Tesla unveils its monster Tesla Semi truck and lets us step inside

Tesla unveils its monster Tesla Semi truck and lets us step inside

Elon Musk has a plan to reinvent trucking, and it will ride on the sizable back of the new Tesla Semi.

The all-electric truck, which Musk unveiled Wednesday night in a Hawthorne Municipal Airport Parking lot (adjacent to his SpaceX headquarters) just outside Los Angeles and has a remarkable 500-mile range, may be most notable for what it doesn’t include.

There’s no transmission, no clutch, no big motor, and no after-treatments or differentials in the Tesla Semi. And even those facts to paint a picture of just how foreign the Tesla Semi may be to every red-blooded trucker on American roads today.

Tesla has taken the cabin, a place where the average trucker will spend 10-14 hours a day (and maybe more if they sleep in the ruck), thrown the components up in the air, and settled them into what the company believes are more ergonomic and useful spots.

Image: Lance Ulanoff

All this is clear to me as I, under the rumble of overhead helicopters and gulf jets, examine the Tesla Semi cabin for the first time.

Tesla ferries small groups of journalists in gulf-wing Model X’s to around from the front of Hawthorne Airport to the back, past the famous first Boring Tunnel dig and an actual Hyperloop Test tub that extends down much of a side road, to a hanger just behind the Tesla Design Studio. Inside are two Tesla Semi truck prototypes and one Day Cab Class 8 truck, probably not enjoying the comparison with Tesla’s innovative cargo movers. 

Hello, beautiful

What’s instantly notable here’s that these are all-day cabins, meaning the first Tesla Semi trucks do not include sleeper cabin space behind the driver’s compartment. That’s surprising considering most full-time truckers do spend some time sleeping in their trucks.

Tesla tells us they’re considering a sleeper model in the future, which will extend the length of the cabin, but not the overall truck length.

Up close, the Tesla Semi truck is gargantuan. Thanks to the aerodynamic fairing affixed to the top, it towers above us. That half-cone of hard material rises to the exact height of a trailer, so the wind glides from the front of the Tesla Semi’s curved snout, up past the angled windshields (there are three) and over the top of the truck.

Up close, the Tesla Semi Truck is gargantuan

They lead us around to the back of the truck where, not for the last time, we encounter reused technology. The four “super singles” tires each have their own Tesla Model 3 motor, each of which can operate independently. Semi trucks typically use double or single wheels. Tesla put the singles on this prototype, but it could just as easily use “duals.” 

Sitting between these tires is the “Fifth Wheel,” the tire-sized, notched and heavily greased panel that truckers use to attach their trailers to the truck. It’s unremarkable and standard in design or, as Tesla put it to us, “trailer agnostic.”

Telsa later later notes that there are currently no plans to build custom Tesla trailers with extra battery power. This makes sense when you think about how truckers keep their trucks, but usually leave the cargo trailers behind when they’re done with a job.

Unlike a standard semi-truck where the fuel tanks are clearly visible on each side, the Tesla Semi truck’s power source isn’t immediately obvious. The battery is built into the truck chassis and hidden behind a rigid frame. This, Tesla notes, provides protection for the batteries and additional car safety.

As we make our way to the cabin. I notice tiny, fin-like sensors jutting out of the truck frame. This prototype lacks sideview mirrors, which Tesla claims they really don’t need but will include anyway because it’s the law.

Nearing the passenger compartment, I recognize a familiar door handle. it, too, is from the Model 3 and is placed just four feet above the ground, There will be no reaching up to open this Semi door.

We swing open the door and find a set of shallow stairs leading up into the cabin. There are handrails to grab, but it’s easy to get inside the cabin.

Cabin might not even be the right word. The all-gray plastic, and fabric-covered interior of the Tesla Semi Truck is designed like a tiny room. Tesla told me they’re still experimenting with materials for the interior.

Without the need for a giant motor and transmission, Tesla loses what’s known and the “doghouse” bump that juts into the passenger compartment of every semi-truck. It’s a huge space-saver.

There’s roughly seven feet of standing room space, at its highest point and somewhat forward, but toward the middle is an almost bizarrely centered driver’s seat.

The all gray interior of the Tesla Semi Truck is designed like a tiny room. 

In front of it are to equidistant, landscape touchscreen displays, also from the Model 3, and in front of that three impact-resistant glass windshields, one wide, bookended by two more narrow windows that angle in toward the driver. 

If Director Wes Anderson designed a tractor-trailer cabin, it might look like this. 

Tesla, though, tells us the centered seat is the safest position for maximum visibility around the long, seemingly blind corners of most semi trucks.

Putting the driver dead center means there’s no passenger seat. Well, there is one, but it’s basically a jump seat behind and to the right of the driver’s seat.

There’s no traditional dashboard or odometer, but there appears to be storage space everywhere (even under the front hood). Behind us and overhead is what looks exactly like airplane overhead bins. They function the same way, too.

I would like to drive the big rig

I settle into the incredibly comfortable driver’s seat, which bounces gently up and down as if finding the proper height for my body. I’m told it will stop moving in a moment. The side windows don’t roll down — they open casement-style, a supposed reliability choice. I grab the steering wheel and find that my foot can’t quite reach the gas or brake. I do not get to adjust the seat, press the horn, or drive the Tesla Semi truck in any way. In fact, it’s almost as if our mini tour is over just as it’s beginning.

Here it comes.

Here it comes.

Image: Tesla

Naturally, Tesla and Musk are promising a cargo-load full of superlatives from the Tesla Semi. It will brake and accelerate more smoothly, it will go further than a diesel in the same time and be safer doing it, it will identify jack-knifes before they even happen.

I do not get change to adjust the seat, press the horn or drive in any way in the Tesla Semi Truck.

As expected, the Tesla Semi will ship with Tesla’s Enhanced Autopilot mode, allowing for automatic emergency braking, lane keeping, auto steering, and lane-departure warning, which should be especially welcome for long-haul drivers.Tesla would not specify the number of cameras or sensors.

The jack-knife prevention technology sounds particularly interesting and complex. Jack-knifing, often the start of major traffic backups, is when the semi cabin and its trailer shift out of front-to-back alignment, and the rear of the trailer spins left or right and moves in the direction of the front of the truck, making the shape of a half-open jack knife.

According to Tesla, the Tesla Semi’s sensors detect the start of any instability and instantly start countering it by applying torque to each wheel and activating all the regenerative brakes independently and as necessary.

Tesla and Musk wouldn’t tell us how much each truck costs, but they are conscious of how much it costs to operate a big rig. Instead of leaving connectivity to routing and tracking systems to third-party companies and costly accessories, connectivity is built in for communication with these route management systems.

There are, at this moment, many unanswered questions, like range, price, and availability. Tesla didn’t even reveal the weight (is it a lot less or more than a standard diesel truck?). We should be learning more shortly.

This story is developing…

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November 17, 2017

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