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Tesla Truck Unveiled (Wow!): 8 Key Things You Should Know

Beth McKenna, The Motley Fool

A highly anticipated moment in the electric vehicle world and among the Tesla Inc. (NASDAQ: TSLA) faithful arrived on Thursday, when the company unveiled its electric semi truck at an evening event in Los Angeles.

Jerome Guillen, head of Tesla's truck program, kicked off the party. Then with typical Tesla flair, several silver-colored trucks -- which looked sharp with their sleek design -- rolled up in front of the audience, and CEO Elon Musk exited one of them to take over the show. He announced some exciting stats before the live-stream feed cut out. Optimistic and persistent viewers were rewarded after an extended period of darkness when streaming resumed.  

Here are eight key things you should know about Tesla's electric semi truck. 

Tesla Semi traveling on a rural road with mountains in background.

Tesla Semi. Image source: Tesla.

1. Range of 500 miles at max capacity and highway speed

Musk said that the Tesla truck has a range of 500 miles per charge while carrying maximum weight -- which is 80,000 pounds -- and traveling at "highway speed." (Tesla's website indicates a 300-mile range version will also be available.) 

This announcement garnered hearty applause -- and rightly so: It had widely been anticipated that the truck would debut with a range of just 200 to 300 miles. Its actual specs will make the Tesla Semi more competitive with diesel trucks, which can travel up to about 1,000 miles on a tank of fuel.

2. Sports-car-like performance that leaves diesel trucks in the dust

The Tesla Semi performs more like a sports car than a truck. Musk ticked off these stats:

  • By itself, the Semi cab can accelerate from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 5 seconds, versus 15 seconds for a diesel semi. 
  • It can accelerate to 60 mph in 20 seconds when it's towing the maximum legally allowed weight of 80,000 pounds.
  • It can reach a speed of 65 mph when traveling up a 5% grade while towing the max weight. Diesel trucks reportedly top out at 45 mph under such conditions.

Regarding the last point and addressing his comment to truckers, Musk said, "You're earning 50% more per mile than if you're in a diesel truck." 

3. Solar-powered "Megachargers" are coming

Akin to the Supercharger network it is building out for its cars, Tesla plans a Megacharger network to support its Semis. Musk said the fully solar-powered stations will be located about every 400 miles. After driving for five or six hours, drivers will be able to take a half-hour break and have a fully recharged truck when it's time for them to hit the road again. Musk is guaranteeing low-cost electricity.

4. Better safety with enhanced Autopilot and jackknife prevention

Musk claimed that the Tesla truck provides a "massive increase in safety" relative to diesel trucks. All Semis will be equipped with an enhanced Autopilot that will be able to automatically brake and change lanes. They'll also have low centers of gravity because the battery packs are situated in the floor pan. 

The standout safety feature, though, is that the truck reportedly won't jackknife -- ever. Musk explained that the independent motors on each wheel will adjust their torque so that "jackknifing is impossible." He proclaimed to truckers: "Your worst nightmare is gone with this truck." 

View from the interior of a Tesla Semi, showing driver seating in middle.

Tesla Semi sports a driver's cabin in middle. Image source: Tesla.

5. Easier driving thanks to the driver sitting in the center 

Just as in a drag racer, the driver sits in the center of the Tesla Semi's cab, which provides better visibility of the road and surroundings than in traditional cabs that position the driver to one side. All passenger seats are behind the driver. "I can drive this thing and I have no idea how to drive a semi," Musk commented.  

6. A reliability guarantee that it will travel at least 1 million miles before its first break down

Tesla is guaranteeing that its Semi won't break down within the first 1 million miles traveled, Musk said. He added that even if two of the four motors stop working for some reason, the truck will not only keep going, but it will still be more efficient than a diesel. 

Musk enjoyed himself as he told the crowd that his favorite feature of the truck was its "thermonuclear-explosion-proof" windshield glass. He might have been exaggerating somewhat here, but the windshield is reportedly considerably more crack-resistant than usual -- a big plus in the trucking world where down time equals lost revenue.

7. More cost-efficient than diesel trucks -- and, in convoys, it even beats rail

Factoring in leasing, insurance, charging/fueling, and all other expenses, the Tesla Semi will cost approximately $1.26 per mile to operate, versus $1.51 for the average diesel truck, Musk stated. He claimed that "on day one, a Tesla Semi truck will beat a diesel" on total cost of ownership. 

Its cost advantage becomes even greater when convoys -- groups of trucks traveling together -- are involved, Musk added. Tesla's tech allows for tighter convoys, which results in more fuel efficiency due to the improved aerodynamics of vehicles traveling behind a leader. And because multiple Tesla trucks can be guided by just one driver in the lead vehicle, with the others in autonomous driving mode, but taking their cues from the human-steered truck, a Tesla Semi convoy will be an even more efficient mode of freight transportation than rail,  Musk asserts. (This of course, assumes the government authorizes and regulates such technology for use on the nation's roads.)

8. Available in 2019 

Tesla is taking reservations for its trucks now, and plans to begin producing them in 2019, Musk said. Tesla's vehicle launches are always later than the company initially announces, so 2020 is probably the earliest we can expect Tesla to start delivering its Semis in quantity. 

The Semi gets an A -- if Tesla can deliver 

The Tesla Semi appears to have the features needed to disrupt the diesel truck industry -- that is, if Tesla can deliver on its claims and  successfully mass produce it. Right now, Tesla is struggling to get production of its Model 3 sedan, its first mass-market vehicle, up to speed.

For Tesla investors, cash flow is the name of the game. With a truck launch date planned for 2019, it's close to a sure thing that Tesla will need to raise money again by 2018. The company also has to fund the Model 3 production ramp up, and has plans to open a factory in China in about three years to produce Model 3s, and perhaps Model Ys  -- a more affordable crossover vehicle, and the next car the company plans to launch.

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Beth McKenna has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Tesla. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.