It has been a very long time since any true innovation has been seen in the commercial vehicle world. Sure, there have been efficiency gains, cabs have become more spacious and safety technology has come a long way. There have been some real improvements, but I am not sure anything in recent memory has moved the goalposts.Tesla, once again, thinks it can change all that.
In November, Tesla unveiled plans for its first commercial vehicle, the Tesla Semi. This will undoubtedly be the first mass produced electric commercial vehicle, which comes with performance figures that will literally leave the competition for dust. It all sounds very exciting, but the commercial vehicle world is not one of excitement. 0-60 times make no odds to a fleet manager and they certainly won't get business owners and managers signing cheques. What very possibly might get pen on paper is the potential cost savings that this new vehicle can theoretically deliver.
Tesla asserts that the real world whole life cost of its new truck will be 20% lower than the equivalent diesel in the US. Due to the cost of fuel being higher in Europe, and Tesla's history of conservative marketing, this suggests that Tesla believes that real world savings could be more in the UK. So how is Tesla claiming to make this saving?
The first and most obvious advantage comes from the electric drivetrain. With electricity significantly less expensive than diesel, there is real potential for savings. The traditional barrier to electric vehicles here is the cost of purchase outweighing the saving. In the case of passenger car drivers who do more miles, they are more likely to see a cost saving over the term of ownership. In the case of commercial vehicles, the mileage is so high that the return on investment point is reached much more quickly, and Tesla believes that this will help convince prospective customers.
The next saving comes from maintenance costs. With little in the way of moving parts, electric vehicles require minimal maintenance. Again, in the case of passenger cars this is of minor importance with only one service a year. With trucks, services are much more regular and savings can add up quickly. Additionally, with less moving parts there is an expectation of less breakdowns and therefore less downtime delivering further savings.
What might well be the biggest change and the one likely to deliver the most significant saving, is Tesla's autonomous driving technology “Auto Pilot”. Several other manufacturers are working on similar systems, but none has really introduced this technology to the commercial vehicle world. Though there are still limitations, the technology has largely been proven in Tesla's passenger cars and the technology can only improve over time. It is very possible that in the not too distant future we will see fleets of autonomous trucks. What form this presents itself in remains to be seen, but the potential cost savings would be significant.
If all these things work together, we could well see fleet operators punching the calculator on Tesla's new truck and reaching a positive outcome.
There will be some hurdles for Tesla however. The first will be infrastructure. The range of the Semi is impressive at around 600 miles per charge, but regular charging will still be required and contingency for unexpected circumstances needed. Current charging infrastructure will not be able to support a truck and on top of this, any significant investment in infrastructure will need to consider the draw on the national grid.
The second hurdle will likely be convincing drivers that the new kid on the block is a winner. The truck industry is one of significant history with the big brands such as Mercedes-Benz and Volvo reigning supreme with decades of brand loyalty. Tesla is completely unproven in this marketplace and its approach to design and ergonomics a world apart from the conventional norms. Tesla will have to prove itself and quickly, in order to convince the big fleet operators and their drivers.