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Sunday, December 11, 2022

Tesla Semi: Another "Impossible" Achievement

Tesla Semi Exploded View at Production Release Customer

Tesla has done things that were once considered impossible. They made the Roadster when EVs were regarded as slow golf carts or milk floats. The zippy roadster was fast and fun and could blow the doors off cars costing ten times as much. This was the first of Tesla's "impossible" achievements and they've had a string of them. 

Tesla's Semi is the latest of their impossible achievements. 

Why Electric Class-8 Semi-Trucks are 'Almost' Impossible

Making an electric long-haul semi is not easy. It takes a lot of energy to move thousands of pounds/kilos of load. For an EV, that energy is stored in batteries. Adding more batteries adds more energy storage, but it also adds more weight, requiring yet more energy. This negative feedback recursion has led some to say that it is not possible, even with "big breakthroughs." As you can see below, one of these nay-sayers was Bill Gates.

Even with big battery technology break throughs, electric vehicles will probably never be practical for things like 18-wheelers, cargo ships or passenger jets.

Bill should understand that the march of progress opens new doors. He seems to be stuck in 1990s battery technology thinking. Even before Tesla's semi came out, there were class 8 trucks from Volvo, Freightliner, Kenworth, Peterbilt, and others (see table below). These non-Tesla class 8 vehicles generally had less than 350 miles of range, but it was a start; a foundation to build upon. 

Gates is not the only one to have doubts, Daimler Trucks CEO Martin Daum has commented, "if the claims Tesla is making about its electric semi-truck are true, they are breaking the laws of physics." Gates and Daum seem to be confusing 'what has been done' for 'all that can ever be done.' 

Tesla improved the aerodynamics, they improved the drivetrain, they improved the battery technologies, and they achieved what Gates thought impossible.

As we discussed in this article, Musk and Co. focus on the Class ½ Impossibilities. These are the things that are physically possible but at the edge of our technical know-how. Class ½ Impossibilities have just been enabled by technological advances, either directly or by advances in tangential areas that can be applied with other optimizations. These are not easy to achieve, they require breakthroughs, optimizations, hard work, and some luck. When completed, these enable something that we've never seen before and therefore something which many people will say is impossible. 

An Elephant That Moves Like A Cheetah 

The Tesla Semi has three Tesla carbon-wrapped Plaid motors. Musk described the vehicle as a beast. He said it's a giant Semi, but unladen, it moves like a sports car. He went on to say, "It's like watching an elephant move like a cheetah."

Tesla's "Impossible" Achievements  

One Roadster: When Tesla started, the founders often heard things like, "This is a fool's errand. Nobody wants an EV. They are slow, there's nowhere to charge them."

The Roadster showed that EVs can be sexy and fast. In the quarter mile, this electric car would blow away gas cars costing 10 times as much. It changed the perception of EVs. But the nay-saying continued, "A few Silicon Valley millionaires and billionaires will buy them, but no one else is interested (or can afford) an EV." 

Two Model S: The Model S disproved the "only in Silicon Valley" narrative. Tesla had sales around the world. 

Three Supercharging: Tesla's Supercharger network is impressive. There are currently more than 40,000 Superchargers installed around the world. These have high availability and locations near major travel corridors. This is vital infrastructure for electrified transportation.

Four Energy Storage: Vehicles are just part of Tesla's business. Tesla's Megapacks have 3.9MWh of capacity. This is enough to run the average home for over 130 days. Gang these together and you can make an impressive installation like the 730MWh Elkhorn Battery Energy Storage System in California or the 600MWh Arroyo Solar Energy Storage in New Mexico. As I write this in late 2022, Tesla has 5GWh of Megapacks and Powerpacks installed or under construction. 

Before we had significant energy storage, the amount of renewable energy that could be placed on the grid was limited. The legacy fossil fuel generation of the grid could not handle the fluctuations that wind and solar caused. However, with renewable sources buffered behind a battery pack, all of those fluctuations are washed away. The grid, instead see a steady, adjustable rate from the batteries that can be dialed up or down in milliseconds to support the grid exactly as it needs, exactly when it needs. 

Tesla's semi is the most recent on this list, but it won't be the last.  

This is The Beginning - Commence Iteration 

As impressive as the Tesla Semi is, this is just the beginning. As we saw with the Model S, a decade from now the Tesla Semi will be much improved. It will go from just a day cab to a sleeper cab. The range will grow from 500 miles to over 750 miles. The recharge times will improve. And the software will improve. 

The in-cab entertainment options will improve (will the sleeper bunk have a video game / movie screen)? Software integration for load pick-up, delivery, and schedule will improve; reducing the number of running empty deadheading trips. 

Wrapping It Up

The Tesla Semi is an important milestone. The fuel cost savings will drive fleet managers to adopt electric semis. Tesla's semi has limitations today on range and load weight, but innovation is Tesla's life's blood. Currently, it is perfect for many day-use loads. As the vehicle improves, the number of drives it's suited for will increase, until the range and refueling times rival and surpass Diesel semis. 

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