The Tesla truck - the much-hyped, as-yet unreleased, battery-powered Semi - is heavy-hauling electrified pie in the sky. Here’s why:
MEET THE CULT
Five months ago, I reported on one of the modern era’s most popular cults: Tesla. Watch it here >>
I decided to test - in a semi-robust way - whether Tesla was a beacon to a clean, green future, or just another cult.
A cult is simply: “a system of faith-based devotion directed towards a particular figure or object”. And faith is just believing something when there’s no evidence to support that belief.
So: you can have faith in Jesus. That’s allowed. But if you eat an Oreo and take a big swig of Jack Daniels and believe you are consuming the body and the blood of Elvis, you’re probably nuts. The distinction escapes me - completely.
Tesla - by any robust definition - is absolutely a cult. Elon Musk keeps failing to deliver - the cars, the autonomous technology, the green future, the Space X rocket launches - whatever. But you can count on him to deliver - on time, every time - official apologies for the non-achievement of his hitherto promised goals, wrapped in a rosy picture of the future.
Example: At the end of the first quarter of 2017 Tesla failed to deliver the promised Model X production target. In an official statement the company said:
“Tesla is addressing all three root causes to ensure that these mistakes are not repeated with the Model 3 launch.” - Tesla statement
How reassuring. At the end of the third quarter, the cult had delivered 260 Model 3s. The only problem: It had promised 1500. That’s what I mean by dependability.
This is not an isolated, cherry-picked example.
THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE GIGA
Tesla is not in fact an electric car company. It is a cash-incinerating bullshit machine. Despite customer revenue, venture capital, bank and government loans, investment stakes by other carmakers, and stock and debt market funding, the company makes no money, dependably.
The cult is in bed with Panasonic. Tesla is building the Gigafactory to bring battery production in-house. You can see the Gigafactory from space. Number 1 Electric Avenue, Sparks, Nevada.
Gigafactory on Google Maps >>
It's a highly secure facility. But even here there appears to be no real technical innovation going on - the Gigafactory is all about economies of scale. They’re building standard lithium-ion batteries. Panasonic ones. That’s not innovation - it’s a big factory. Tesla makes plenty of statements about that - production efficiency; "moving molecules" is their catchphrase... - but hardly any statements are made about fundamental battery tech improvements.
So, should you find yourself claiming that Tesla represents new technology, you are kidding yourself.
That’s what cult members do. Believing what makes you happy, despite the evidence.
FULL OF ROBOCRAP
Some Model 3 customers have already paid $5000 for ‘enhanced autopilot’ plus $3000 for Tesla’s ‘self driving package’, the latter of which Mr Musk assures his fan base comprises all the hardware required for a ‘driver’ to sleep at the wheel … once the software and regulations are sorted. (In the game, that’s called Level 5 autonomy. Zero human oversight required.)
In October, Scott Miller, a General Motors self-driving bigwig, publicly described this Tesla hardware notion as (quote) “full of crap”, which is hardly equivocal. The Tesla package does not include lidar - which non-Tesla autonomous driving experts claim to be essential if you want adequate systematic redundancy to safely engineer out the human driver.
This is what a cult looks like if you are not brainwashed by it. A nice idea, about which the facts fail to add up.
THAT'S WHY THE SEMI IS A BAMF
In November, The Cult prick-teased the Semi - but left out critical specifications. Tesla continues to leave them out. And by critical, I mean critical to the people who would actually buy and operate a truck commercially. The most critical specifications for the world’s first electric truck have still not been released. You would have to assume that this is not an accidental omission.
The Tesla Semi - it’s claimed - will accelerate from zero to 100 kilometres per hour in 20 seconds - configured with an all-up weight of 36 metric tonnes. It will drive up a five per cent gradient at 65 miles per hour (104 kays an hour). It’ll consume less than two kilowatt-hours per mile, they say.
Two versions are planned: 300 or 500 miles in range. And, if you want to join the Elon Musk boy band, you can reserve yours today for US$20,000.
But the cult offers no information about the tare weight of the truck - from which we might infer some critical facts about the weight of the batteries required to power it. And, to a trucking operator, this is critical. See, the weight of any truck is a zero-sum game.
That means: you’re getting paid to deliver the payload. The heavier the truck, the less the payload. Because the all-up weight is absolute. (Here in Australia, the maximum weight of a five-axle semi-trailer is 40 tonnes.)
From Tesla: Deafening silence on the payload. (It’s probably not good.)
THE WEIGHT IS OVER
The critical engineering deficiency of any battery-powered truck is the energy density of the batteries. Let’s reverse-engineer that. Actually - that’s already been done.
Back in June, two researchers from Carnegie Mellon University concluded that a battery-powered semi would cost a fortune, and have limited cargo capacity. The paper was peer-reviewed and published in the journal: ACS Energy Letters (published by the American Chemical Society.).
In other words, that independent paper was everything The Cult’s Semi announcement was not: It was academically robust, detailed and independent. Produced by experts and reviewed by experts. Of course it’s hard to compete with Elon Musk’s charisma - he did describe the Semi as a (quote) “BAMF” (for bad-ass mother-'lover') to enthusiastic sycophants at the launch.
Tough to compete there, when all you have is brains, credibility and facts, I guess… Still, the non-BAMF expert researchers found that an electric semi-trailer with a 600-mile range would require a battery pack that weighed 14 tonnes - not including the four significant electric traction motors and control and power management systems.
Simplistically, that’s compared with, say, 500 litres of diesel to do the same job. Plus an engine and transaxle. That’s nowhere near 14 tonnes. And you have to remember that the trucking industry is ruled by efficiency. Every kilo of a truck’s intrinsic weight is a kilo you don’t get paid to carry.
RECHARGE OF THE RIGHT BRIGADE
Then there’s the time to recharge - which Mr Musk told cult members would be 30 minutes for 400 miles of range. That’s a lot of electrical energy.
At the Cult’s claimed two kilowatt hours per mile, that’s a charging station capable of pumping in 800 kilowatt hours of electricity in 30 minutes. That’s 1.6 megawatts of input power, for a half-hour duty cycle. Or about 700 conventional domestic power outlets (in ‘Straya) on maximum delivery capacity.
I’d suggest it will be some time until the power grid infrastructure is available for that, in the boonies between capital cities. Of course, you could buy a 1.6 megawatt diesel generator from China (per truck). That’ll cost you about $250,000 for a generator capable of fast-charging one truck.
It’ll weigh about 15 tonnes, and pack a 71-litre V16 diesel engine. Expect to pay quite a bit for delivery. And you’ll burn about 200 litres of diesel to charge one truck … which seems to me somewhat less than totally green, and in fact completely contrary to the fundamental objective here.
Alternatively, you could have an 8000 square-metre solar array to do the same job, in real time. For one truck. That’s about six and a half Olympic swimming pools in area. Per truck. But of course if you want to charge the truck overnight, or on a cloudy day, you’d need about 20 tonnes of batteries per truck. Ballpark.
Alternatively, you could install a two megawatt wind turbine (plus - I don’t know - 50 tonnes of batteries - because it’s not windy every day). And the turbine will cost you about $2-3 million.
The cruising range. Here in ‘Straya, it is rather a long way between capital cities. Adelaide to Melbourne is 700-odd kilometres. That’s just inside the range of the larger of the Tesla Semis. Melbourne to Canberra is also do-able, with the big one. The only major inter-capital city haul within the purview of the smaller Tesla Semi is betwixt Sydney and Canberra.
Sydney to Melbourne, Sydney to Brisbane - you can’t do that without recharging, and of course … forget about going east to west.
Sadly, the place where we really need electric trucks is deep in our cities - running the staggering volume of inbound containers from the port to logistics distribution facilities in the outer suburbs.
CLEARING THE AIR
Currently the trucks doing this job - which literally does keep the economy ticking over - are old. Incredibly old. The average age of heavy trucks in Australia is almost 14 years. In the USA it’s seven. In Western Europe, Canada and Japan they have heavy truck fleets five to nine years old. Our trucks are geriatrics.
That’s easy to understand. In North America, old trucks migrate south - to places like Mexico or Columbia. Whatever. In Western Europe, they go east, to countries like Dogshitistan.
Because we lack a convenient land bridge to a third-world shithole, old trucks here are conscripted to belch their evil, deadly pollution into our cities, picking up and dropping off shipping containers. Because that’s just what happens.
Infrastructure Australia predicted an increase in truck traffic of 50 per cent from 2010 to 2030. As far as I know, that’s on track. In the same time, container traffic across our wharves is expected to increase 150 per cent, and the freight that arrives by air will grow by 110 per cent. It’s all moved by truck. Infrastructure Australia National Land Freight Strategy >>
Before 1996 - let’s call it two decades ago - there were no emissions control regulations on heavy trucks in Australia. And one third of the trucks on the road today are in that pre-’96 ‘big emissions’ category. I’m not making this up - it’s part of a report by the South Australian Freight Council. Download it here >>
The negative consequences for human health here are profound. Old trucks belch chemicals that cause cancer and life-shortening cardiovascular diseases. There is no doubt on this. It’s a scientific fact.
Our cities - right across the developed world - that’s where a fleet of electric trucks could make a real difference. But it has to be viable, as opposed to Cult Kool-Aid.
Mr Musk is, however, a charismatic, weapons-grade non-achiever of his stated goals. That’s a fact. He keeps not delivering. He has many enthusiastic cult members sucking on that Kool-Aid, but the facts are simply not on his side.
You can buy a truck like this (right) today for about $30,000 - the mighty 1995 Ford Aeromax L9000 Detroit Series 60 - with only 823,000 kays on the clock. That’s low kays for a 20-year-old filthy truck, and this one seems like a good deal. A perfect device for suburban container shuffling - if you don’t mind poisoning the population while you do it.
Or you could buy a 300-mile Tesla Semi for US$150,000 plus. That’s the base price. (And you’ll need four or five hundred domestic extension cords… Or that $3 million wind turbine, discussed earlier.)
I’m not anti-electric truck; I’m anti-fantasy. Anti cult. Anti bullshit. Pro fact - that sounds nicer. More positive. Ask yourself if you are willing to bump the price of all consumer goods - from the TV to the groceries to the materials from which your house is built - as a consequence of having them distributed by the cult.
It will be a substantial bump in price. Brace for impact there - or don’t, because the cult could just as easily collapse… To me, that’s just a matter of time.