What is the Tesla Semi? Everything you need to know about Tesla's semi-autonomous electric truck

Tesla is known for its electric vehicles -- but now it's hoping to add trucks to its roster of roadsters. Here's everything we know so far.
Written by Danny Palmer, Senior Writer

The Tesla Semi represents Tesla's attempted move into the trucking market.

Image: Tesla

What is the Tesla Semi?

Unveiled by Tesla CEO Elon Musk in November 2017, the Tesla Semi is the company's entry into the commercial trucking market, a completely electric vehicle complete with an 'autopilot' function to help provide assistance with semi-autonomous driving and safety for truckers over long journeys.

Tesla also claim that with fewer systems to maintain, the Tesla Semi can save the operator fuel costs of over $200,000 over a two-year period. Tesla guarantees the truck won't break down for a million miles because it is capable of running on just two of its four independent motors.


Elon Musk unveiled the Tesla Semi in November 2017.

Image: Tesla

What powers the Tesla Semi?

The electric batteries of the Tesla Semi work in a similar method to those of other Tesla vehicles and are should be able to power the vehicle for a distance of between 300 and 500 miles before it needs a recharge at a charging station.

Four motors -- the same versions as used in the Model 3 -- independently power four wheels across the rear axis. The design has been made in this way to ensure there are no differentials and the Tesla Semi can gain the most traction control possible for added stability.

How big is the Tesla Semi battery?

The size of the Tesla Semi lithium battery defines one important feature of the truck: the distance the rig is capable of travelling. Tesla says the one model of the Tesla Semi will be able to go 500 miles before being recharged, and the other version will make 300 miles before needing a recharge.

Due to the size of the vehicle they need to help haul along the road (plus the load it is carrying), the batteries are very large, starting under the floor below the drivers' feet and extending all the way back to the back set of wheels on the cab.

In terms of how much the battery weighs or how long it will take to charge the vehicle, Tesla has revealed little, although the company suggests it could charge to 80 percent -- 400 miles of range -- in 30 minutes. Tesla says that is a key distance: after about that distance, drivers would have to stop for a 30-minute break anyway. The company is promising big things for battery development, but until the Semi is on the roads, it remains to be seen how game-changing the battery is.

How does the Tesla Semi autopilot work?

Like other Tesla vehicles including the Model S and Model X cars, the Tesla Semi is due to come equipped with the ability to partially self-drive with the aid of a semi-autonomous autopiloting system.

Semi-autonomous is the key word: this isn't a self-driving vehicle, but the Semi will use a range of cameras and sensors to help the computer systems onboard the truck to monitor its surroundings, and help the driver -- and others on the road -- remain safe.

The 'enhanced autopilot' feature helps the vehicle stay in lane, warns about potential collisions, and can even automatically apply the brake in the case of an emergency -- even to the extent that if there's an accident, it'll take the appropriate action.

Speaking at the launch of the Semi, Musk said for example if the driver had a medical emergency, and the truck couldn't get a response from the driver, it will call the emergency services.

"It's going to take care of you; it's going to take care of other cars; it's going to take care of other pedestrians. This is a massive increase in safety," he said.


The Tesla Semi is a single seater - the interior looks more like a sports car than a truck.

Image: Tesla

What's Tesla Semi truck performance like?

Tesla says the Semi offers a 'badass performance' with an acceleration of zero to 60 mph in five seconds, or in 20 seconds when it's fully loaded with an 80,000lb load, the maximum it can carry on US roads. The four independent motors providing instant traction control, allowing the vehicle to quickly travel up grades and inclines. Energy is said to consume less than 2 Kwh per mile. Tesla says the best diesel trucks can do 45 mph up a five percent gradient while its truck can do 65 mph at maximum gross load.

What is the range of a Tesla Semi?

500 miles at maximum load at highway speed is what Musk has promised, saying that 80 percent of routes are less than 250 miles anyway -- which means trucks can go out and back without charging.

See also: Our autonomous future: How driverless cars will be the first robots we learn to trust (PDF download)

What makes the Tesla Semi different?

Musk says the Tesla is designed to be "like a bullet" rather than the "barn wall" design of diesel trucks, giving it a 0.36 drag co-efficient compared to 0.65 for a standard truck -- a better drag co-efficient than a super car, Musk said at the launch. Side flaps map to the size of the trailer being transported to also improve efficiency.

Image: Tesla

What is it like to drive a Tesla Semi?

"Smooth" like driving a Tesla, said Musk; also it won't have any gears for the driver to shift though. Tesla promises less of the clutter of third-party devices that fill many trucks, offering integration with fleet systems.

A central driver position which looks more suited to a Formula 1 car than a heavy goods vehicle is said to provide maximum visibility and control to the driver, while a low centre of gravity is designed to offer rollover protection in the event of an accident.

How much does the Tesla Semi cost?

The cost of the Tesla Semi depends on the specific model, but the lowest priced Tesla truck -- capable of a 300 mile range -- will cost $150,000, while the 500-mile range vehicle will cost more, at $180,000. In both cases, an upfront payment of $20,000 is required.

Tesla is also offering a limited edition 'Founders series' model, which will come at a higher cost of $200,000, but the 1,000-vehicle run will come equipped with its own special trim.


The Tesla Semi can travel up to 500 miles before needing to be recharged.

Image: Tesla

Who is ordering Tesla Semi trucks?

A number of well-known organisations including some global corporations have put in Tesla Semi orders as of early 2018. Leading the way is United Parcel Service, which has ordered 125, and PepsiCo, which has ordered 100. Sysco has ordered 50, Anheuser-Busch has ordered 40, while Wal-mart has currently ordered 15 and DHL has ordered 10.

Download now: Autonomous transportation research: Predicting impact on industries, companies, and personal lives

Unsurprisingly, all of these corporations rely heavily on delivering cargo, with many of them based in the US, where commercial trucking plays a big role in carrying goods across the country and the rest of North America.

When will the Tesla Semi truck officially be the roads?

Those who've already ordered a Tesla Semi have been told to expect the vehicle to be in their hands and available for commercial use in 2019.

However, a handful of the trucks have already hit the roads, with prototypes being tested on the highways of Nevada and California. Tesla CEO Elon Musk shared a photo on Instagram to mark a test near the beginning of March, which saw a Tesla Semi heavy duty truck carrying battery packs from the Gigfactory in the Nevada mountains to Fremont, California -- a distance of around 269 miles.

More recently, a Tesla Semi has been spotted 2,000 miles away from Fremont in St Louis, Missouri.


Trucking could be a lucrative area for Tesla - if it gets the Semi right.

Image: Tesla

What are the future plans around Tesla Semi?

Initial runs of Tesla Semi trucks will be relatively small, limited to just a few thousand -- and while the trucks appear to offer something different to others in the market, even by 2019 the numbers on the roads will be minuscule compared to the offerings of diesel-run trucks.

However, for Musk, this is just the beginning of the program. In February he told investors and analysts that he wants to be producing 100,000 trucks a year in just a few years' time, a figure which would put Tesla up there with some of the biggest mass transit vehicle producers in the world.

However, with an estimated 15 million trucks on US roads, Tesla has some way to go before it takes a big share of the market, but the company is keen to chip away at that figure.

Why does Tesla want to get involved in the trucking industry?

In terms of providing an opportunity to put the largest number of electric vehicles on the road possible, trucking could provide a lucrative avenue for Tesla.

According to figures from the American Trucking Association, the trucking industry generated revenues of $726bn in 2015, with 3.5 million drivers transporting cargo across the country. But despite those large numbers, the trucking industry is actually short on drivers.


Tesla says its truck will be on the roads in 2019.

Image: Tesla

What are potential problems for the Tesla Semi?

There are still a lot of questions to be resolved around the Tesla Semi -- the biggest being whether it can really compete on total costs compared with diesel rigs.

By its very nature, long-haul trucking involves heavy-duty vehicles travelling over vast distances. Many cities are already equipped with electric charging units, so a Tesla Semi making journeys of just a few hundred files in urban areas shouldn't have much in the way of problems.

However, the limited range of the electric truck could prevent the Semi from undertaking some longer runs made by some heavy-duty truck drivers. While electric charging stops are still rare, diesel is still available across the country, even at remote truck stops in the desert. More charging stations will be needed to support this.

Also, the Tesla Semi has fewer moving parts, which should make it less at risk of breaking down; Semi driving truckers who suddenly discover their vehicle has stopped on the open road might find themselves cursing that they don't drive a diesel truck when automobile repair companies find they can't do much to help electric vehicle owners without specialist support.

How are others in the trucking industry reacting to the Tesla Semi?

Tesla isn't the only manufacturer selling electric trucks, although when it comes to attempting to sell the Tesla Semi, the company has the bonus of being known for producing electric vehicles; some would even class it as a 'sexier' company than its potential competitors in the automobile and haulage space.

Volvo has announced its intention to start selling 'medium-duty' trucks during 2019, and a handful of customers will trial them later this year. The vehicles are built around what the company describes as "proven commercial solutions already in use on Volvo's electric buses, and solutions that were introduced in Volvo's hybrid trucks as far back as 2010".

Daimler is also producing an electric truck -- and presented its offering to the world in October, a full month ahead of Musk's big reveal. The German vehicle manufacturer says its E-Fuso Vision One electric truck can travel almost 220 miles on a single charge and forms part of a plan by the company to eventually electrify all of its vehicles.

Mercedes-Benz is also among the vehicle manufacturers offering electric trucks up for sale in what the company claims is "the first of this weight class worldwide it combines electric mobility and connectivity".

These are just a handful of the offerings that the Tesla Semi will find itself in competition with -- the race to bring electric trucks to the road is heating up and the trucking industry as a whole will be hoping that the competition will help improve efficiency and drive down costs.


    Tesla Semi: The big questions about costs, benefits ahead of trucking disruption

    Tesla has one fine big rig, but there were enough unknowns in the Tesla Semi unveiling to keep the transportation industry in wait-and-see mode.

    Tesla Semi looks set to tower over the competition [CNET]

    Meet the all-electric semi-trailer.

    50,000 drivers needed: Can technology save the trucking industry?

    There's been lots of talk about autonomous vehicles. The market is certainly ripe. How close are we really?

    The future of electric cars: Why the battery race will define it and Musk is a genius[TechRepublic]

    TechRepublic spoke with Steve LeVine, author of "The Powerhouse: America, China, and the Great Battery War" about the race to invent a super battery and the mainstreaming of electric cars.

    Elon Musk and the cult of Tesla: How a tech startup rattled the auto industry to its core

    Tesla is one of the most innovative and controversial companies in the world. Learn how its bold mission and Elon Musk's personality created a brand that attracts both fans and critics.

    Editorial standards