Elon Musk finally delivers on the long-awaited Tesla Semi truck

The battery-powered behemoth with up to a 500-mile range is the first semi designed from the start to be electric. Bonus: Musk says it’s super fun to drive.”
By Eric Wesoff

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A man in a dark jacket and black pants gestures at a large white vehicle on stage at an event
Tesla CEO Elon Musk unveils the Semi electric truck at an event in November 2017. (Veronique Dupont/AFP/Getty Images)

Tesla is finally delivering its first battery-powered semitruck on Thursday, to PepsiCo, and it’s marking the milestone with an invite-only gala at its factory in Sparks, Nevada. The delivery comes five years after CEO Elon Musk’s initial product announcement — and a week after competitor Renault delivered an electric semitruck to Coca-Cola.

Tesla’s entry into the trucking market sets up a technological contest against incumbent semitruck makers such as Mack, Volvo, Freightliner and Peterbilt — if the EV pioneer can demonstrate an economic advantage for electrifying trucking.

PepsiCo preordered 100 of Tesla’s Class 8 heavy-duty semitrucks in 2017 and expects to deploy 15 of the electric trucks by the end of this year at its beverage factory in Sacramento and a Frito-Lay plant in Modesto, California. UPS, Walmart Canada and Sysco also placed reservations for Tesla’s electric semitruck when it was first announced back in 2017, according to Reuters.

Trucking has long been the preferred method of transporting freight within the U.S., but it’s ripe for innovation and improvement. Fortune 500 companies like PepsiCo that truck a lot of goods are burdened by enormous transportation bills and high greenhouse-gas emissions, so they’re looking for clean and cost-effective replacements for their diesel-powered semitruck fleets. Although semitrucks make up just 1 percent of the U.S. vehicle fleet, they are responsible for 18 percent of the fleet’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Electrifying this fiercely cost-conscious market has proven an even bigger challenge than electrifying light-duty trucks and cars, but Tesla and its semitruck — creatively named Semi” — could be up for the job.

This is the only electric truck that we’ve seen that was designed to be an electric truck,” said Dave Mullaney, a trucking electrification expert at clean-energy nonprofit RMI. (Canary Media is an independent affiliate of RMI.) Other semitruck makers are modifying existing machines to make them electric, but they’re not engineered from the ground up to be electric. And this is where Tesla is really different. This was built to be an electric truck from the start, and that changes how you design these things.”

This is a pivotal moment for the electric truck industry,” Mullaney continued. If we get an EV company that understands battery management — understands how to build an electric vehicle from the ground up — and applies this to trucks, then this is a bellwether for the long-term future of electric trucks.”

Semi specs and pricing

Tesla has provided specifications for its Semi, but Tesla has also provided specs for its long-delayed new Roadster and its forever-in-beta Solar Roof, so take these claims with a semitruck-size grain of salt.

Performance and design claims from Tesla’s website:

  • Range of up to 500 miles
  • Acceleration from 0 to 60 mph in 20 seconds with a full 80,000-pound load, compared to about a minute for a diesel semitruck 
  • Powertrain consists of three independent motors on the rear axles
  • Fuel savings of up to $200,000 over three years
  • Driver seat is situated in the center of a glass-walled cab
A rendering of a uniquely designed semitruck cab with the steering wheel in the center and two large touchscreen monitors
The interior cab of the Tesla Semi electric truck (Tesla)

According to a Tesla tweet from 2017, the Semi will come with a million-mile drivetrain guarantee. Today’s diesel trucks can typically log 500,000 to 750,000 miles over their lifetime.

Added bonus: The Semi is super fun to drive,” Musk claimed in a tweet in October.

Back in 2017, Tesla quoted a price of between $150,000 and $180,000 for the Semi, depending on battery size and range. While the upfront cost of an electric truck is likely higher than a comparable diesel model, EVs have lower maintenance costs and are subject to less fuel-price volatility.

Tesla expects annual production to ramp to about 50,000 units in North America by 2024, Musk said during a recent earnings call. That would give Tesla considerable market share, since roughly 260,000 Class 8 trucks were built in North America from July 2021 to June 2022, according to FTR Transportation Intelligence, an industry research firm.

A boost from the Inflation Reduction Act

The incentives for decarbonizing trucking offered in the Inflation Reduction Act could be the boost that electric trucks need to gain a cost advantage and foothold in the U.S. semitruck business. Mullaney believes the incentives could speed up the timeline for mass electric-semitruck adoption by five to 10 years.

  • The IRA provides a tax credit of up to $40,000 for each purchase of a clean heavy-duty truck. This is a meaningful chunk of change and enough to tilt the economics toward EVs.
  • The law includes $400 million for replacing dirty vehicles in areas that currently don’t meet federal air-quality standards, making truck electrification an environmental-justice opportunity as well. 
  • The IRA also offers infrastructure tax credits for up to 30 percent of the cost of installing electric-vehicle chargers. 

According to an RMI analysis, the $40,000 Inflation Reduction Act tax credit makes owning an electric truck cheaper than owning a diesel one in most use cases, with urban and regional electric trucks becoming cost-superior to diesel ones as soon as 2023.” RMI projects that by 2030, more than 60 percent of new semitruck sales in the U.S. could be electric if supply-chain issues are ironed out.

Charging ahead on charging

So how will all these Tesla Semis get charged up — and how will utilities and the electric grid cope with this flood of power-hungry EVs? It’s an unprecedented challenge.

Tesla is in the process of developing a charger network at trucking rest stops across the U.S. and Europe, where a Semi will be able to top up its battery, according to the company’s 2021 Impact Report.

Tesla claims that its trucks can be charged to 70 percent of their full range in 30 minutes at a proprietary high-speed Megacharger,” one of which has been built at Tesla’s Nevada factory. Charging a passenger EV’s battery to 70 percent of its range in 30 minutes is standard for a Tesla Supercharger, the company’s proprietary passenger-car fast charger. But charging a semitruck is a much bigger undertaking. A truck charger will have to provide enough power to fill the Semi’s larger 1,000-kilowatt-hour-plus battery.

In an interview with Canary in July, Intersect Power CEO Sheldon Kimber talked about this challenge. A single charger for [a Tesla Semi] is going to be 2 megawatts. What does a truck stop look like for 50 Tesla Semis? It’s a 100-megawatt load.” Kimber also wrote about the issue in a decarbonization manifesto earlier this year: The scale of energy demand and delivery that will eventually result from these massive charging networks will be like nothing the grid has ever seen. Making good on the promise of the EV revolution is at least as much about building, financing, managing and dispatching utility-scale infrastructure assets as it is about the cars themselves.” 

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Eric Wesoff is the executive director at Canary Media.