Autos: Tesla takes on trucking
Elon Musk is back making “big, dreamy, promotion-filled promises,” said Peter Holley in The Washington Post. The Tesla CEO last week unveiled his latest futuristic creation: Tesla Semi, a partially autonomous, all-electric big rig capable of hauling 80,000 pounds of cargo and traveling 500 miles on a single charge. The truck, Musk claims, will “not break down for a million miles” and produces zero emissions. Declining to disclose a price tag, Musk contended his electric Semi would run 20 cents cheaper per mile than typical diesel big rigs. The long-delayed announcement followed “weeks of disappointing headlines” about Tesla’s main California factory, including revelations of major hiccups in the production of the company’s Model 3 massmarket sedan. Tesla enthusiasts briskly brushed off those issues, swooning at the Semi prototype. It looks like “something Batman might have designed,” said Marco della Cava in USA Today. It is “a shot across yet another industry bow” from a company upending automobiles, solar energy, and even space exploration.
These trucks could prove to be an “expensive distraction” for Tesla, said Supantha Mukherjee in Reuters.com. Musk has not revealed how he intends to fund the project, and he’s burning through cash at the rate of about $1 billion a quarter. So he will likely need to request more money from creditors for development and production. In the words of one analyst, the Semi just “adds to Musk’s shopping list of things he needs to spend money on” at a time when he can barely deliver on his earlier promises. Maybe we should have a more open mind, said Liam Denning in Bloomberg.com. If Tesla can actually produce this truck, with its promised specs, at mass volume, “it would be a game changer.” Right now, though, Musk’s plan is “just a claim backed by a couple of demonstration models.”
Even so, the nation’s 3.2 million truck drivers rightly fear that the momentum behind automated driving greatly threatens their livelihood, said Aarian Marshall in Wired.com. The technological wizardry and safety benefits of the Semi, including automatic braking and lane keeping, could put plenty of people out of work. For now, the Semi requires a human in the cabin, but Goldman Sachs estimates automation will cost the industry 300,000 positions annually in the next few decades. If drivers do hang on to work, they may be steering from hundreds of miles away. Silicon Valley startup Starsky Robotics “envisions one joystick-equipped driver” in a “call center– like office” guiding trucks through the trickier parts of a route. A single human driver, the company says, may “be able to handle up to 30 trucks each eight-hour shift.” Trucking was one industry where blue-collar workers displaced from declining manufacturing could find work with decent pay. “Losing these jobs outright could devastate them.” ■