Because of Tesla Semi, we’ll see more trucks on the roads in the next few years in spite of the lack of drivers

A silver Tesla Semi in Rocklin, California
Photo by Korbitr on Wikimedia / CC License

No doubt road transport is the most important way of delivering goods to consumers. Although the real backbone is composed of the thousands of container ships that sail our oceans, nothing would get to us if we didn’t have an enormous fleet of trucks on our roads.

In the last few years, delivery costs have been rising due to higher fuel and labor costs. Also in the last months, a lack of drivers is getting freight companies in trouble. The American Trucking Association (ATA) estimates that the US is short 80,000 truckers and it could reach 160,000 in the next decade as the US economy reopens after the COVID lockdowns and lots of baby boomers are retiring.

These two components, higher costs, and a labor shortage are what will lead road transport to a disruptive change. It is the perfect cocktail for a solution in the form of new technology.

Battery electric trucks

As electric vehicles sales topped in 2021, some brave companies are integrating electric trucks in their future product portfolio. Right now they are difficult to build because battery shortage is making EV manufacturers put every spare battery in their cars, but this shortage is not going to last forever and in the next two years we will see a new kind of truck on our roads.

A truck with more power to be able to maintain constant speed besides terrain orography saving time for the drivers and their companies and a truck in which energy costs will be at least cut by half compared to diesel trucks.

Although Daimler Trucks and Volvo are also working on them, the most famous of these new vehicles is the Tesla Semi. Unveiled in 2017, it will probably begin deliveries in 2023 when battery constraints ease although some units are going to be delivered as test units to selected customers like Pepsi Co this year.

It will come in two versions, a 300 miles range and a 500 miles range and the prices are between $150,000 and $180,000. It also stands out for its centered driver position and, like his little brothers, the lack of buttons and controls which have been replaced by two large screens.

This truck will be able to cross the country thanks to its range and charge during the driver’s resting time or when it is being loaded and unloaded. To accomplish that, Tesla has designed a new charging unit that the media started calling “Megacharger” and that has been spotted at Giga Nevada and Pepsi Co Frito-Lay facility in Modesto, California. Although specifications have not been released yet, they are supposed to deliver more than 1 MWh of power to be able to add 400 miles of range in 30 minutes. With enough of these “megachargers” deployed, Tesla’s Semi range will be almost unlimited and the cost of ownership of these vehicles will be substantially lower than their diesel counterparts.

Autonomy

But although electric trucks can bring down the cost of operation, they need a key component to solve the lack of drivers. And this is not ready yet but Tesla wants it solved in the next few years.

Full Self Driving software is being heavily tested in Tesla cars all over the US and data is being continuously gathered by the Tesla fleet around the world. Thousands of people are working in the most incredible piece of software of the last decades. Gathering data, labeling it, training the neural network, and designing the hardware and systems on their cars is an enormous endeavor and Tesla thinks they are close to a solution.

But, at first, we don’t need a full solution to the problem. It could be deployed in different stages:

  1. Full monitored driving. At first, the system will require an operator who won’t be driving but just stay alert in case something goes wrong. This operator will need as many hours of rest as a regular driver and the same training as a certified driver, so it won’t be much of an advantage on cost reduction, although I’m sure it will be an order of magnitude safer and it will reduce costs on accidents, freight damage and driver’s injuries for the fleet.
  2. System supervision. On a second stage, a certified driver won’t be needed anymore. Just a human operator capable of dealing with an issue in case the automated system is not able to drive and has to stop the vehicle. This operator won’t have to drive the vehicle and probably won’t need as many mandatory stops required for drivers. This will already bring costs down.
  3. Fully automated highway and road driving. On a third stage, the automated truck would be able to drive by itself without an operator inside the vehicle between transport hubs outside the cities. Instead of an operator for every truck, a central monitoring system will be built in a specific location to remotely monitor all the vehicles and deal with any issues which might occur.
  4. Full autonomy. Once the system is completely developed, the truck would be able to drive on any highway, road, or street to deliver goods anywhere. This last stage will be the most difficult to implement and legalize due to the complexity of city driving, but at last, the system will be fully capable of managing any traffic situation as a human being.

Autonomy advantages are endless, but the most immediate ones are cost reduction and safety improvements. With labor and fuel being the main costs of operations, both of them can be tackled with these new vehicles. In the next 10 years, our roads might look a lot different than today.

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