Electric Cars

Tesla Semi truck stands to shake up the trucking industry

The "Beast" is real. Elon Musk has unveiled the Tesla Semi and immediately pushed the trucking industry into a new dimension of technology and efficiency.

Tesla

Welcome to The Beast. This is the Tesla Semi, the company's long-awaited (and oft-teased) entry into the commercial trucking market. It's an all-electric semi-trailer truck that burns no gas, will in theory never need its brakes replaced, can cover 500 miles on a charge while carrying a load and only has a few moving parts. That, plus an advanced version of Tesla's Autopilot, means this will easily be the smartest semi on the road.

Still, that'll leave a simple question on the minds of many: why? And, more specifically: why now? With Tesla struggling to meet its own production benchmarks for the Model 3, it seems like an odd time to step into an almost entirely different industry like this. Take a look at the numbers, however, and things start to make sense.

According to the American Trucking Association, the trucking industry generated $726 billion in revenue in 2015, employing 3.5 million drivers. So it's a big industry, and one ripe for innovation, but despite a shortage of drivers those innovations and efficiencies have been slow in arriving. According to Allen Smith at AskTheTrucker entry-level semis cost upwards of $100,000 -- but that's just the beginning. Annual diesel costs alone can run up another $70,000, with total operating costs coming in at around $180,000 per year!

Those figures have actually come down somewhat thanks to reduced fuel costs, but even so it's easy to get excited about the potential of the Tesla Semi. Though the truck will presumably be more expensive to start, with the drastically reduced cost of "fuel" (electrons in this case, rather than diesel) that differential should be quickly negated. Factor in reduced service and maintenance thanks to the relative simplicity of an EV vs. a traditional, internal combustion engine, and this all makes a lot of sense.

But still there's reason for skepticism about Tesla's entry into this world of commercial transportation. Tesla's products are certainly known for their performance, but issues with the first examples of the Model X and other very public complaints will lead some to wonder whether the company can truly deliver a product with the kind of bulletproof reliability required by a commercial industry.

If your Model X breaks down on the way to work and you miss a meeting, that's bad. If your semi-trailer breaks down in Death Valley while hauling a load of produce, that's potentially a very expensive problem. Tesla will need to prove its truck is not only cost-effective but totally bulletproof.

Helping that reliability is a distinct lack of moving parts, a hallmark of electric vehicles. That in theory simplifies things, with Tesla claiming that the Tesla Semi has "basically infinite brake life." The batteries are said to be "similar" to those used in other Tesla cars, while the motors are those used in the Model 3. There are four motors here, one per driven wheel across two axles, meaning no differentials to maintain and the ultimate in traction control.

There's even more innovation to be found in the interior. The Tesla Semi features a central seating position, not unlike that of the epic McLaren F1, providing a better, clearer view of the road around the truck. That seating position is flanked by a pair of large touchscreens (also borrowed from Model 3) to provide navigation and a surround view. The systems that power those screens are able to integrate with commercial fleet management systems, enabling remote tracking and even diagnostics.

Tesla Semi

The interior is massive and comfortable yet far more simple than a current semi.

Tesla

The increased visibility that comes from situating the driver in the middle of the truck and forward, over the nose, should increase the safety of the Tesla Semi. That's augmented by what the company calls Enhanced Autopilot. It's said to include similar functionality to that found on the road, including automatic emergency braking and lane-keep assist. The truck also can modulate the regenerative brakes to prevent jackknifing.

We still have a lot of details to learn about the Tesla Semi, most important surrounding cost and production. With hundreds of thousands of Model 3 reservation holders still eagerly awaiting their deliveries, the first reaction to this new endeavor may well be skepticism. But, for the more progressive members of the trucking industry, this could be a sign of very big things to come. And with both Cummins and Daimler working on their own electric semis, Tesla's going to have to move quick if it wants to get out first.

It appears that the industry is ready to embrace Tesla's Semi already, even though it was only unveiled late Thursday evening. Meijer, J.B. Hunt and Walmart have all placed orders for various numbers of Tesla's big-rig.

Read more from ZDNet: Tesla Semi asks big questions about costs, benefits ahead of trucking disruption