The Upcoming Tesla Semi: Lord of the Highway or Long-Haul Lemon?

Facade of a Tesla store at night

The Upcoming Tesla Semi: Lord of the Highway or Long-Haul Lemon?

Tesla Semi EV trailer truck is just weeks away from its first delivery to a commercial customer. Elon Musk’s vision of a nearly silent long-haul electric giant speeding along the Interstate and achieving 500 miles between recharges is finally on the cusp of reality. After many delays, the first Tesla Semi may soon be hauling shipments of chips to hungry Americans once PepsiCo receives it on December 1st, 2022.

Yet some lingering doubts remain, too. A YouTuber spotted and filmed a seemingly broken-down Tesla Semi test truck at a California roadside in mid-October. Some commentators wonder if this is a warning sign with such an event happening so close to the Tesla Semi’s official release. Here’s a closer look at what we know about the Semi right now, its potential problems, and whether it’ll be a success.

The Tesla Semi’s History

grey tesla semi at a parking area

Fully powered by battery, the new Tesla Semi will travel for 300 to 500 miles on full charge.

Tesla revealed the first Tesla Semi test vehicles in November 2017 while promising a 2019 delivery date, CleanTechnica reports. Within a month, two food sector placed pre-orders. Sysco, a food distributor, reserved 50 of the vehicles at the initial $5,000 pre-order price. Tesla almost immediately raised the pre-order price to $20,000. Despite the jump, PepsiCo ordered 100 Semis for its Frito Lay potato chip and snack food subsidiary in December 2017.

However, 2019 came and went without any deliveries and the Tesla Semi still in development. Speculation grew that the Tesla Semi was another piece of “vaporware” like Musk’s promised 2020 fleet of self-driving EV robo-taxis. Even as of late 2022 the promised robo-taxis seem completely unfeasible in the near future, TheStreet points out.

Contrary to the doubters, however, Elon Musk recently tweeted that Frito Lays’ 100 Tesla Semis will begin delivery by December 2022. Musk claims a December 1st delivery date, TheDrive reports. While Musk’s generalized claims often fall through, this statement is specific and involves a known client, increasing its likelihood.

An additional sign of real Tesla Semi deliveries comes from a fresh Megacharger installation at a major Frito Lay facility. The Megacharger is the second installed at Frito Lay’s Modesto, California site, one of its largest manufacturing and warehousing locations. Tesla designed its new Megacharger stations to charge its EV trailer trucks. The new chargers are capable of recharging 400 miles of range to the Semi’s massive batteries in 30 minutes. Electrek estimates the Megacharger’s output at 1 megawatt (MW) to 1.6 MW. This is far higher than an ordinary Level 3 fast charger’s 350 kilowatt (kW) output.

Tesla Semi Specs and Performance

Tesla semi with a trailer
Equipped with a Model 3 motor on each wheel, the Tesla Semi can go from 0-60mph in five seconds.

No Tesla Semis are yet on the road, so the only specs available are from Tesla’s publicity releases. What Tesla and Elon Musk have shown so far looks impressive, at least on paper.

The company is currently planning two main trims for (speculatively) $150,000 (Semi) and $180,000 (Roadster), chiefly separated from each other by range.

Range and Performance

The Tesla Semi is a 6×4 EV semi truck capable of hauling 80,000 lbs. Range is either 300 miles or 500 miles depending on the battery option. Elon Musk has confirmed these range figures include a full 80,000 lb load, always a concern since hauling can drastically cut EV range. However, he hasn’t said how much cold weather affects range, since EV batteries often drain faster at or below freezing.

According to InsideEVs, Musk’s exact words were “No sacrifice to cargo capacity, 500-mile range. Just to be clear, 500 miles with the cargo on level ground.” Using the Megachargers described earlier, the Tesla Semi recharges 400 miles (about 70% for the 500-mile battery) in 30 minutes. Tesla notes this is roughly the time to load or unload a full trailer of goods. If a Megacharger is present at both origin and destination, the truck can charge during loading/unloading. Initial use of the truck will likely be moving goods between Megacharger-equipped facilities.

The Tesla Semi doesn’t use air brakes, instead featuring dynamic electric brakes. Some sources say there’s no regenerative braking, so applying the brakes on a Tesla Semi won’t regenerate any electricity. However, Tesla does say the truck’s electric brakes work more efficiently than standard air brakes, potentially offering better braking. Users should also find the electric brakes easier to maintain.

The Tesla Semi can boost from 0-60 in 20 seconds fully loaded and 5 seconds when empty. While zero to sixty times aren’t a typical commercial truck stat, the company says the rapid 0-60 will assist merging. It can also maintain 65 mph on a 5% grade rather than slowing to 45 mph. Musk even noted with characteristic enthusiasm that the Semi is “really fun to operate!”

Other Tesla Semi Features

The Tesla Semi features three independent motors on its rear axles, a design detail Tesla says helps prevent jackknifing. Its ultra-streamlined design gives it a drag coefficient of 0.38 versus 0.65 to 0.70 for diesel semis. Estimated battery capacity is between 600 kWh and 1 MWh (megawatt hour), with three battery packs likely to be included.

The cab interior boasts two touchscreens, aligned horizontally to the left and right of the driver. One displays trucking data such as load, air pressure in the tires, and so on. The other controls standard features such as apps, climate control, infotainment, and the like. The touchscreens will also show a variety of other useful data, including maps and GPS locations. Blind spot cameras feed live video to a dedicated area of each screen. The driver’s seat and steering wheel are centrally located.

Tesla equips the Semi with a full set of driver assistance features. These include lane keeping, collision warnings, automatic braking during emergencies, and AutoPilot. Other features include Tesla armored glass that should prevent expensive windshield breakage. Elon Musk said, probably tongue in cheek, that the glass would survive a thermonuclear explosion. The cab also includes a sleeper and other standard truck cab features.

Range (full load)300 miles500 miles
Independent motors33
Maximum payload80,000 lbs80,000 lbs
0-60 time5 seconds empty, 20 seconds loaded5 seconds empty, 20 seconds loaded
Battery capacity600 kWh1 MWh
Release dateDecember 1st, 2022December 1st, 2022

Is The Tesla Semi Ready For Prime Time?

The Tesla Semi’s stats look impressive as Elon Musk and his PR department present them. Additionally, Tesla has persuaded PepsiCo trying the EV truck is worthwhile, and a commercial customer requires solid proofs of viability. The fact that PepsiCo has ordered Tesla Semis is an important endorsement of the vehicle’s readiness for serious use.

However, this doesn’t mean the Tesla Semi is flawless, or that it couldn’t have serious unresolved problems waiting to happen. Truck driver and YouTube personality “Serge the Car Hauler” found and filmed a Tesla Semi about to be towed near Fremont, California. The video shows a disabled Tesla Semi cab blocking a freeway on-ramp, with a large recovery vehicle near it. A Tesla service van was also present.

The video led to considerable Internet speculation about whether the Tesla Semi had broken down from some internal flaw. TheDrive reports the recovery vehicle’s owner, Jack James Towing, didn’t specify the problem when contact. Jack James Towing confirmed it towed the Semi, with Tesla choosing an empty warehouse near its factory as the destination.

While the Semi’s plight could have resulted from a design glitch, the presence of a second trailer truck suggests otherwise. The diesel semi is pulled over onto the shoulder opposite the Tesla Semi on the on-ramp. The two vehicles’ presence side by side, apparently both disabled, hints strongly at a collision. Tesla likely had the Semi towed even if still functional so it could be inspected thoroughly for damage. The video likely isn’t revealing a malfunction from flawed engineering, but showing an ordinary traffic accident.

Tesla Semi Maintenance Costs

A potentially more serious criticism of the Tesla Semi’s viability is the cost to run as a fleet vehicle over time. Trucking financial services company Bobtail, claims a diesel semi can last up to a million miles. Some trucks remain in service for 15 to 20 years with proper care. Annual maintenance and repair costs average out to $15,000. Diesel truck technology is mature, reliable, and durable, thoroughly road-proven for decades.

As SlashGear points out, the Tesla Semi’s longevity is uncertain. The intense acceleration Elon Musk brags may help with traffic merging, but will also put high stress on materials and systems. Ordinary EVs are already known for destroying tires rapidly, wearing them out with hard acceleration. With an 80,000-lb load, a Tesla Semi will likely go through tires rapidly and possibly wear out other components quickly.

With a Tesla Model 3 battery costing about $16,000, replacing the Tesla Semi’s three batteries could be a major expense. Keeping the trucking network running efficiently requires driving individual semis at a relentless pace, usually around 100,000 miles yearly. Tesla Semi batteries will get far more stress and far more rapid recharge and discharge cycles than most EVs undergo during polite short-range commuting. This could translate to greatly reduced battery life and frequent, extremely expensive replacements.

The Tesla Semi And The Inflation Reduction Act

A big factor in making the Tesla Semi a winner may be the Inflation Reduction Act and its EV tax credits. The Act offers up to $7,500 tax credits to individual EV buyers. But its terms also offer commercial EV truck buyers up to $40,000 in credits. A complex system, Commercial Carrier Journal reports, computes what tax credits EV trailer trucks receive. The Tesla Semi easily passes the battery size test. Its batteries are well above the 15 kWh needed to “unlock” access to a maximum $40,000 tax credit.

The “comparable truck” test’s result is unknown at this point, since it’s not known which truck the government will consider equivalent to the Tesla Semi. However, with a price of $150,000 for the 300 mile model and $180,000 for the 500 mile variant, one tax credit parameter can be calculated. The Inflation Reduction Act offers a maximum 30% of purchase price as a tax credit – $45,000 or $54,000 in this case.

This amount is modified by taking the lesser tax credit determined by other tests ($40,000 cap, battery size test, comparable truck price test). But it’s clear that by pricing alone the Tesla Semi has a chance at qualifying for the $40,000 maximum credit.

Getting up to $40,000 tax credit could be decisive in persuading commercial fleets to try the Tesla Semi. The “tax credit makes owning an electric truck cheaper than owning a diesel one in most use cases” per research by RMI or Rocky Mountain Institute, a clean energy organization founded in 1982, quoted by Automotive News.i RMI says EV commercial trucks will be a better financial choice for short to medium haul trucking by next year.

With profitability a necessity for successful business, the Tesla Semi’s tax credit could be decisive in companies adopting it.

Is The Tesla Semi A Likely Success?

The Tesla Semi appears ready to hit the road in earnest after years of delays. In-the-wild sightings and Megacharger installations seem to be heralding its near-future arrival. The company’s claims about its performance are bold. But they’re also backed by the experience and engineering know-how of a Tesla that’s now a veteran EV company and no longer a maverick, experimental startup.

Part of the Internet pounced on the broken-down Tesla Semi video and other details, claiming the Semi is a “lemon.” However, the Tesla Semi video likely shows the aftermath of a collision with another truck, not a mechanical failure. Other claims such as possibly frequent failure of expensive batteries under hauling stress haven’t yet been proven.

The Tesla Semi could truly have mechanical problems, undiscovered bugs or weak points, or short battery life. But these concerns are currently just speculation, and only actual widespread use will prove or disprove its long-term capability.

Diesel long-haul trucks do indeed set very high reliability, durability, and longevity standards for Tesla’s EV truck to match. However, Tesla and its customers are confident enough for 100 Semis to start delivery within a few weeks. The Tesla Semi stands a good chance of living up to its impressive pre-release stats. The Tesla Semi will soon have the chance in PepsiCo’s service to prove its status as an all-electric lord of the highway.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Tesla Semi’s range?

The Tesla Semi comes in two ranges, a truck with 300 miles range per charge for $150,000 and one with a 500 mile range for $180,000.

What is the Founders Series Tesla Semi?

Tesla intends to build exactly 1,000 Founders Series trucks costing $200,000 each. Reserving a Founders Series truck required paying the entire $200,000 up front, rather than just $20,000 like an ordinary truck. Tesla hasn’t yet revealed what sets the Founders Series apart from the regular trucks. 

Who can pre-order a Tesla Semi?

Tesla Semi pre-orders are open to anyone, not just commercial customers. However, the customer must pay $20,000 up front to reserve one of the trucks. This is up significantly from the original $5,000. And, of course, a commercial driver’s license (CDL) would be required to legally drive the vehicle in any case.

How many Tesla Semi pre-orders are there?

Tesla Semi preorders passed 2,000 trucks by early 2019 according to RXMechanic. This was based on earnings call data. Pre-orders are likely much higher now, but information is not readily available.

How many Semis will Tesla build yearly?

With production currently occurring at Gigafactory Nevada, production was limited to 5 per week or 250 Semis annually. However, Elon Musk announced on October 20th, 2022 his company is moving Tesla Semi production to Gigafactory Texas. He claims this will enable boosting production to 50,000 trucks per year. 

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