Cleantech Talk’s Tesla Truck Take (Episode 41)

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Episode #41 of Cleantech Talk is here, and today’s topic is the Tesla truck.

You can listen to this episode and subscribe to Cleantech Talk on iTunes or Soundcloud. You can also listen via the embedded player below or download this episode via the Soundcloud page. Jump into the show notes below for more goodies.

This week is Cleantech Talk’s Tesla Truck take. Anyone can offer a “hot take” on current events, and darn near every media outlet did! But it takes a brave team (or just a very busy-with-other-work one!) to offer a “cold take” weeks later. In our defense, we were trying to add something to CleanTechnica’s already-substantive coverage and reflections (e.g., this and this).

And our “cold take” is….

…the Model 3 is the only thing that matters. Everything else is a distraction. The Tesla Semi 1.0 and Roadster 2.0 are good things, but the Model 3 is the right thing for Elon and Tesla to focus on. The Boring Company’s recently announced plans to bid to build a tunnel linking downtown Chicago to its airport may be a good thing, but they’re not the right thing. Chatter about launching stuff to Mars this weekend is, again, good-but-not-right. The right thing is to get out of production hell for the Model 3.

If we look at the bigger picture, putting the prototype semi truck and next-generation roadster together must have consumed hundreds (maybe thousands) of engineer-hours. Not all engineers may have the skills to directly help Tesla out of production hell, but there should have been a way to put their analytical training to better use than on an unrelated project. And it’s not like Tesla has threatening or imminent competition in either category that they had to blunt with their own announcements. [Editor’s note: I’d contend that Tesla has the people working on Model 3 production who should be and that shouldn’t stop the company from moving forward on other important projects independently with the people focused on those. Did the Tesla Semi and Roadster 2 event delay Model 3 production any further? I’d presume not, or to such a negligible degree that it’s not worth noting. But that’s just my 2 cents. 🙂 —Zach]

But enough about priorities; let’s move on to the products!   

Roadster 2: More Zoom, More Range, More … Expensive

Tesla seems to have had that “Harder, Better, Stronger, Faster” Daft Punk song in mind when coming up with the Roadster 2.0, because it’s a mind-blowing advance over the first Roadster, which was itself impressive.

The improvements come at a price, literally. While the base model Roadster cost $80,000+, the Roadster 2.0 costs more than twice as much. The most surprising thing was that Tesla wanted $50,000 deposits (!) for the regular $200,000 Roadsters and all $250,000 up front for the Founders Series, three years in advance. [Editor’s note: I’d assume Tesla knows that there are plenty of people willing to help fund the company like that, especially to get a special Tesla, so is just using that market for what it can to help fund its growth with 0% interest.]

We’ll learn more when Elon tweets about the number of reservations the Roadster 2.0 has gotten, but per the podcast audio, your co-hosts think the following:

  • Nicolas: 10
  • Matthew: at least 500

Readers, what do you reckon? Does anyone think Tesla will hit 1,000 Founder Series reservations anytime soon?

Obviously, the market for $250,000 cars is very small. Ferraris start at about $200,000 and they sell about 7,000 vehicles per year, in part to make them hard to get and therefore more desirable. I think there are enough super-rich tech titans in the Bay Area and beyond for Tesla to get 500 Founders Series reservations. At a certain wealth level, you don’t brag to your friends about getting the new iPhone or even a Rolex, you brag about buying fine art, a private jet, or … a Tesla Roadster 2.0.

Did we mention that the Model 3 is the only thing that matters? 😊  

Digging (into) Tesla’s Big Rig

Tesla’s big rig has a weight problem, and it’s telling that Tesla hasn’t released the weight of the 300-mile or 500-mile tractors. (The “tractor” in a tractor trailer being the “truck” part.) This is important because the heavier the tractor, the less payload it can haul. Larger tractor-trailers are rated for 80,000 lb, but you have to subtract the weight of the tractor and the empty trailer in order to calculate your maximum payload.

It’s true that most container freight is volume-constrained rather than weight-constrained — companies generally run out of room in the container before the container gets too heavy — so having a slightly heavier truck might not be a big deal. Unfortunately, the Tesla truck isn’t going to be a little heavier than the average semi — it’ll be a lot heavier.

As many an armchair pundit has calculated, 500 miles at 2 kWh/mile makes for a 1000 kWh battery. (Tesla claims they’ll use less than 2 kWh per mile, but the real-life trucks won’t have the 0.36 coefficient of drag of the concept vehicles. To rattle off a few reasons, no one knows when regulations will allow truckers to forgo mirrors, the cab will have to be raised higher off the ground to deal with non-Bay Area quality highways, and the sleek hubcaps will get in the way of truckers doing their safety checks.)

Jylia Pyper’s excellent article at Greentech Media included some great nuggets, being that the battery composition is similar to the batteries in Tesla energy products (i.e. NMC chemistry) and “is designed to support repeated charging cycles.” That last bit means the battery is oversized.

Tesla’s Powerpacks, like the Chevy Volt’s and Nissan LEAF’s, only discharge the battery by two-thirds, in order to improve durability. That’s how I come up with an estimated 1500 kWh battery pack for the 500 mile semi. Given the Model 3 battery weighs 1060 lb per 80 kWh, that’s a 20,000 lb battery. (Carnegie Mellon University came up with a similar estimate, quoted in this Wired article.) The weight savings from removing the diesel system are only about 5,000 lb, so right off the bat the Tesla truck’s maximum payload is 15,000 lb lower than a diesel.

That won’t be a problem for gigantic logistics companies with hundreds of vehicles. They could assign Tesla Semis to lighter loads. Unfortunately, something like 90% of trucking companies have 5 trucks or fewer, meaning they won’t be able to afford to buy a truck that can’t handle all loads. The Tesla’s lower operating expenses won’t help much if the semi’s revenues are also lower because it can only handle certain jobs.

I sent some emails around, and Toyota’s fuel cell tractor is lighter than an equivalent diesel tractor. Nikola Motors estimates its day cab will come in at 15,000 lb, which is also lighter. If you’re a trucker or trucking company needing to replace your vehicle, those are going to look appealing, even if the hydrogen is more expensive than the very cheap electricity Tesla is promising.

Of course, we’re now speculating about the relative merits of products that won’t be released for a few more years. Fun as that is to do, right now, it’s all just commotion and noise. What isn’t commotion and noise though, is the Model 3 ramp. Today’s tasks are more important than tomorrow’s trucks, and I hope that Tesla is solely focused on that ramp!

Miscellany and Maps

Nicolas’ article on Cummins’ assimilation of electric motorcycle maker Brammo’s electric drivetrain team was an interesting one. And, not wanting to forget our now-near-weekly map feature, here’s the location of the Republic of Senegal!

Location of Senegal

Incidentally, Burkina Faso, also mentioned in the podcast, located a bit further to the east, is home to a small number of ethnic Tuareg, for whom the Volkswagen Touareg SUV is named.

Thanks for reading, and stop on by next week to get your electric fix!

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Matthew Klippenstein

Matthew Klippenstein is a renewable energy consultant in Vancouver, Canada. He has chronicled the Canadian electric car market for since 2013, and has provided commentary (in English and French) for print, television, radio, web and podcast media. An early guest on "The Energy Transition Show", his work has also been discussed on "The Energy Gang".

Matthew Klippenstein has 37 posts and counting. See all posts by Matthew Klippenstein