Building charging infrastructure for the Tesla Semi electric truck will present even more challenges than producing the vehicles themselves. File picture: Tesla via AP

Seattle, Washington - Elon Musk, has said little about how he plans to turn his prototype Tesla electric truck into reality.

But it has come out that Tesla is collaborating with Anheuser-Busch, PepsiCo and United Parcel Service Inc to build on-site charging terminals at their facilities as part of Tesla's efforts to roll out the truck in 2019.

Details of the partnerships, which have not been disclosed previously, are still being hammered out, but include design and engineering from Tesla, the companies said. They declined to disclose what portion of the building costs, if any, Tesla would pay, or whether Tesla would be compensated for its work.

These three are among nine major corporations that have placed pre-orders for Tesla's truck, dubbed the Semi. With questions swirling over whether Tesla can make good on its aggressive timetable, news of the collaboration is a sign that corporate customers are taking the effort seriously, and that Tesla is working to solve one of the biggest impediments: keeping the big rigs powered.

They said the first step would be to install charging equipment on their own premises; the Semis would initially be limited to routes that would get them back to home base before their batteries went flat.

In-house capability

PepsiCo, which has reserved 100 Tesla trucks, said it may eventually explore sharing facilities and costs with other companies. PepsiCo executive Mike O'Connell said it had held a number of meetings with Tesla to discuss the recharging effort 

"We have a lot of in-house capability around energy and engineering," said O'Connell, senior director of supply chain for PepsiCo's snack-food division Frito-Lay North America, "and certainly Tesla brings their expertise to the table on energy and charging." 

Separately, in a high-tech twist on the traditional truck stop, Tesla is moving ahead with plans for its own stations to sell electricity to truckers who pull up for a charge, according to customers and transportation industry executives who have discussed the matter with it Tesla representatives.

Tesla already operates more than 1100 "supercharger" stations globally for drivers of its passenger cars. Musk has spoken publicly of doing something similar for its heavy-duty trucks by installing a network of solar-powered "megachargers" that could juice up a Semi battery in 30 minutes.

Plagued by delays

But just how quickly Tesla could build a robust network of electric filling stations for commercial truckers is not clear. The company is already stretched thin and burning cash. Tesla has struggled to ramp up production of its new Model 3 sedan, which has been plagued by delays. Some analysts and trucking executives doubt that Tesla can deliver the Semi in 2019, much less a vast charging infrastructure to support it.

A Tesla spokeswoman confirmed that the Fremont, California-based company is working closely with large customers to build Semi charging stations. She declined to comment further on the arrangements or Tesla's plans for its own truck-charging terminals.

Anheuser-Busch senior director of supply chain James Sembrot said it was evaluating installing its own charging equipment for its 40 Tesla Semis at large breweries and other key locations.

"What was important to us," Sembrot said, "was to make a big investment in this cutting-edge technology and secure our place in line."

Costs could reach into the millions of dollars

UPS global engineering director Scott said the giant parcel delivery company - which pre-ordered 125 Semis in December - also expected to work closely with Tesla on building on-site charging stations.

Spokeswoman for grocery chain Loblaw Companies spokewoman Catherine Thomas said the grocery chain would probably use solar energy to power charging stations for the 25 Semis that it has pre-ordered from Tesla, and that Loblaw was considering Tesla as well as "a few other companies" for technology and design.

None of the companies would disclose cost estimates for building their own charging infrastructure - US transit agencies that operate electric buses provide some clues. A "fast charger" terminal serving six electric buses cost $249 000 (R3 million), according to a 2016 report from the California Air Resources Board.

But analysts and automotive industry executives said the price tag for commercial truck facilities could easily reach into the millions of dollars, depending on factors such as the number of big-rigs to be recharged, the energy source for the electricity and existing energy infrastructure in a given area.

Automaker or energy supplier?

Tesla unveiled its prototype Semi in November, with the aim of revolutionising the trucking industry. At the splashy event in Hawthorne, California, Musk said the sleek, battery-powered truck could achieve up to 800 kilometres on a single charge, and be faster, cleaner and cheaper to operate than conventional diesels.

Base prices range from $150 000 to $200 000 (R1.8 - R2.4 million), according to Tesla's website, compared to $120 000 (R1.4 million) for a typical diesel. Companies such as Wal-Mart and Sysco Corp put down deposits, getting plenty of public relations mileage in the process - but Tesla's most obvious potential customers - major US trucking firms - have not jumped on board.

Werner, YRC Worldwide, Daseke and Old Dominion Freight Line are among the transport companies holding off pre-orders of the Tesla for now, citing doubts about the Semi's promised recharge time, range, price and payload capabilities.

Werners chief executive Derek Leathers said he wasn't among the "naysayer crowd" that doubted Tesla's ability to produce a viable electric truck.

"I think it'll happen," he said, I just think their timeline is extremely aggressive."

Tesla's electric Semi truck is unveiled in Hawthorne, California. File photo: Alexandria Sage / Reuters

Still, a dearth of publicly available charging infrastructure makes electrics impractical for long-haul trucking in the United States and elsewhere, something Musk has sought to address with his plans for solar-powered "megacharger" stations. But he has provided few specifics. At the November Semi unveiling, Musk said "we're guaranteeing" a price of seven US cents (R0.84) per kilowatt-hour for electricity at the facilities.

According to a 2017 report from the US Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, solar power for commercial use costs 9-12 US cents (R1.08-R1.44) per kilowatt-hour, or 6-8 US cents (R0,72 - R0.96) with a federal subsidy.

Customers and industry executives said Tesla intends to buy cheap excess solar power from the US energy grid, store it in enormous battery banks, then profit from selling it to drivers of Semis - but that strategy carries risks, experts said.

Darren Gosbee, vice president of engineering at Navistar, which is working to launch an electric medium-duty truck by late 2019, said: It's a departure from being a vehicle manufacturer to being an energy supplier."

Ian Wright, a Tesla co-founder who now runs his own company making electric powertrains for industrial trucks, is sceptical that truck charging stations can be a big money maker for Tesla, estimating the capital cost for batteries alone would be $15 million (R180 million) for a single station.

Wright, whose Wrightspeed powertrain venture is based in Alameda, California, said: "I'm not seeing any profit for Tesla in energy brokering."