Tesla plans to unveil electric big-rig truck in September with a range of 300-500km, but this is the only image released so far.

San Francisco, California - Tesla plans to unveil an electric big-rig truck in September with a working range of 300-500km, a sign that the electric car maker is targeting regional hauling for its entry into the commercial freight market.

Chief executive Elon Musk has promised to release a prototype of its Tesla Semi truck in a bid to expand the company's market beyond luxury cars. The entrepreneur has tantalised the trucking industry with the prospect of a battery-powered heavy-duty vehicle that can compete with conventional diesels, which can travel up to 1600km on a single tank of fuel.

Tesla’s electric prototype will be capable of traveling the low end of what transportation veterans consider to be “long-haul” trucking, according to Scott Perry, an executive at Miami-based fleet operator Ryder System. Perry said he met with Tesla officials earlier in 2017 to discuss the technology at the Tesla plan in Fremont, California. He said Tesla’s efforts were centred on an electric big-rig known as a “day cab” with no sleeper berth, capable of traveling about 300-500km with a typical payload before recharging.

“I’m not going to count them out for having a strategy for longer distances or ranges," said Perry, who is chief technology officer and chief procurement officer for Ryder. "But right out of the gate I think that’s where they’ll start.”

Tesla responded to questions with an email statement saying, "Tesla’s policy is to always decline to comment on speculation, whether true or untrue, as doing so would be silly. Silly!”

Current technology

Tesla's plan, which could change as the truck is developed, is consistent with what battery researchers say is possible with current technology. Tesla has not said publicly how far its electric truck could travel, what it would cost or how much cargo it could carry. But Musk has acknowledged that Tesla has met privately with potential buyers to discuss their needs.

Tesla is also developing self-driving capability for the big rig, and Musk has expressed hopes for large-scale production of the Semi within a couple of years, an audacious effort that could open a potentially lucrative new market for Tesla. Or it could prove an expensive distraction.

Musk warned in July that the company was bracing for “manufacturing hell” as it accelerated production of its new Model 3 sedan. Tesla aims to produce 5000 of them a week by the end of this year, and 10 000 a week before the end of 2018.

But sceptics abound; some doubt Musk's ability to take Tesla from a niche producer to a large-scale automaker. The quirky billionaire whose transportation ambitions include colonising the planet Mars, has long delighted in defying conventional wisdom. At Tesla’s annual meeting in June, he repeated his promise of a battery-powered long-haul big rig.

"A lot of people don't think you can do a heavy-duty, long-range truck that's electric," he said, "but we are confident that this can be done."

Sweet Spot

While the prototype described by Ryder’s Perry would fall well short of the capabilities of conventional diesels, Musk may well have found a sweet spot if he can deliver. Roughly 30 percent of US trucking jobs are regional trips of 150-300km, according to Sandeep Kar, chief strategy officer of Toronto-based Fleet Complete, which tracks and analyses truck movement.

"As long as Musk can break 300km he can claim his truck is 'long haul' and he will be technically right," Kar said. A truck with that range would be able to move freight regionally, such as from ports to nearby cities or from warehouses to retail establishments.

Interest in electric trucks is high among transportation firms looking to reduce their emissions and operating costs. Electric motors require less maintenance than internal combustion engines, and power from the grid is cheaper than diesel.

But current technology doesn’t pencil when it comes to powering trucks across the United States; the batteries required would be so large and heavy there would be little room for payload.

Weight and cost factors 

According to a paper recently published by battery researchers Shashank Sripad and Venkat Viswanathan of Carnegie Mellon University, in which they thanked Tesla for "helpful comments and suggestions", battery weight and ability would limit a truck to a range of about 500km with an average payload. And the cost of the battery alone for a big rig capable of going 300-600km carrying a typical payload could be more than the price of an average diesel truck, they warned.

Transportation stalwarts such as Daimler and shipping company UP say they are focusing their electric efforts on short-haul trucks. That’s because smaller distances and lighter payloads require less battery power, and trucks can recharge at a central hub overnight. Daimler officials say it will begin production in 2017 of an electric delivery truck with 160km range and a 4300kg, about 450kg less than its diesel counterpart.

Daimler has been joined by a handful of startups such as Chanje, a Los Angeles-based manufacturer that has a partnership with Ryder to build 160km-range electric trucks for package delivery.

Ryder and its customers believe electric trucks could cost more to buy but may be cheaper to maintain and have more predictable fuel costs. As batteries become cheaper and environmental regulation increases, the case for electric trucks could strengthen.

"This technology is being seen as a major potential differentiator," Perry said. "Everybody wants to understand how real it is."

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