The Tesla Semi is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. In thinking about the potential of such a vehicle, it’s important to avoid using a fossil fuel/internal combustion engine “frame of reference”. It’s also important to keep in mind Tesla’s track record for creating competitive vehicles in other segments. The arguments about range, performance, utility, and price made against the Tesla Roadster, Model S, Model X, and Model 3 have generally been proven wrong, to market disrupting effect.
By the time the Tesla Semi actually hits production, it will benefit from 2-3 more years of battery density and pricing advances. Besides having batteries in the Tesla Semi itself (the cab), there are likely going to be batteries in the trailer. Batteries within the floor of the trailer would provide key structural support (as they do in Model S and X) and room for over 1000 kWh. Additional batteries could be integrated into the walls or roof of the trailer as well.
Tesla motors are so small that there could one motor for each wheel such that the cab is likely to have 6 motor all wheel drive. Another innovation is that the trailer would also have motors, perhaps an additional 1-6 depending on length and weight. With 6-12 total motors, there is very strong regenerative braking, probably so strong that traditional brakes would only be needed in panic situations. And with so many motors, some will be optimized for acceleration and some optimized for highway cruising. As in the Model S and Model X, torque sleep engages on any motors that are not needed at any given moment. The Tesla Semi system will have a level of acceleration, handling, and efficiency far beyond all currently available tractor trailer systems.
No gas engine means no air or noise pollution. In urban settings where tractor trailers are restricted due to pollution or noise, the Tesla Semi would have a unique advantage.
Level 5 self-driving capability will be a game changer for the trucking industry. But even if Level 5 isn’t ready from a legal or regulatory point of view, currently available Level 3 self-driving with “touch-the-steering-wheel-every-5-minutes” driver engagement still makes for a significantly improved driving experience as it decreases fatigue and increases safety.
The only remaining “hurdle” to the Tesla Semi completely replacing diesel tractor trailers is long distance refueling. Tesla would need to build a network of higher powered (300-500kW) Superchargers exclusively for the Tesla Semi. But with Tesla Powerpacks and solar panels suited for low cost, off-grid, middle-of-nowhere deployment, Tesla will easily deploy this network ahead of Tesla Semi mass production.