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Electric trucks, the next revolution

Reduced running costs, zero direct emissions, super acceleration: these are some of the specs of Elon Musk’s new truck, available in 2019. Not all roses though, a number of questions still need an answer, especially with regards to batteries, charging speed and prices.

Fabio Quinto

November 16, 2017 will probably go down in history as a pivotal date in the technical evolution of heavy duty vehicles. In Hawthorne, California, Elon Musk unveiled the first Tesla electric truck: the Semi (how Americans usually call an articulated truck). Not really a first time in absolute terms, as Mercedes-Benz and another American manufacturer, Nikola, had already launched their own prototype version. However, the Tesla Semi has seduced the public, already enthralled by Musk’s eco-friendly 4-wheel “rockets”, far more than the counterparts. But is this the future of heavy duty vehicles? To answer, let's take a closer look at the newcomer.


Four power-units and a record

The Semi is a semi-autonomous three-axle truck with a gross vehicle weight of 36 tons. In a land where size is certainly not a problem this is already a first limitation: quite short of the 40-44 tons of a typical medium-long range truck in Europe. Furthermore, the added burden of having three axes, simply won’t allow to optimize load capacity. The vehicle is driven by 4 independent electric motors mounted on the rear axles, connected directly to the wheels, without gearbox and other power transmission parts, but able to ensure performances that would be unthinkable for a diesel, and guaranteed to whet the appetite of many enthusiasts: from zero to 96 km/h in 20 seconds. Just 5 seconds without a trailer, compared to the 15 seconds of an ordinary diesel powered truck. The declared mileage offered by the battery pack (located in the lower part of the cab and, above all, guaranteed for 1.6 million km) is about 500 miles (about 800 km), fully loaded and on motorways.


Defying Physics?

Recharging is possible at Tesla’s new “Megacharger” charging stations where, still according to the company, charging can take place in just 30 minutes: absolutely crucial if electric trucks are to be considered efficient. In fact, new charging systems are needed to guarantee an adequate power supply in reasonable time and costs for a haulage company. The 30 minutes claim, however, came under attack recently by Bloomberg, in whose opinion this would go against the laws of physics. Not to mention costs, since such a battery pack would need a capacity of 600-1000 KWh, which would, on its own, account for more than half the cost of the truck (85 thousand euro). Unless Tesla is using some new technological gimmick to increase battery performance (as well as charging stations), the true Achilles heel of every electric vehicle: this would be the real revolution.


Only in the U.S. and Canada

It is undeniable that the declared consumption (and, consequently, emissions) are arousing the interest of many road hauliers ready to bid farewell to diesel and electricity consumption of 2kWh per mile. Tesla, considering the current energy costs in the United States, estimated a net saving of 200 thousand dollars (about 170 thousand euro) per vehicle and a two-year payback period. Semi’s price wasn’t declared during the presentation but a few days later: it will fluctuate between 150 thousand and 200 thousand dollars (127-170 thousand euro), and can already be ordered online - only by US and Canadian companies - by paying a deposit 5 thousand dollars (4200 euro), with delivery scheduled in 2019.


Central driving position

The new Tesla Semi is equipped with an Enhanced Autopilot system developed by the California based company: this will allow the vehicle to semi-autonomously stay in lane, automatically brake in emergency situations and warn of forward collisions. Nowhere else is the upcoming revolution as evident as in the cabin: the absence of a traditional heat engine left the designers free to achieve maximum results in terms of aerodynamics and driving comfort. According to Tesla, a relaxed driver will sit in a central position within the cabin, with its sinuous lines and slightly pointed front-end. Replacing the dashboard we find two touch-screens, with all the information needed to safely and efficiently operate the vehicle, and, needless to say, video-cameras instead of the traditional  rear-view mirrors.


Coming soon

Tesla has immediately been overwhelmed by requests from American companies, anxious to touch firsthand the advantages that this new technology promises. And the first European and Italian buyer was Fercam, through one of its American partners, Mao: what now remains to be seen is how the registration procedures will take place in our country. And, above all, how it will fare on our roads, especially in view of more complex applications such as isothermal semi-trailers, where the electric motors will also have to keep the refrigeration going.

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