Tesla’s big year (the good and the bad) isn’t over yet. The company is set to unveil its Class 8 semi truck prototype Thursday night at its Hawthorne, California facility. While perhaps not as critical to the automaker as its new mass-market Model 3, the Tesla semi truck announcement will mark yet another turning point and big test for the company.
But why is Tesla’s next act a semi truck? That question has become more important as the second half of 2017 for Tesla has appeared to be about mitigating damage control over the Model 3’s production hurdles. Tesla is scrambling to build a lot of cars quickly in order to start delivering to thousands of waiting customers. Tesla first began accepting deposits on that car when it was unveiled in March 2016. Compounding those delays are criticism tied to labor-related lawsuits, some of which are related to a stream of October firings and layoffs at Tesla and SolarCity, as well as allegations of racism and anti-LGBT harassment at the Fremont assembly plant.
Yet when the semi truck was first announced a year ago, Tesla had recently made advances to its industry-first AutoPilot system and wasn’t yet under scrutiny to deliver its Model 3 to customers. A semi truck, back then, seemed like the next place to demonstrate long-range electric vehicles, and arguably the strength of the company’s Supercharger network of fast chargers.
The Tesla semi was originally tipped for a September reveal, according to the company. But Musk later announced it would be shown on October 26th. In early October, Musk said the truck unveil would be postponed to November 16th, citing a need to focus on establishing Model 3 production as well as a new effort to develop electricity solutions for Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which were later used for a San Juan hospital.
So far, two teaser photos of the semi have been released from Tesla. And in October, a Reddit user snapped a photo of a truck being transported in California.
Those early spec reports pegged the range in the 200- to 300-mile area, as the truck is intended for day trips, as well as including some self-driving capabilities, Reuters reported in October.
In the meantime, existing truck manufacturers have been pushing rival electric projects. Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz and Cummins, the Indiana-based engine-building specialists, have already unveiled electric trucks intended for long-range hauling, while other companies have announced plans for them in recent weeks. A 300-mile range may be fine for trucks intended for deliveries in urban areas, but analysts note internal combustion engine-equipped heavy-duty trucks have significantly greater ranges.
Still, Tesla claims to have had the ear of the trucking industry and that industry experts consulted in the product planning process for the semi. “We’re getting them closely involved in the design process, so the biggest customers of the heavy duty Tesla semi are helping ensure that it is specified to their needs, so it’s not a mystery,” Musk said at a June conference call. “They already know that it’s going to meet their needs, because they’ve told us what those needs are. So it’ll really just be a question of scaling volume to make as many as we can.”
What we don’t know yet, however, is where this enormous electric vehicle will be built. Tesla’s Fremont factory is already going to be full of cars, and, originally designed as an auto assembly plant, isn’t exactly set up to build a semi truck. The announcement of a new facility is likely.
Regardless of stretching company resources even tighter and testing the patience of Musk, the Tesla semi truck will signal a new chapter for the company — and we’re just at the beginning of that page-turner.