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Tesla wants to test its electric semi sans human drivers

Emails between Tesla and the Nevada DMV outline plans to test semi trucks in autonomous platooning mode without a person behind the wheel.

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Tesla electric semi truck teaser

Earlier this year, Tesla teased an electric semi truck.


We all know that Tesla Motors is working on autonomous driving technology for its cars and that it's developing an electric semi truck slated to debut in September. Now we know that the electrified automaker is planning to combine the two, thanks to emails seen by Reuters that outline plans for "platooning" tests in California and Nevada.

Platooning is basically a driving formation where vehicles, in this case large trucks, follow each other very closely. You may have also heard it called a "road train." The advantages include increased aerodynamic efficiency since the trailing vehicles are essentially drafting one another like NASCAR racers but, with autonomy in the mix, they could follow much more closely and save even more fuel.

Autonomous platoons could also reduce the number of drivers required by only having a human in the lead truck, further saving costs. Even with a human in every cab, autonomous platoons would allow following drivers to rest during highway stretches, boosting driver alertness overall and increasing safety.

Reuters reports that emails uncovered between Tesla and Nevada's DMV discuss testing of prototype trucks across the California-Nevada border "in a platooning and/or Autonomous mode without having a person in the vehicle." It doesn't get more autonomous than that.

Automakers view so-called "highway autopilot" systems as a key early battleground for self-driving technologies for a variety of reasons. Highway driving is relatively simple with very straight paths, well defined lanes and almost no crossing traffic to confuse the computers. We were recently able to test Cadillac's Super Cruise highway autonomous driving system which will be hitting the road this year.

But self-driving commercial transport and trucking are a particularly tasty slice of this pie -- drawing not only Tesla's interest, but also automakers such as Volvo and Daimler and autonomous technology leaders like Waymo and Uber -- due to the high number of miles logged by these large vehicles (which speeds along development), the potential operating cost reduction (which boosts profits) and safety improvements (which benefit everyone).