Tesla’s Semi Leader Takes Center Stage at ACT Expo

May 20, 2024

As GNA (a TRC Company) President Erik Neandross pointed out in his introduction, Tesla agreed to address the ACT Expo audience for the first time this year, sending along Dan Priestley, the Semi program’s senior manager.

“I’m excited to be here to share an update on Tesla semi thus far, and shed just a little bit of light of what our next steps are,” began Priestley, who then acknowledged the respect he has for the commercial transportation sector. “You represent all of the people and companies behind the scenes that are moving the majority of goods in North America.”

Since its unveiling in 2017, the Tesla Semi has seen its share of delays, something that Priestley did not shy away from.

“Now, I know, as alluded to, there’s been some questions on timing. But Tesla has a specialty and that is turning the impossible into merely late,” joked Priestley. “I think that there are some narratives that seem to think that electric heavy trucking is still impossible. You might hear someone say that it’s really hard. Well, guess what, it is really hard. We’ve been doing it, but it is absolutely worth doing, and we do not enter this industry lightly.”

Alluding to the need for freight companies to maximize payload when transporting goods, Priestley explained that achieving strong range-to-mass ratios is only possible with “a dedicated purpose-built, ground-up electric platform,” something the electric vehicle manufacturer has past experience with.

“There’s no wasted space. The powertrain and the vehicle work hand in hand. We saw this on the light-duty side and we’re seeing it all over again on the heavy-duty side,” said Priestley.

The other sticking point for many fleets, charging time, was also addressed, with the Semi program manager pointing to the fact that Tesla can offer megawatt level fast charging that is reliable and safe. Tesla has already deployed this in the field and is actively using it in vehicle testing and with customers.

“What this does is it unlocks the operational equivalence between diesel and electric,” added Priestley. “There’s none of these ratios that you need extra electric trucks do the same amount of work that diesels do. They can swap one for one in operations.”

For example, PepsiCo ran more than 1,000 miles with one of its three Tesla Semis in a 24-hour period during NCAFE’s Run on Less Electric demonstration last year, with the other two totaling 754 and 808 miles, respectively. Tesla is also “putting our money where our mouth is,” introducing the Semi into its own supply chain and operations by hauling battery packs from its Gigafactory in Nevada down to support its Fremont factory operations in California.

“Two years ago, this route was 100% diesel – we are now electrifying it,” said Priestley. “We are able to do this because the truck has adequate range, proper infrastructure to pair with it, and the vehicle mass allows for one-for-one payload parity. But you get all of this at a lower operating cost. That is the beauty of electric heavy trucking.”

Currently, the Semi fleet is seeing an average of 1.7 kilowatt hours per mile, according to Priestley, and this is with larger payloads than some would expect. For example, PepsiCo has been using its Semis to haul beverages, much heavier goods than its chips and other snacks. They have seen so much success that Tesla is in the process of delivering 50 more Semis to its Fresno, California, facility, as well as the mega charging to support it. The increasing delivery of and orders for the Semi will be supported by a factory that is currently being built in Nevada that will eventually produce 50,000 units annually.

Priestley then went on to address another elephant in the room, the Supercharger network. At the end of April, Tesla CEO Elon Musk laid off the team responsible for building EV charging stations. The car manufacturer then rehired some of the team back a few weeks later.

“To be very clear, charging is core to Tesla. This year, we are investing more than $500 million in new supercharger stations, expanding the network. We are committed to providing our customers with a great supercharging experience and we’re going to extend that exact same train of thought into the heavy-duty side as well. We’re going to make sure that every vehicle we deliver has a charging solution supported that could come in a variety of flavors,” said Priestley.

After the presentation, Neandross joined Priestley for a fireside chat style discussion on all the points he discussed. Pointing to the fact that historically Tesla restricts the information shared with the media, Neandross asked what changed.

“When we first unveiled this product in 2017, Tesla was a fraction of the company that it is today. We had just launched Model 3; we were in the ramp of that production, Model S and X as well,” said Priestley. “We now have the fast-charging infrastructure to talk about, we have launched an enormous and very successful energy storage business. All of that effort like that has really been emblematic of Tesla’s overall growth and maturity. And I think that now, that everything that was done over that time period to build that business, has actually put us in a much better position to serve this industry better.”

Next up, Neandross addressed the vehicle testing for the Semi, and what other real-world conditions the electric truck had seen. In terms of cold weather testing, the Semi made a trip to Alaska last winter, to see how it would handle in extreme cold weather condition, running it on public road ran at minus 35 degrees Fahrenheit.

“We really spent a lot of time in the cold because we really understand the need to stretch the vehicle across all the various operating conditions,” said Priestley, adding that his team spent time in and around the Las Vegas and Death Valley area to test it in extreme heat conditions, with temperatures of 115-120 degrees Fahrenheit. “We really liked to push the vehicle to its absolute limit, and it sweated, but it did really well.”

The Tesla Semi will be on display at this year’s Ride and Drive for ACT Expo attendees to experience.