Tesla is about to reveal its first electric big-rig -- here's what to look for

  • Tesla’s big rig will likely redefine the large tractor-trailer for the future.
  • Expect a futuristic prototype, complete with a spaceship-like cab and a huge battery.
  • Ironically, the freight business might be a better fit for Tesla’s technologies than the mass-market for passengers cars.

will reveal its big-rig semi-trailer in Los Angeles next week, and I’ll be at SpaceX headquarters to check it out.

The Tesla semi was anything but a 10-4-good-buddy move for Tesla. While many observers expected a pickup truck to join the carmaker’s lineup of all-electric cars, the big rig was a surprise.

A logical one, however, as many sustainable mobility experts have for years argued that the best application for electric vehicles isn’t personal transportation but rather freight. We move stuff around on the world’s highways using largely Class-8 diesel rigs. Subtract those emissions and the fight against global warming, which Tesla CEO Elon Musk takes very seriously, is a large step closer to winning.

Big rigs are already cool — there’s a reason why little kids always want drivers to blow their trucks’ massive air horns when they pass them on the freeway. Tesla’s interpretation of a machine defined by the Macks and Peterbilts should be plenty interesting.

Here’s what we expect to see next week:

A big rig that looks like a spaceship

The exterior and interior design of Tesla's cars is propelled by a sort of traditional regard for what a car is supposed to look like, although design chief Franz von Holzhausen has applied a powerfully disciplined minimalist approach to the job.

But cars and even the Model X SUV as, when compared with a tractor trailer, small. They're frigates to the big rig's battleship, and that opens up some new aesthetics possibilities.

If you think about it, the only thing that that Elon Musk's companies builds that are as big as a big rig is SpaceX rockets, and of course they're much bigger. But the star-faring startups space capsules as sort of semi-sized, so it might be worth it to look at them for hints for how the big rig will be put together.

I'm expecting something pretty out-there. As in, 'Who needs a steering wheel?' The whole point of remaking freight transport isn't to electrify it -- it's to eliminate divers. That carries with it some grim prospects on the labour front, but we'd be naive if we didn't think that's what Tesla future semi customers are after.

So the Tesla big rig's cab will be, I think, more like the bridge of a spaceship. There will be lots of screens so that if there is a human technician in there, he or she can monitor the truck's systems in the same way the helmsman and navigator of the Starship Enterprise do in the movies and on TV. If there are seats, they will be phenomenally cool. And for long-haul duty, the type of sleeping quarters that would be the envy of a luxury boutique hotel.

The rig will also have as different a vibe as is possible, I suspect, on the outside. Sleek and otherworldly. However, given that this will be a prototype, it will probably bear some resemblance to a regular old big rig, as Tesla will have had to consider that the vehicle will be hauling the sort of model-freight containers and trailers that are currently commonplace in the shipping industry.

It could have a gigantic battery that gives it extreme range

The Tesla big rig is going to need a big battery. Even it doesn't offer ranges on the order of 1,000 miles per charge (what some diesel rigs can deliver today), it's still going to require the torque and range to serve up something like 200-300 miles per charge to make sense.

Luckily, the conventional shape and size of the semi lends itself to a huge battery pack. Tesla's biggest pack for a passenger vehicle is a 100 kilowatt-hour unit. It fills the floor of a Model S or Model X.

But Tesla can do larger batteries, for its utility grade Powerpack applications. Powerpack 2 is a 200 kWh lithium-ion unit. And the engineering of a big rig, if it's all electric, is fairly modular. You need a platform, perhaps two electric motors to power all four wheels, and cab -- leaving the motor-free leftover space available for batteries.

The torque should be insane -- and torque is what big rigs require, as they're towing massive amounts of weight. Mack's MP8 engine, for example, is a Class-8 diesel powerplant that makes upwards of 505 horsepower, but more importantly, over 1,800 pound-feet of torque.

A Tesla Model S P100D can do almost 800 pound-feet of torque. This is speculative, but a pair of 100-kWh batteries could double that torque output.

Charging a battery that large could take a consumer a couple of hours at a Tesla Supercharger modified for big rigs, but trucking is more flexible when it comes to this kind of scheduling that folks taking long trips in their personal cars, who just want to get where they're going. The logistics industry is an ideal realm for computing power to schedule and optimise freight routes and pickup and delivery times.

Freight companies are also in a better position to absorb substantial battery replacement costs. So ironically, Tesla's technologies could make more sense in a big than in a personal car.

Self-driving tech, on a massive scale might also be present

Tesla's approach to autonomous mobility requires a lot of computing power, because the Autopilot system uses cameras and sensors rather than costly laser-radar (Lidar). Crunching the visual data is a major challenge.

Autonomous freight transport in the 'over the road' environment -- on highways -- holds a lot of potential because the freeway is a far more ideal place for self-driving vehicles to operate than in cities.

A big rig is also a great autonomous platform because it has the size to lug around the supercomputer and cooling systems that Tesla's self-driving tech demands.

The commercial applications are even more appealing as trucking companies would like nothing more than to run their fleets remotely. In the short term, this isn't even necessarily bad news for truckers, who would still be needed to handle Tesla's rigs during the 'last mile,' picking up and dropping off loads.

They would also be required to monitor the early big-rig Autopilot systems -- in the spectacular, spaceship comfort of the semi's futuristic command center.

Impressive aerodynamics

The photo above is of a semi-autonomous big rig made by Volvo that was modified for self-driving duty.

It's relatively aerodynamic, but it could be a lot better. And aerodynamics matter for electric vehicles, because if you remove the work that a motor and battery have to do to maintain a steady highway speed, you can extend range.

Aerodynamics will likely define the Tesla big rig. And unlike the manufacturers of semis, Tesla won't be bound by what a big-old truck is supposed to look like -- an intimidating highway presence with roots in the 'Convoy'/CB-radio era.

Yes, it will be constrained by the existing design of trailers, which are large, tall, long rectangles -- a terrible aerodynamic shape. But for the tractor itself, losing the engine opens up a range of new possibilities to improve airflow.

'One more thing ...'

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Tesla is struggling to meet its production goal for the Model 3 vehicle and could be facing a cash crunch next year. The company will probably have to raise money at some point in the next 12 months, but at the moment, the big-rig reveal is the only piece of market-moving news on the horizon.

It might not be able to move the markets all that much, as Wall Street analysts will ask the obvious question: 'If Tesla can't ramp up mass-production of a mid-size sedan, how does it expect to build hundreds or thousands of a huge all-electric semi?'

So the big-rig reveal is a chance for Musk to add a new plot point to the Tesla story.

If he does delivery a Steve Jobsian 'One more thing ...' moment, I'm hoping it has something to do with what should be in the trailer that I'm assuming the Tesla semi will haul in front of the cameras next week. It's simply too good an opportunity to roll something out of that vast space.

My money is on a new Roadster design -- a proper Tesla supercar, a vehicle that looks like it can do 0-60 mph in less than 2.5 seconds. Tesla's snazziest four-door can do that now. But the company doesn't charge even $US200,000 for it, whereas the Ferraris and McLarens of the world sell their fastest rides for more than million.

While Tesla grinds through 'production hell' with the Model 3, it could use a mega-pricey all-electric hypercar to bring in a few more dollars.

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