The Tesla Semi is coming tonight

Here it comes.
Here it comes.
Image: Tesla
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It’s time for the truck.

After more than a decade making electric SUVs, sporty roadsters, luxury sedans, Tesla has turned its attention to heavy-duty trucks. On Nov. 15, Tesla CEO Elon Musk plans to unveil the Tesla Semi in Hawthorne, California.

The electric big-rig is supposed to have a range of up to 300 miles and haul standard trailer cargo, according to fleet operators who have met with Tesla, reports Reuters. Autonomous driving technology is expected to be included.

The big event is slated to start at 8pm PT, and will likely be broadcast on Tesla’s website and YouTube channel if past events are any indication. (And as with all things Musk, it will probably start a little late.)

The launch date for the truck has been pushed back since September as Tesla has rushed to smooth out manufacturing problems with its Model 3, Tesla’s first mass-market EV, and devoted battery and solar panel resources to the Puerto Rico recovery.

In the mean time, anticipation has been building. Although no official images have been released, here’s an apparent prototype of Tesla’s Semi, a Class 8 vehicle on the larger end of such medium- to heavy-duty trucks (notice the silent acceleration).

Tesla fans have also speculated this vehicle in transit may be the new truck.

The Tesla Semi is not an obvious choice for the company. The manufacturing challenges of adding yet another model to its plan are significant. Tesla is going through “production hell” as it tries to ramp up assembly of the Model 3 sedan to 10,000 units per week by the end of 2018. The company said on Oct. 2 it had produced only 260 Model 3s at its Fremont, California, plant in the third quarter, well short of the planned 1,600 for September. Tesla has gotten overambitious before: Musk’s demands for the Model X threw the company into costly chaos for months as it tried to iron out supply chain and manufacturing difficulties.

What exactly will Tesla’s electric semi do? Not inter-state trucking. As cargo size and trip distance increase, the battery sizes start to rival the truck itself. Seimans estimates lithium-ion batteries capable of powering a semi-truck for 500 miles (804 kilometers) would weigh 23-tons, half the weight of the truck itself (although it’s possible a quick-change battery replacement system could solve that problem). They’re not cheap either: electrifying a conventional heavy-duty vehicle costs more than $150,000, estimates Deloitte, even if lifetime operating costs in fuel and maintenance can usually recover those costs within a few years.

What electric trucks are ideal for is short-range (< 100 miles), city traffic and predictable routes such as warehouses to retail establishments or distribution hubs. This could be Tesla’s sweet spot as it constitutes a substantial part of the market: trips of 100 to 200 miles represent 30% of U.S. trucking trips. Ports may be the first application since trucks are in heavy rotation to complete short hauls in urban areas where pollution is a problem (Los Angeles already has an electric vehicle pilot program). National emission standards will drive demand as well. Governments from China to the US are aiming to cut carbon dioxide and toxic emissions with some countries in Europe eliminating fossil-fuel vehicles altogether within a few decades.

The new electric vehicle race is now off the starting line. Tesla sees its advantage getting in the market early because its costs will only fall as it refines its production facilities and batteries (the most expensive single component of electric vehicles). In May, Musk said the Tesla Semi is essentially repurposing Model 3 motors and components on a truck chassis to minimize capital costs making it “a very compelling product that has low unit cost.

Of course, Tesla is not alone. German automaker Daimler AG is releasing  its own electric semi-truck, the Fuso eCanter, and Indiana-based Cummins has the 100 mile-range Aeos. German firm Bosch is developing a class 8 hydrogen-electric truck with Nikola Motor Company for 2021. BYD and Proterra have already rolled out hundreds of electric buses on the road.

Let the race begin.