Tesla Semi’s butterfly effect on the trucking industry

Auke Hoekstra, an Eindhoven University of Technology researcher and an electric vehicle specialist, explained in a recent interview how battery-electric trucks like the Tesla Semi could end up dominating heavy-duty freight routes in regions such as Europe. In terms of the real-world use of electric long-haulers, weight and range limitations normally associated with electric vehicles could quite well be very insignificant, according to the EV expert.

Although discussing Renewable Energy Wire concerns, Hoekstra clarified that vehicle skeptics such as the Tesla Semi frequently take the toughest business case that a diesel truck can handle. A multi-day trip with a team of two drivers traveling thousands of kilometers in one trip is an instance of this. The EV expert clarified that while conventional diesels still hold an advantage in this scenario against their battery-electric competition, when one looks at the broader trucking industry, this edge disappears.

My research in the Netherlands has shown that 80% of trucks drive 750 kilometers a day at most, including the very big rigs, the semis, and many cover much shorter distances. That’s because things get very costly very quickly if you try to cover more kilometers, because you have to pay overtime, etcetera. So in general, you can’t make a driver do more than 750 kilometers a day. Therefore, this is the range you have to hit with about 80 percent of trucks.

“Additionally, almost all trucks return to base at the end of the day – which creates ideal conditions for charging. We still have this romantic idea that truckers are on the road for weeks on end, away from home. But this scenario has become relatively rare. Most truckers simply move stuff from Rotterdam port to Venlo, halfway to Germany’s Ruhr area, to take an example from home… Many truckers do this sort of trip a couple of times per day, and then return home. So, you can charge the vehicle overnight at a default location. This means you don’t have a chicken and egg problem – you can arrange for the infrastructure and for the truck at the same time,” the EV expert remarked. 

Interestingly enough, recently Elon Musk noted that Tesla is looking to release the Semi with a range that falls well within the numbers of Hoekstra. While speaking at the European Battery Conference, Musk said that he believes it is feasible for the Semi to reach 800 kilometers of range very quickly, and he also sees a route to at least reach an even more impressive 1,000 kilometers per charge for the Class 8 truck over time. These figures will go a long way to changing the view of all-electric long-haulers and their constraints on the market. For his part, Hoekstra noted that such a situation had already happened with the original Tesla Roadster before.

I recall that things really changed in the automotive industry when the Roadster entered the market. That really changed the conversation. It altered the whole understanding of electric cars. Back then the common wisdom was that you could only use them in the city for short distances. And suddenly this car appeared, and everything was possible.

The Tesla Semi visits Yandell Truckaway. (Credit: Arash Malek)

“Within the next couple of years, we’ll see the first Tesla semi-trucks on the road. This will have a similarly huge impact on the conversation about electric trucks. You can just point to it and say: “Look, it’s moving there, and it is doing 800 kilometers.” Suddenly, all those people who say ‘it cannot be done’ within truck companies will hear their boss replying: ‘Well, our competitor can do it – so you will have to do it, too.’” Hoekstra said.

What is very interesting is that this is not even the most thrilling aspect of the butterfly effect of the Semi on the trucking industry. A “Tesla Effect” of sorts might occur on the trucking market if the Tesla Semi finds a strong place in the industry the same way that the Model 3 found a good niche among premium mid-size sedan buyers. This could come in the form of the production of other battery-electric trucks for the long-haul market. In turn, this could result in a huge push for innovation from many truck manufacturers, similar to what is happening now in the consumer EV sector with businesses like Tesla, Lucid, Rivian, and veterans like Ford and GM.

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