Monday, November 20, 2017

Will Tesla's Electric Semis Take Over?

Elon Musk's latest product unveiling, held last week in Hawthorne, California, was done in the accepted fashion of introducing a new product these days, which is for the CEO to stand alone on a stage, backed by giant screens and, if possible, a piece of the subject hardware too.  Musk claimed that the new electric truck he plans to start building in a year or so will travel 500 miles on a single charge.  Critics cited in the New York Times article about the announcement say the more likely distance is 300 to 450 miles, which is a big constraint for commercial truckers, who can currently cover a lot more than that distance without refueling.  And Musk's figure assumes there are rapid-charging stations everywhere they are needed, which is currently not the case.

The new truck will also feature the same semi-autonomous driving technology that other Tesla vehicles have, which would be a big asset for truckers.  But you can have autonomous driving technology on a conventional diesel-powered truck, and in fact some other companies are already doing experiments along those lines.  It may turn out that the self-driving features make more sense to the trucking industry than the electric-power feature, an ironic twist that would not be unprecedented in the introduction of new technologies.

When personal computers were introduced, marketers desperate to include women in the potential customer base tried to sell the machines as a replacement for the kitchen card file of recipes.  Replacing a $5 card file with a $2000 computer never caught on, but a little afterthought feature called a modem turned out to be the genesis of the Internet, and the rest is history, so to speak.

Robotics expert Rodney Brooks, writing in IEEE Spectrum, thinks that convoys of autonomous-driving trucks may be one of the first widespread uses of self-driving technology.  It's a logical extension of the two-trailer articulated trucks you see fairly often on many highways, and forming a closely-spaced convoy of identical autonomous vehicles is one thing that the technology has demonstrably done well.  Brooks also thinks that once the freeway part of the trip is over, cities will insist on putting drivers in every truck before they are allowed off the freeway.  If that's the case, then right away, the main appeal of autonomous truck convoys to trucking companies—the ability to fire needless drivers—goes away.  So even that possibility is fraught with problems. 

Right now, buying an all-electric car or truck is a triumph of faith over reason.  The faith is a conviction that going electric is the wave of the future and, for many, a moral obligation in the face of rising carbon-dioxide levels and climate change.  The trouble for makers of all-electric vehicles is that, so far, only the faithful with a lot of money can afford to live out their convictions by buying an all-electric car. 

The conventional automakers are selling to people whose reason for buying a car is more or less the same as it's always been:  the need to get from A to B reliably and with a minimum of expense for the amount of comfort and convenience provided.  For many of these people, hybrid vehicles combine the best of both worlds.  They have better fuel economy than gasoline or diesel cars, and don't cost all that much more.  And the payback time, in terms of saving enough fuel money to pay for the premium in price, is often reasonable too, just a few years or less depending on how much you drive.

Most commercial truck owner-operators and the companies they work for are intensely practical.  They can't afford to make political statements with the kind of truck they drive, and what they're looking for is reliable, efficient, low-cost transportation systems.  If there is any economic benefit to be derived from converting a truck fleet to Tesla all-electric models, some corporation will figure it out–maybe one that runs well-defined routes between locations that have already got charging stations.  But beyond such special cases, Musk may have an uphill battle in trying to sell all-electric technology to a market segment where politics and faith is outweighed by bottom-line considerations.

After all, given the rise of autonomous vehicles, the long-term prospects for employment as a truck driver are not great, depending on how things play out.  If the convoy idea catches on, the job might actually get better for a while if you are lucky enough to be one of the drivers riding along in the convoy, ready to take over once the freeway ride is over and each truck has to be independently piloted through a city or town. 

But the current tendency of most automation is to eliminate jobs, not make them easier.  And without strong unions or other countervailing political forces, the profession of truck driver (and if you think it's not a profession, try it yourself some time) may be entering a long-term decline, closing off yet another avenue of employment for those without a college degree.

And as for the all-electric feature of the new Tesla truck, well, it's still true that even if we all started driving Teslas tomorrow, the big-picture carbon emissions caused by the resulting increased electric load on a power grid that still uses a lot of fossil fuels, plus the multiple inefficiences of generating electricity, transmitting it over lossy lines, charging a battery, and discharging it into an electric motor, mean that the nation's carbon footprint would probably get bigger, not smaller.  So it really boils down to faith, or even esthetics. 

I think most of the people who drive all-electric vehicles simply do it because they think it is cool.  And that is fine for those who can afford to be cool in that way.  But as for any larger good consequence of the move to all-electric vehicles, it remains to be seen whether the rest of the power infrastructure will catch up to the point that the fossil-fuel-free vision of the future will come to pass.

At any rate, it will be easier to pass than a row of five autonomously-driven trucks in a row on the freeway.

Sources:  The New York Times website carried the article "Tesla Unveils an Electric Rival To Semi Trucks" on Nov. 16, 2017 at  Rodney Brooks' article "The Self-Driving Car's People Problem" appeared in the August 2017 issue of IEEE Spectrum on pp. 34-37 and 50-51. 

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