Tesla Unwraps Semi, New Roadster, No Mention of Model 3

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Product introductions are always upbeat and often flashy. Tesla Inc.’s (NASDAQ: TSLA) introduction of its semi truck met both targets last night. Then it added even more flash when CEO Elon Musk unveiled a new version of the company’s Roadster, a highway rocket Musk claims can hit 60 mph in under two seconds from a standing start.

The $200,000 Roadster may have stolen some of the semi’s thunder (it is beautiful), but the battery-powered truck is quite a machine. Musk claims that the electric big rig can travel 500 miles fully loaded on a single charge and that it can accelerate to 60 mph in 20 seconds pulling its maximum load of 80,000 pounds.

Tesla estimates that operating cost per mile for the truck is $1.26, compared with $1.51 for a diesel-powered truck. Traveling in a convoy to minimize wind drag, the company estimates a per mile cost of just $0.85. If that turns out to be true, the Tesla semi approaches the cost of rail transportation.

The Tesla semi is projected to be in production by the end of 2019 and a $5,000 deposit now gets you on the list. Musk did not give a price for the truck but did indicate that it would be pricey: “Tesla stuff is expensive.” A sleeper cab, diesel-powered semi costs around $125,000.

The 500-mile range is more than expected, but the cost of that may be in payload. More range means bigger, heavier batteries and that reduces how much cargo the truck can carry. That matters to shipping companies that are in business to make money.

Tesla’s autonomous driving feature is included as standard equipment, including automatic emergency braking and lane keeping. The driver sits in the middle of the cab with display screens on either side

Another challenge is competition from long-standing players in the semi truck market. Daimler, for one, is developing its own autonomous semi. Another company known to be working on a self-driving semi is Uber, which purchased autonomous truck firm Otto last year.

Opinions on the shape of the world differ, of course. Brian Moody, executive editor for Autotrader, said:

In many ways, Tesla building a heavy truck makes sense, especially given Tesla’s well-publicized driver assist and/or self-driving features. Long-haul trucking is likely the most logical arena for self-driving vehicles ahead of private passenger cars. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Model X and S are just big marquees for where the real money is – fully autonomous over-the-road cargo trucks.

Michael Haley, group managing editor for Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book, thinks the Tesla semi is the wrong product:

While Tesla’s truck announcement will unquestionably create a lot of buzz, the company has incorrectly aimed its sights. Diesel fuel is readily available and relatively efficient for heavy long-haul trucks that cruise open highways at a fixed speed. A more appropriate target for the electric vehicle maker would be the short-haul, or so-called last mile delivery, which would benefit from regenerative braking, low noise and emission-free EV motoring.

Investors are more upbeat. Maybe because Musk had no comments related to production problems with the company’s new Model 3 sedan.

Tesla stock traded up about 3.4% in Friday’s premarket session at $323.00. The stock’s 52-week range is $180.00 to $389.61 and the 12-month consensus price target is $316.00.