Can Tesla Semi Compete With Established Automakers?

Can Tesla Semi Compete With Established Automakers?

Tesla Semi

Established truck makers are also getting into electrification, so what makes the Tesla Semi special?

Heavy-duty electric trucks are hitting the highways. After years of conducting pilots, fleet operators are starting to place substantial orders, and both long-established OEMs and startups alike are ramping up production.

During a recent conversation with Rustam Kocher, once Charging Infrastructure Lead at Daimler Trucks North America and now a consultant (watch for the full interview in the next print issue of Charged), I asked which truck manufacturers he thinks are the most likely to lead in the electric brave new world.

Kocher praised Volvo TrucksFreightliner (a U.S. subsidiary of Daimler), and, in the European market, Daimler Truck and the Traton Group (a subsidiary of Volkswagen). He also favorably mentioned newer entrants such as Motiv and Proterra.

However, it’s another newcomer to the heavy-duty vehicle market that really stands out. “Tesla, obviously, they’ve got a great product,” said Rustam. “We talk about gen two, gen three with the OEMs right now, and maybe PACCAR and Navistar are on gen one, gen two. Tesla is on gen five because they built that truck from the ground up to be electric, which none of the major OEMs have yet. They’ll get there, but honestly Tesla is that many more jumps ahead.”

Kocher sees Tesla’s shift to LFP battery chemistries as a positive development for the whole industry. “You’re already seeing LFP batteries on the Tesla Semi, which is interesting. Now they think maybe they don’t need a 500-mile range, maybe they can get by with 300. Well, that helps the OEMs out there that can just barely reach 300. There’s a lot of use cases for 300-mile trucks out there, so let’s do that with LFP batteries. Iron phosphate batteries are great because they’re durable, they’re cheap. They’re a little heavy and they’re not quite as energy-dense as some of the other chemistries, but they’re a good fit for commercial use.”

However, technical superiority alone may not translate to market leadership. An unfortunate truism in the commercial EV space is that fleet operators tend to insist on years-long pilots before they commit to going electric at scale. Vehicle OEMs have likewise tended to take their time developing new models, but regulation may soon force them to shorten their timeframes, and this could favor established brands.

Rustam Kocher told me that the electric truck product cycle will be “artificially constricted” by the Advanced Clean Transportation regulations. Fleet operators “won’t have any choice, so they’ll choose OEMs that they trust and move forward. Whether that’s Volvo, Freightliner, PACCAR or Navistar, they have relationships with those OEMs and so they’re going to trust them to build a vehicle that will perform under the conditions that they need it to perform. Tesla’s going to have trouble breaking into the market.”

Will Tesla be able to earn the respect that established OEMs have built over decades? “Whether or not they can keep their truck intact, maintain it and build the trust within the industry is a good question,” Rustam told me. “I hope they can. I’ve never worked with smarter people. I’ve never worked with a more agile company than when I was working with Tesla on the Megawatt Charging System.”

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