A truck believed to be Tesla's was spotted last month.

Tesla, Electric Semi-Trucks and Equity

, vehicles analyst | November 16, 2017, 3:56 pm EST
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Today is the unveiling of Tesla’s electric semi-truck. There’s been a lot of interest in this truck since it was referenced last summer in Tesla’s master plan. As sales indicate, Tesla makes sought-after electric cars and the potential for the company to replicate this success in the heavy-duty sector is an exciting prospect for clean air and climate change.

While Tesla isn’t the first company to unveil an electric big rig, its likely the first one many people have heard about. Electric truck technology – spanning delivery trucks, garbage trucks, transit buses, school buses, and semi-trucks – exists and is ready to be deployed. The more people that know about these vehicles, the better for our climate and air quality.

As the unveiling nears, excitement about Tesla’s truck has been tempered by news about the company’s labor conditions and accusations of discrimination at the company. While zero-emission trucks are critically important, so are safe and equitable workplaces. Fair work conditions go hand-in-hand with the long-term success of any business.

My hope is that Tesla becomes recognized for the quality of its workplace as much as the quality of its vehicles. I personally believe this is possible.

Job agreements, like the one made between Jobs to Move America and the electric vehicle maker BYD, are one example of how companies can do good for their employees and communities. The Greenlining Institute found that with the right job-training and hiring efforts, truck and bus electrification can be a catalyst for economic opportunity in underserved communities and help overcome racial inequities in wealth and employment.

So why are heavy-duty electric vehicles important in the first place?

Trucks and buses make up a small fraction of vehicle population, but a large fraction of vehicle emissions. In California, for example, heavy-duty vehicles, make up 7 percent of vehicles, but 33 percent of NOx emissions from all sources, 20 percent of global warming emissions from the transportation sector, and emit more particulate matter than all of the state’s power plants, see here.

Note, heavy-duty vehicles are defined here as having gross vehicle weight ratings greater than 8,500 lbs, e.g., a small moving truck.

Electric trucks, whether manufactured by Tesla or anyone else, are essential to solving climate change and reducing air pollution. On California’s grid today, a heavy-duty electric vehicle with middle-of-the-road efficiency has 70 percent lower life cycle global warming emissions than a comparable diesel and natural gas vehicle. Electric vehicles also don’t have any tailpipe emissions of NOx, particulate matter, or other pollutants. What this means for communities, especially those near freight corridors, is lower risks from the harmful consequences of dirty air.

What about the performance of electric trucks?

We’ve already seen how Toyota’s fuel cell electric truck stacks up against a diesel truck in terms of acceleration. High torque (i.e., ability to move from a standstill) of electric motors compared to combustion engines is something all electric vehicles excel at.

Given the class leading acceleration and battery range of Tesla’s cars, we can expect similar high performance from its electric truck. Other manufacturers are operating or have unveiled battery and fuel cell semi-trucks with ranges of 100 miles (BYD, Cummins) to 200 miles (Fuso, Toyota, US Hybrid). If reports are true, Tesla’s semi-truck could travel 200 to 300 miles on a single charge.

Zero-emission trucks offered or in development from BYD, Cummins, Toyota, and Daimler (Mitsubishi Fuso).

Despite the image of long-haul, “over-the-road” trucking, 100 to 200 miles of range can meet the needs of many heavy-duty trucks with local and regional operations. A range of 300 miles would be the longest by 80 miles and put to rest any hesitations about range for many local/regional (“day cab”) applications.

In California, there are 20,000 semi-trucks serving ports in the state. So-called “drayage” trucks deliver cargo to and from ports and warehouses in the region and are excellent candidates for electric trucks with today’s range. Conversion of these trucks alone to zero-emission vehicles would have significant air quality benefits for communities near ports and warehouses.

Cross-country trucking is a bigger challenge for electric trucks, but success in local operations is the first step to proving the functionality and economics of moving freight over longer distances with zero-emission vehicles. Tom Randall at Bloomberg shows scenarios under which Tesla’s truck could make economic sense for day cab or over-the-road applications.

In all, the momentum we’re seeing across the industry for zero-emission trucks is incredibly exciting. And just as we hold manufacturers and policy makers accountable for clean air, we must do the same for good jobs.

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Clockwise: BYD, Cummins, Toyota, Daimler

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  • Lee Rothstein

    I admire what Tesla is attempting to do on many fronts. However, I fear that he is thin on attention, and results. Moreover, he not making money. No mon. No fun. No tech.