Musk Matters: Tesla Semi light on details, but is sparking conversations

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The recent reveal of the Tesla Semi was like none other – and not simply because it offered the first look at a prototype of the company’s electric Class 8 truck. If anything, there were still plenty of unanswered questions once the lights dimmed and fog machines were stowed away.

Other than acknowledging the truck battery sits beneath the cab, offering a low center of gravity, Tesla has yet to offer any real insights into the underlying power supply. This all-important power-pack promises to store enough energy to offer an 800-kilometer range, but we’re still missing spec’s such as how much it weighs. A pretty vital measure when trying to determine how much freight it can haul.

The cost per mile is also said to be at least 20% cheaper than diesel, but claims like these are determined by fine print, especially where the text reveals costs that are excluded. And as for the promise that the Tesla Semi and its unproven technology will run a million miles without ever breaking down? Please.

Setting aside the truck itself, we are even left to wonder about the rollout plans for charging stations, and where the trucks will be sold and repaired. Each is a factor that plays a role in everything from operating strategies to residual values.

Elon Musk, Tesla’s product architect and Chief Executive Officer, seemed more consumed by the truck’s potential speed when unveiling the prototypes during his stage presentation. The promise of an 80,000-pound tractor trailer launching from a stop to highway speeds in 20 seconds seems important to car devotees, but it’s meaningless in real-world trucking applications. Fleet managers are unlikely to encourage pedal-to-the-floor driving habits that sacrifice safety and tires alike.

Make no mistake about it, though. Musk still matters.

Look no further than the launch event itself. In some ways, Musk’s presence eclipsed the truck and Roadster in its trailer. The 1,000-plus-strong crowd greeted him much like Apple devotees once hung on every word of tech visionary Steve Jobs. Every product claim was greeted with cheers. The Tesla Semi is fast! It can be charged with sunlight! The windshield can survive a nuclear blast!

Tesla isn’t even the only manufacturer exploring electrification – as ongoing coverage in Today’s Trucking has shown — but this is the truck the general public is talking about. It’s certainly the only truck launch that friends outside the trucking industry ever asked me about. (“Were you really there to see the Tesla? That’s so cool!”)

The star power matters because, pun intended, the Tesla Semi is sparking more conversations about electrification and the truck as a tech hub. Even a first glimpse leaves us imagining driver information displays the size of tablets rather than smart phones, and steering wheels the size of those in a family car.

In an era where we’re trying to engage a new generation of workers, actually getting them to think of trucking as a tech-savvy career, the Tesla Semi certainly foots the bill. The value of the Tesla brand in getting shippers and the general public to think about the same thing is undoubtedly on the mind of those who place early orders before knowing exactly how well the truck will fit into their operations.

The market will decide if the Tesla Semi is viable. But in the meantime, Musk has ensured that people are talking about trucks in a new way, no matter how many orders are placed.

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John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking,, TruckTech, Transport Routier, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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