Will Tesla’s Electric Semis Take Over?


Elon Musk’s latest product unveiling, held last week in
Hawthorne, California, was done in the accepted fashion of introducing a new
product these days, which is for the CEO to stand alone on a stage, backed by
giant screens and, if possible, a piece of the subject hardware too.  Musk claimed that the new electric
truck he plans to start building in a year or so will travel 500 miles on a
single charge.  Critics cited in
the New York Times article about the
announcement say the more likely distance is 300 to 450 miles, which is a big
constraint for commercial truckers, who can currently cover a lot more than
that distance without refueling. 
And Musk’s figure assumes there are rapid-charging stations everywhere
they are needed, which is currently not the case.

The new truck will also feature the same semi-autonomous
driving technology that other Tesla vehicles have, which would be a big asset
for truckers.  But you can have
autonomous driving technology on a conventional diesel-powered truck, and in
fact some other companies are already doing experiments along those lines.  It may turn out that the self-driving
features make more sense to the trucking industry than the electric-power
feature, an ironic twist that would not be unprecedented in the introduction of
new technologies.

When personal computers were introduced, marketers
desperate to include women in the potential customer base tried to sell the
machines as a replacement for the kitchen card file of recipes.  Replacing a $5 card file with a $2000
computer never caught on, but a little afterthought feature called a modem
turned out to be the genesis of the Internet, and the rest is history, so to
speak.

Robotics expert Rodney Brooks, writing in IEEE Spectrum, thinks that convoys of
autonomous-driving trucks may be one of the first widespread uses of
self-driving technology.  It’s a
logical extension of the two-trailer articulated trucks you see fairly often on
many highways, and forming a closely-spaced convoy of identical autonomous
vehicles is one thing that the technology has demonstrably done well.  Brooks also thinks that once the
freeway part of the trip is over, cities will insist on putting drivers in
every truck before they are allowed off the freeway.  If that’s the case, then right away, the main appeal of
autonomous truck convoys to trucking companies—the ability to fire needless
drivers—goes away.  So even that
possibility is fraught with problems. 

Right now, buying an all-electric car or truck is a
triumph of faith over reason.  The
faith is a conviction that going electric is the wave of the future and, for
many, a moral obligation in the face of rising carbon-dioxide levels and
climate change.  The trouble for
makers of all-electric vehicles is that, so far, only the faithful with a lot
of money can afford to live out their convictions by buying an all-electric
car. 

The conventional automakers are selling to people whose
reason for buying a car is more or less the same as it’s always been:  the need to get from A to B reliably
and with a minimum of expense for the amount of comfort and convenience
provided.  For many of these
people, hybrid vehicles combine the best of both worlds.  They have better fuel economy than gasoline
or diesel cars, and don’t cost all that much more.  And the payback time, in terms of saving enough fuel money
to pay for the premium in price, is often reasonable too, just a few years or
less depending on how much you drive.

Most commercial truck owner-operators and the companies
they work for are intensely practical. 
They can’t afford to make political statements with the kind of truck
they drive, and what they’re looking for is reliable, efficient, low-cost
transportation systems.  If there
is any economic benefit to be derived from converting a truck fleet to Tesla
all-electric models, some corporation will figure it out–maybe one that runs
well-defined routes between locations that have already got charging
stations.  But beyond such special
cases, Musk may have an uphill battle in trying to sell all-electric technology
to a market segment where politics and faith is outweighed by bottom-line
considerations.

After all, given the rise of autonomous vehicles, the
long-term prospects for employment as a truck driver are not great, depending
on how things play out.  If the
convoy idea catches on, the job might actually get better for a while if you
are lucky enough to be one of the drivers riding along in the convoy, ready to
take over once the freeway ride is over and each truck has to be independently
piloted through a city or town. 

But the current tendency of most automation is to
eliminate jobs, not make them easier. 
And without strong unions or other countervailing political forces, the
profession of truck driver (and if you think it’s not a profession, try it
yourself some time) may be entering a long-term decline, closing off yet
another avenue of employment for those without a college degree.

And as for the all-electric feature of the new Tesla
truck, well, it’s still true that even if we all started driving Teslas
tomorrow, the big-picture carbon emissions caused by the resulting increased
electric load on a power grid that still uses a lot of fossil fuels, plus the
multiple inefficiences of generating electricity, transmitting it over lossy
lines, charging a battery, and discharging it into an electric motor, mean that
the nation’s carbon footprint would probably get bigger, not smaller.  So it really boils down to faith, or
even esthetics. 

I think most of the people who drive all-electric
vehicles simply do it because they think it is cool.  And that is fine for those who can afford to be cool in that
way.  But as for any larger good
consequence of the move to all-electric vehicles, it remains to be seen whether
the rest of the power infrastructure will catch up to the point that the
fossil-fuel-free vision of the future will come to pass.

At any rate, it will be easier to pass than a row of
five autonomously-driven trucks in a row on the freeway.

Sources:  The New York Times
website carried the article “Tesla Unveils an Electric Rival To Semi
Trucks” on Nov. 16, 2017 at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/16/business/tesla-electric-truck.html.  Rodney Brooks’ article “The
Self-Driving Car’s People Problem” appeared in the August 2017 issue of IEEE Spectrum on pp. 34-37 and 50-51. 



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