucks in city traffic is a more daunting challenge than on highways, and those kinds of self-driving trucks could be decades away, experts say.
Will Self-Driving Trucks Be Safer?
The assumed answer is yes, and that prospect is one of the most significant reasons for the excitement about the idea of self-driving trucks.
But we really just don’t know. We know how dangerous cars and trucks are compared with other forms of transportation, such as aviation and rail. And the case for self-driving vehicles relies heavily on reducing the current levels of carnage: more than 37,000 highway fatalities a year in the U.S., with about 4,000 related to heavy-duty truck crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Fatigued or drug-impaired drivers have been blamed for truck crashes, and technology could be a solution in those cases. The same is true for distracted drivers. But a large number of crashes are caused by human drivers of passenger cars, who may underestimate the ability of large trucks to see them or stop quickly. Self-driving trucks may not help much in those cases.
Right now, big rigs are at fault in about 18 percent of their crashes, says Randy Mullett, a former senior executive with Con-way, a freight transportation and logistics company, and now a consultant in Washington. There’s no reason to think that self-driving trucks won’t be struck by other vehicles as they are now more than 80 percent of the time.
“Why do we think it’s going to be any different when a machine is driving?” Mullett says.
There won’t be a dramatic safety benefit until the entire fleet of vehicles on public roads is autonomous—passenger cars as well as trucks. And given how long people are holding onto cars these days, Mullett says, that could take decades.
The Business Case for Self-Driving Trucks
Diesel fuel is one of the biggest operating expenses for trucking companies. They will have to do the math. According to Tesla, a fully electric semi will cost considerably less to operate per mile. At the same time, at least for now, an electric heavy-duty truck might cost two to three times the $100,000 companies typically spend on a diesel rig.
There’s also a downside to electric trucks in terms of weight. No matter what a truck tractor weighs, the loaded tractor-trailer combination can’t exceed the federal weight limit of 80,000 pounds. That’s because the heavier the truck, the more damage done to roads and bridges. All those batteries that extend range are heavy. The heavier the truck, the less freight that can be carried. That would be a serious downside to a carrier moving heavy goods like beer, paper, or oil. Lighter goods, like those filling Amazon delivery orders, might still work.
There’s also a purely environmental case for electric big rigs. Diesel soot accounts for 70 percent of the known airborne carcinogens in California, according to the state’s transportation department. Ports are some of the worst contributors to air pollution in metro areas like Los Angeles. Electric trucks replacing aging diesel workhorses in Long Beach or Oakland could have a significant effect.
Trucking companies make decisions based on practical economic realities, like the return on investment and durability, explains Mullett, the former trucking executive.
If it costs twice as much as a conventional truck, you have to either double your equipment budget or buy half as many trucks, he says. Tesla will be a new player in an industry that already knows that the trucks from established manufacturers such as Peterbilt are going to be reliable and durable, with proven resale value.
Natural gas vehicles, while good for the environment and economical in terms of fuel costs, have terrible resale value, making it a tough business decision to purchase them, Mullett says. Electric trucks might suffer from the same problem. And unlike car consumers, trucking executives focused on the bottom line aren’t likely to be wowed by the Star Wars styling, he points out.
“In this industry, very few people buy their equipment based on the cool factor,” Mullett says.
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