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Tesla Semi faces new wave of skepticism from diesel veterans

There is very little doubt that the Model S, Model X, and Model 3 have disrupted their respective segments since they were released. Tesla aims to accomplish the same thing with its all-electric Semi truck, but the vehicle’s target is a lot more ambitious — it aims to disrupt the trucking industry.

The trucking industry is vast, and it is still growing. Long-haul trucking stands is the lifeblood of the US economy, handling the transportation of up to 71% of food, retail goods, construction supplies, and other cargo delivered every day. The American Trucking Associations’ American Trucking Trends 2018 report revealed that the US trucking industry generated $700.3 billion in economic activity in 2017, representing a 3.5% increase compared to 2016 when the trucking market generated $676.6 billion. This is the market that Tesla is aiming to tap into with the Semi.

One of the Tesla Semi’s main selling points is that it’s an environmentally-friendly vehicle. Being all-electric, the Semi is a zero-emissions truck. This is an advantage over conventional diesel trucks, which are a significant source of air pollution in the United States. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, greenhouse gases from medium and heavy-duty trucks were found to have increased by 85% between 1990 to 2016, accounting for about 23% of carbon emissions from transportation in 2016. This is despite the fact that diesel engines are getting steadily cleaner. The EPA estimates that emissions from current engines are about 85% lower than before 2007 when the US rolled out new standards.

The Tesla Semi has several features that make it a viable alternative to diesel-powered long-haulers, from its four Model 3-derived electric motors, its comparable Class 8 hauling capacity, and its superior speed. That said, it appears that America’s diesel veterans would not give up without a fight. In a statement to Bloomberg, Jon Mills, a spokesman for engine maker Cummins Inc. noted that electric trucks have a long way to go before they could be considered competition for diesel trucks.

“Right now, we don’t think it’s viable. Electric trucks are more viable where you have shorter routes, less loads and you’re able to recharge,” he said.

Cummins Inc. is one of America’s premier engine-makers, supplying engines for consumer trucks, fire engines, and heavy-duty long-haulers. Most of the company’s engines run on diesel, though they are also making some that operate on natural gas. Mills noted that Cummins is developing electric motors as well, but the company does not expect a lot of demand for them anytime soon.

Mills did admit that electric trucks would contribute to reducing pollution. Nevertheless, the Cummins Inc. spokesman noted that the trucking industry is likely not ready to switch to electric, mainly since vehicles like the Tesla Semi have limited range. Considering that some truck drivers are paid by the mile, they would likely lose money while waiting for their vehicles’ batteries to recharge.

“Diesel will be the primary option for heavy duty trucking markets, long haul especially, for a decade or more,” Mills said.

A photograph of the Tesla Semi as shared by Jerome Guillen, VP of Truck and Programs at Tesla Motors. [Credit: Jerome Guillen/LinkedIn]

Elon Musk wants to initiate the transition sooner. When unveiling the Tesla Semi’s specs, Musk noted that the electric long-hauler would be cheaper to operate than comparable diesel-powered trucks. Musk noted that the Semi could cost operators $1.26 per mile to run, less than the standard $1.51 per mile that diesel-powered vehicles cost. That said, Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum trade group, is skeptical of Musk’s claims, noting that there is little need for a new entrant in the shipping industry.

“It’s easy if you’re just coming into this market to say ‘they’re $1.50 per mile and we can do it for $1.20. But where’s the proof? I haven’t seen it. Diesel is the benchmark for energy efficiency. Diesel dominates the entire sector,” he said.

Amidst continued reservations from veterans in the trucking industry, Tesla is nonetheless pushing through with further development of the Semi. The company has been conducting real-world tests of the Semi since the vehicle was unveiled, and during the Q2 2018 earnings call, Elon Musk noted that improvements to the truck are being made. Thus, when the Tesla Semi enters production, the long-hauler would be an even more viable alternative to diesel-powered trucks.

“We’ve made significant improvements to the design since the unveiling that we had, and it’s really even better than what we talked about,” Musk said.

Tesla Semi faces new wave of skepticism from diesel veterans
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