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Can the Tesla Semi perform? UPS, PepsiCo and other truck fleet owners want to find out

Can the Tesla Semi perform? UPS, PepsiCo and other truck fleet owners want to find out
The Tesla Semi was unveiled with much fanfare on Nov. 16. (Tesla)

Big freight haulers want some tryout time with Tesla's new semi-truck.

Orders are trickling in for the sleek vehicle, unveiled in mid-November. On Tuesday, UPS said it wants 125. Last week, PepsiCo ordered 100. Budweiser parent Anheuser-Busch reserved 40. Sysco, the big food distributor wants 50. Wal-Mart ordered 15.

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That's peanuts compared with the 940,000 heavy-duty semi trucks sold around the world each year, 238,000 of them in the U.S. — and the Tesla truck won't be available until 2019 at least.

But it's a strong start for a new entry in the semi market. And it proves that major freight operators, intent on cutting costs without degrading service, are taking the Tesla Semi seriously.

Efraim Levy, a stock analyst for CFRA, thinks Tesla stock is overpriced, but he said the orders "do show some corporate backing for the semi truck initiative."

Trucking is anything but environmentally friendly. Current-generation semis get around 6 to 8 miles to the gallon. Diesel engines, like all internal combustion engines, spew fumes that contribute to global warming.

But it's an essential industry: Trucks haul 70% of the freight in the United States. And if fleet owners can get the job done with significant cost-cutting while satisfying government clean air regulations, they'll go electric, whether from Tesla or from somebody else.

"Heavy-duty customers buy from a spreadsheet," said Mary Gustanski, chief technology officer of motor vehicle supplier Delphi Technologies. Cool looks might excite PepsiCo's marketing department, but performance and efficiency are what would spread the Tesla Semi through the fleet.

The early fleet buyers will begin real-world testing after they buy their trucks. (Tesla said deposits range from $5,000 to $20,000 and are refundable.)

Much of the testing is likely to take place in Nevada: Tesla's battery factory is there, Nevada state law encourages semi-truck experimentation on public highways and freight distribution points dot the state in a way that makes a 300- to 500-mile range workable.

The interior of a Tesla Semi is seen in this artist's rendering.
The interior of a Tesla Semi is seen in this artist's rendering. (Tesla)

For example, Wal-Mart runs a huge distribution center, one of its largest, in Sparks, Nev., right next door to Tesla's Gigafactory. Tesla is certain to use the Tesla Semi to deliver batteries to the Fremont auto assembly plant. Rather than "deadhead" back with an empty load, those trucks could stop at the Port of Oakland and carry freight to Wal-Mart in Sparks.

PepsiCo runs a big bottling plant in Las Vegas. Interstate 15 runs 420 miles to Salt Lake City, most of that through Nevada. It provides a real-world proving ground for Tesla's truck, which the company claims can drive 500 miles before recharging.

Because trucks will roll between distribution points that lie within that range, they can recharge while parked at fleet-managed lots overnight and get maintenance when they need it.

Fleets that work those kinds of routes are ideal for electric truck experimentation, said Greg Hirsch, senior vice president of trucking and logistics firm Daseke in Addison, Texas.

Daseke isn't ready for electric trucks yet, Hirsch said. Its 5,200 trucks run long, irregular routes carrying heavy goods on flat-bed trailers. There isn't enough charging infrastructure yet, and no maintenance and repair network to support long-haul electric trucks.

But Hirsch said he'll follow the tryouts closely. "It's an interesting technology. We're not early adopters. But anything that improves efficiency and safety, we want to jump on that as quickly as can be proven practical."

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Test-bedding in Nevada holds another advantage: The state is emerging as a driverless-truck testing zone. In June, six months before the Tesla Semi was revealed, the Nevada Legislature passed a bill that requires human drivers be present in autonomous trucks — but also allows the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles to make exceptions and allow testing of trucks with no drivers.

Tesla hasn't talked much about applying its Autopilot self-drive technology to trucks, but no one doubts the company will.

The Nevada law also allows truck platooning, where lines of computer-controlled trucks drive closely enough behind each other to take advantage of aerodynamic drafting, like cyclists in a bike race. For now, human drivers are required for each truck in a platoon. Neither autonomous trucks nor platooning are allowed on California public roadways.

For the electric semi market to grow, coast-to-coast charging and maintenance networks must be built to satisfy long-haul truckers, who often travel more than 600 miles a day.

"Will there be a charging station within 20 minutes when I've reached 10 hours and 40 on my 11-hour day?" said Finn Murphy, a professional truck driver and author of "The Long Haul." "I doubt it." (Federal law limits commercial truckers' driving time to 11 hours a day.)

When he debuted the truck in November, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced vague plans for a new "megacharger" network to fast-charge trucks, at a rate of 7 cents per kilowatt-hour. How he could offer such a price is unclear. In California, electricity costs about 19 cents per kilowatt-hour. In Nevada, it's about 12 cents. No U.S. state's average price runs below 10 cents. Those are averages, however, and commercial prices often come in lower.

Other Tesla claims await proof too. The "expected" cost of a 300-mile-range Tesla Semi is $150,000. The 500-miler is $180,000.

A typical price for a new diesel truck is $120,000. The main operating cost is the driver and the diesel fuel. Tesla claims a Tesla Semi owner could save $200,000 in net fuel costs over the vehicle's lifetime. Early buyers will be eager to test whether that's true.

Stock and industry analysts also wonder what the Tesla Semi payload will be. Truck battery packs weigh tons, far more than a diesel powertrain. But federal law says a fully loaded truck can't weigh more than 80,000 pounds. Tesla hasn't talked about freight capacity.

Because of the truck's design and the excitement that surrounds just about anything Musk does, the Tesla Semi has received plenty of buzz. But many competitors want what Tesla's after. They include Nikola, a Salt Lake City company building a fuel-cell electric version of a semi that is expected to hit the market around the same time as the Tesla truck. Everyone from Daimler to Volvo to diesel-engine maker Cummins is entering the field.

Chinese company BYD is building electric trucks at its U.S. plant in Lancaster. There's even a Los Angeles start-up, Thor Trucks, attempting to build and sell an electric semi.

PepsiCo made clear the Tesla Semi is only one of several alternative energy vehicles it is experimenting with.

"The Tesla semi truck represents one part of our broader strategy, offering us a unique opportunity for us to explore electrification," the company said in an emailed statement. "Our PepsiCo vehicle fleet is currently comprised of several different fuel-efficient models, including electric vehicle box trucks, compressed natural gas tractors and advanced diesel technology from some of the leading manufacturers around the world."

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Whether the Tesla Semi sees the light of day depends on how fast Musk can solve some production problems in the here and now. Musk has to untangle bottlenecks at the Gigafactory, which is key to his plans for the new Model 3 mass-market sedan but also to producing reliable truck batteries at a low cost.

As with everything at Tesla, the battery plan is a huge gamble.

"Tesla would not be where they are today if they hadn't gone all in" on electric cars, said Delphi's Gustanski. Whether it achieves another breakthrough in trucks provides yet one more chapter in Musk's unfolding story.

Twitter: @russ1mitchell

UPDATES:

5:51 p.m.: This article was updated to include information about Tesla's refundable deposits.

This article was originally published at 12:40 p.m.

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