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Chicken and egg, Tesla and trucks

There’s only one thing standing between Elon Musk and Tesla Inc.'s plan to revolutionize transportation with electric vehicles: Electricity.

But before I get to my doubts, I will say that truckers definitely should take an interest in last week’s tweet by Musk that the car company would unveil the Tesla Semi in September. After all, the recent run up in Tesla stock pushed its value to more than $50 billion, making the company more valuable than GM and Ford—even as it sold fewer than 80,000 cars last year (compared to 10 million for GM, 6.6 million for Ford). So it’s not like this is just another wild scheme out of nowhere.

However, Musk—so far—has been more successful at selling his vision to investors than he has at building and selling vehicles for the public. (So the pressure is on the much-anticipated Model 3, a less-pricey car due to hit the streets in the second half of this year.) Still, that a guy whose side projects include Space X and its “terrestrial transportation” unit, Hyperloop, wants to get into heavy-duty CVs is exciting—especially since it doesn’t cost anything to dream big along with him (unless you’re so convinced electric, automated trucks are the future that you want to invest in Tesla today). Otherwise, as Musk snidely tweeted, cautious investors could always buy Ford, instead.

But that’s Wall Street stuff. We’re here to talk about trucks—and why I think electric trucks won’t dominate the long-haul market anytime soon. Namely, all that electricity has to come from somewhere. And alternative sources simply cannot generate enough affordable electricity, nor is there a cost-efficient way to store it for use in transportation. Of course, Musk is working to corner the market in both, with huge investments in solar power and battery technology. But the bottom line remains: The only carbon-free technology that could service growing energy needs is nuclear power, and nuclear power has been on its way out (at least in the U.S.) for decades—and it will take decades to ramp up again.

So what all this talk about electric vehicles actually means is they’ll still be powered by fossil fuels, it’s just that the fossil fuels will be burned elsewhere to generate the electricity. That is inefficient. And one thing that doesn’t work in trucking is inefficiency. Here's an idea:  Just use diesel or natural gas directly to power an engine. 

I chatted recently with Eric Neandross to get a preview of the upcoming ACT Expo, and the discussion turned to these "zero-emissions vehicles."

“There really is no such thing,” he says. “It’s a question of ‘displaced’ emissions.”

The problem is CARB overlooks effective technologies that are available now and for the near term because of “many long-term expectations” based around renewable energy powering the electrical grid—a highly questionable assumption. “It’s a very rose-colored vision of the future,” Neandross says.

And he discounts the effectiveness of electric trucks in long haul, joking that it might work if the only freight was an envelope—otherwise the electricity is being used to haul the batteries that provide the electricity. He does call hydrogen fuel cells for trucks “very intriguing,” but questions the timetable for developing the necessary infrastructure.

Similarly, Tesla’s “likelihood of success in the commercial truck market” is far lower than in the auto market, Stifel analyst Michael Baudendistel says in a note to investors—although he’s “keeping a watchful eye” on the company and any impact it might have on competitors.

He also cites “a litany of significant issues,” in addition to battery weight and range, that need to be addressed, including

  • Price: “Tesla cars don’t need to prove an economic case to their buyers; Tesla trucks will.”
  • Service and maintenance: “This has been an inconvenience for Tesla cars. For trucks though, if the wheels ain’t turnin’, you ain’t earnin’.”
  • Fueling infrastructure: “You can’t put the cart before the horse,” and battery recharging is slow while battery swapping is expensive and adds more logistical challenges.

So, we can look forward to September—but let’s not get our hopes up.

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