Elon Musk told investors in June that Tesla electric semis will be available by 2020, one year later than Musk had initially promised.  A number of other big rig makers have also announced they will launch their electric truck projects in 2020.  

Electric semis will likely be used for short haul trips until battery technology improves in the late 2020s

With countries like China putting pressure on manufacturers to cut diesel pollution, a number of semi truck builders are working feverishly to get their electric semis to market by 2020.

Regulators in Beijing are looking at a plan that would replace 1 million diesel semi trucks with cleaner trucks, including electric semis and some ports and cities in China are banning diesel trucks.

And in the United States, big fleet operators like Walmart Inc, United Parcel Service Inc and Anheuser Busch Inbev NV have put in their orders for the battery-powered semi trucks.

‘Tesla Semi’ is a heavy-duty all-electric truck program at Tesla led by Jerome Guillen, former Model S program director and VP of vehicle engineering, and a former Daimler exective.

The vehicle was first announced in 2016 as part of CEO Elon Musk’s’ Master Plan Part Deux:

In addition to consumer vehicles, there are two other types of electric vehicle needed: heavy-duty trucks and high passenger-density urban transport. Both are in the early stages of development at Tesla and should be ready for unveiling next year. We believe the Tesla Semi will deliver a substantial reduction in the cost of cargo transport, while increasing safety and making it really fun to operate.

In 2017, Musk unveiled his company’s first electric semi truck and the orders quickly flooded in.

Musk said Tesla would start delivering the semis by 2019, but in June, he told investors that production of the Tesla semi truck should begin “basically (in the) first half of 2020”.

Truck makers are now left to figure out just how big the market for electric semi trucks will be.  Range limitations and a lack of charging infrastructure are threatening to limit sales to short-haul operations.

Indian consultancy Market Research Future esimates that the market for electric semi trucks will grow by a compound annual growth rate of 15 per cent between 2018 and 2023.

“Government policies to regulate vehicle emissions and incentives policies to promote the demand for electric trucks is spurring the market expansion. The escalation in budgets related to fleet management is anticipated to add further impetus to the electric truck market,” the company said in a press release. 

“The declining costs associated with battery components is projected to incentivize market growth in the upcoming period further. Government support for procurement of smart automobiles and improved charging infrastructure in countries around the world is expected to further speed up the development of the market in the forecast period.”

Refuelling infrastructure is key to boosting truck sales, however, until the number of truck sales increases, fuel station operators are unlikely to install systems to accommodate electric or hydrogen semi trucks.

“Fuelling infrastructure is a very important first step,” Chris Cannon, chief sustainability officer for the Port of Los Angeles told Reuters. “The trucks may work great, but if they can’t get any fuel they can’t operate.”

Some analysts predict that by the mid 2020s, annual sales of electric truck in the United States may only number in the hundreds while in the past year, North American diesel orders hit 497,000 units.

At the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, some Toyota hydrogen fuel-cell trucks are running short routes around the port and have already logged over 10,000 miles.  However, range is a concern as the trucks are designed to travel 200 miles and the newer iteration offers a 300 mile range.

This is well short of the 1,000 or more miles diesel trucks can travel between refuelling stops.

“We think the first applications are going to be shorter haul,” Denny Mooney, Navistar International Corp’s vice president of engineering told Reuters. “We’re going to start out where the business makes sense.”

Tesla’s Musk says his semi could have a range of 600 miles, but a spokesperson said a truck running uphill with air conditioning on or running other appliances could cut that range.  According to Reuters, many modern semi trucks are equipped with TVs, fridges and other appliances.

As well, electric semi trucks can take hours to recharge and charging stations are rare in most US states.  Refuelling hydrogen trucks takes about the same amount of time as a diesel truck, but hydrogen stations are rarer still than electric recharging stations.

Most hydrogen refuelling stations are in California and the Golden State seems to be leading the charge to adopting a cleaner burning transportation system.  Last month, the California Air Resources Board announced $41 million in grants to the Port of Los Angeles to buy 10 new hydrogen fuel-cell electric trucks developed by Toyota and Paccar Inc unit Kenworth.

The grant will also partly pay for two new hydrogen fuel stations to be built by Shell.

Meanwhile Tesla is working with some of its potential customers, including UPS, Pepsico and Anheuser-Busch to build charging stations at their facilities.

Startup company Nikola Motor Co., is offering a fuel cell truck and says it has plans to build 700 hydrogen fuelling stations in the United States in the coming decade.  The company says it will start along the major routes travelled by Anheuser-Busch, which has ordered up to 800 trucks.

CEO Trevor Milton says the company has secured funding for the stations.