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Tesla’s latest creation: An electric big rig that can travel 500 miles on a single charge

Tesla chief executive Elon Musk unveiled a new electric semi-truck that can apparently withstand a nuclear explosion and go from 0 to 60 mph in five seconds. (Video: Tesla, Photo: ALEXANDRIA SAGE/Tesla)

Tesla finally took the wraps off its long-anticipated electric semi-truck late Thursday, a truck that Elon Musk said would blow people’s minds into an “alternate dimension.”

The question now, analysts say, is whether Elon Musk’s ambition to transform the commercial trucking industry is feasible.

After acknowledging his company’s struggles to produce the Tesla 3, its first mass-market electric sedan, and dealing with allegations of unfair workplace conditions, Musk was back to doing the one thing he does better than perhaps anyone else in Silicon Valley: making big, dreamy, promotion-filled promises that have a way of bringing his dynamic vision of the future to life.

“What does it feel like to drive this truck?” Musk asked the audience, shortly after his latest creations rolled onto the stage. “It’s amazing! It’s smooth, just like driving a Tesla.”

“It’s unlike any truck that you’ve ever driven,” he added, noting that Tesla’s big rig puts the driver at the center of the vehicle like a race car, but surrounded with touchscreen displays like those found in the Model 3. “I can drive this thing and I have no idea how to drive a semi.”

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Musk also repeatedly noted that his company’s trucks produce zero emissions.

Range anxiety has always been a key concern for anyone who is weighing the purchase of an electric vehicle. Musk sought to reassure potential buyers that the company’s big rigs can match — and surpass — the performance of a diesel engine, which he referred to as “economic suicide.”

Musk did not reveal the truck’s exact price, but argued that a diesel truck would be 20 cents more expensive per mile than Tesla’s electric counterpart, which will be available for purchase in 2019.

A fully loaded Tesla truck moving 60 mph can travel 500 miles on a single battery charge, Musk said. The vast majority of truck routes are less than 250 miles, he said. The truck includes four independent motors, Musk said, and has no gears or transmission, meaning that it will require much less maintenance. He guaranteed the truck will not break down for 1 million miles.

Every truck “has Autopilot as a standard” which Musk claimed will help with safety.

The trucking industry is on the verge of an electric revolution, analysts say, one driven by a desire for greater safety, lower fuel costs and cleaner energy. Freight movement – a category that includes trucks, trains, ships, and planes that carry goods – accounts for 16 percent of all corporate greenhouse gas emissions, which constitutes an enormous carbon footprint, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. On the issue of safety, more than 4,000 people were killed and another 116,000 injured in accidents involving large trucks in 2015, the most recent year statistics were available, according to National Highway Traffic safety Administration.

Sandeep Kar, chief strategy officer of Toronto-based Fleet Complete, which tracks truck movement, told Reuters that about 30 percent of U.S. trucking trips are regional, between 100 to 200 miles. Those regional trips present a unique niche for Tesla if transportation firms conclude that the company can offer them a way to reduce operating costs and emissions.

Musk also said that it won’t take long for the trucks to charge.

“While you’re unloading your cargo, you can charge,” he said, arguing that drivers will need to take a 30-minute break after six or seven hours of driving, giving them a chance to charge the truck. “By the time you’re done with your break, the truck will be ready to go. You will not be waiting for your truck.”

Within hours of the unveiling, Wal-Mart – the world’s largest retailer with a fleet of about 6,000 trucks – announced that the company has ordered five Tesla units in Walmart U.S. and 10 units in Walmart Canada.

Meijer Inc., a Michigan-based grocery chain and J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc., an Arkansas logistics company, have also reserved multiple trucks, paying a $5,000 deposit per vehicle, according to Bloomberg.

But not everyone was sold on Musk’s pitch.

Some analysts said they were surprised that Tesla would embark on a new vehicle as the company struggles to roll out their Model 3 sedan, which has been beset by production issues.

Unlike the adoring fans that coughed up a $1,000 deposit for the Model 3, truck buyers will appraise Tesla’s latest vehicle differently, according to Rebecca Lindland, an executive analyst at Kelley Blue Book.

“The biggest challenge Tesla faces with its semi is customers,” she said. “These are business people not fans, and they will need to be convinced that this truck is better for their balance sheet than existing technology. It probably is, based on the specs provided, but this isn’t necessarily a slam dunk.”

Akshay Anand, a senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, noted that despite the truck’s “fantastic” specs, Tesla is entering a crowded space with plenty of “longstanding competition.” The question for Anand and other analysts is whether that competition will diminish Tesla’s ability to deliver on the Model 3.

After cheating on U.S. emissions tests for its diesel cars, Volkswagen has decided to invest heavily in new electric vehicles, including an electric truck. The Swedish company Einride has unveiled an cabin-free, electric transport vehicle called the “T-Pod.” The company claims the driverless vehicle can carry up to 20 tons and travel 12 miles on a single charge.

After joining forces with the San Francisco-based startup Otto, Uber has also launched a self-driving truck campaign as well. Uber said its first major milestone was using getting their truck to drive 120 miles to deliver a trailer of Budweiser in Colorado last year, the world’s “first shipment by self-driving truck.”

“Competition is nothing new for Tesla, but they need to ensure they’re not spread too thin as they continue to launch the Model 3, arguably their most important vehicle in their short history,” Anand said.

Near the end of Thursday’s event, Musk surprised the attendees by revealing the latest iteration of the Roadster, which will include a 200-kilowatt-hour battery pack and travel 620 miles on a single charge, Musk said. Tesla produced the Roadster from 2008 to 2012, and the latest version will be available to consumers in 2020.

“The point of doing this is to just give a hardcore smackdown to gasoline cars,” Musk said. “Driving a gasoline sports car is going to feel like a steam engine with a side of quiche.”


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