Innovation

Musk's photo of Tesla Semi gives peek at three-tiered disruption of trucking

In a recent TED talk, Tesla founder Elon Musk showed a teaser image of the electric semi truck the company is working on. If successful, the truck could have a huge impact.

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Image: TED/Tesla

Tesla has been working on an electric semi truck for quite some time, with a planned September launch, but founder Elon Musk just unveiled a picture of what the truck will look like. In a recent TED talk, Musk showed off the above image, but didn't mention any more details about the project.

Initially, the trucks will not be autonomous or driverless, Musk said in the talk. Rather, they will be trucks that existing truck drivers will want to drive. One reason is the flat torque RPM curve made available by the electric motor, which likely offers better acceleration than the hill-shaped RPM curve of diesel motors.

"So this will be a very spry truck," Musk said in the talk. "You can drive this around like a sports car. There's no gears. It's, like, single speed."

SEE: Elon Musk and the cult of Tesla: How a tech startup rattled the auto industry to its core

While the above image looks more like an artist's rendering of what a Tesla truck could look like, Tesla already has a prototype on the ground. In the talk, Musk said that he even "drove it around the parking lot."

If successful, the Tesla Semi could disrupt the trucking industry in three major ways:

1. Disrupting the builders

While the potential impact of the truck may be contingent on its price, performance will be the key differentiator. Musk said that Tesla's semi is a long-range truck with "the highest weight capability," meant to "alleviate the heavy-duty trucking loads." However, he said, it isn't something that most people think is possible today.

"They think the truck doesn't have enough power or it doesn't have enough range, and then with the Tesla Semi we want to show that no, an electric truck actually can out-torque any diesel semi," Musk said in the talk. "And if you had a tug-of-war competition, the Tesla Semi will tug the diesel semi uphill."

If the Tesla Semi is able to beat the performance of traditional diesel trucks at a similar price, without sacrificing range due to its battery, other manufacturers could be forced to provide similar offerings. And if Tesla continues to " open source" its battery patents for the sake of advancing electric vehicles, the other truck builders may not have any excuse not to begin building similar electric semis.

2. Disrupting the energy sector

The second way that the Tesla Semi could disrupt the trucking industry is by changing the key source of energy that powers this type of freight movement. This is possible only if Tesla and its competitors achieve strong market penetration, but it is a possibility worth noting.

According to the US Department of Transportation's Freight Management and Operations division, trucking consumes more energy than any other form of freight today. Additionally, the US Energy Information Administration noted that petroleum-based fuels are the most popular fuels in the transportation sector. Even if it's not totally clear how much of the world's fuel consumption goes specifically to trucking, a mass move to electric power would have a strong impact on the oil and gas industry in the US and abroad.

3. Displacing the drivers

As noted in the talk, the Tesla Semi will not be driverless or autonomous "in the short term." But Tesla is one of the companies leading the development of semi-autonomous technology with its Autopilot feature. In late 2016, Tesla also announced that every new Tesla in production would have the hardware required for fully-autonomous driving.

Sooner or later, autonomous driving capabilities will come to trucking, with Tesla expected to lead the charge. According to a report by The Guardian, there are some 3.5 million truck drivers in the US alone, and there's a "strong undercurrent of denial" in the trucking industry that automation will replace jobs. Still, driverless trucking is projected to be in full swing within the decade—maybe even sooner with Tesla bringing its truck to market—and many of those drivers may soon be out of a job.

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About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

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