Car News

Canadian Companies Get Behind Tesla Semi, But Questions Remain

Tesla is touting its Semi as a game-changer in the transportation industry, one that it says will reduce operating costs, improve safety and make life easier for drivers – assuming there is one at all.

Announced in November, Tesla has received several hundred reservations for the Semi, including some big names like PepsiCo, with 100 reservations, Anheuser Busch with 40 and shipping company DHL with 10 reservations among the companies who have expressed interest.

Canadian companies are also getting in on the Tesla Semi, with the biggest reservation so far being Loblaw, with 25 deposits. Wal-Mart has also reserved 15 of the trucks and says some will be used in Canada.

The exact impact on the Canadian trucking industry, however, remains to be seen, says Marco Beghetto, vice-president of communications for the Canadian Trucking Alliance.

“We just don’t know” what impact the Tesla Semi could have in Canada.

He said there are still many unknowns about the truck, its technology and the infrastructure needed to operate them.

“Right now, we don’t see the demand from our members,” Beghetto said.

The CTA is an umbrella organization that represents provincial trucking groups. Overall, it represents about 4,500 companies.

However, two smaller trucking companies based in Canada have already made a reservation or are considering it.

Toronto-based Fortigo Freight has reserved one truck, while Montreal-based Energy Transportation Group is considering a reservation of between five and 10 trucks in the new year.

Each reservation costs $26,000 Canadian, according to the Tesla website.

Tesla says the Semi can outperform diesel trucks in terms of acceleration and can handle a five percent grade at 104 km/h versus 72 km/h for a diesel truck.

Weighed down with 36,287 kg (80,000 pounds) of cargo, the Tesla Semi can accelerate from 0 to 100 km/h in 20 seconds, the company said.

With no shifting, the Tesla Semi also promises smooth acceleration and deceleration.

It will be a few years before we see the Tesla Semi on Canadian roads, with deliveries expected to start in 2019. Of course, Tesla has missed delivery deadlines in the past, most recently with the Model 3.

When asked for comment about the Semi, Tesla would only say that Elon Musk’s presentation had all relevant information.

The CTA’s Beghetto says there are still some questions that need to be resolved, including charging infrastructure, and he had concerns over the autonomous driving capabilities of the Semi. Beghetto believes that human oversight behind the wheel will remain essential.

Energy Transportation Group CEO Shawn Girard was a little surprised to hear the CTA say there was little interest in the Tesla Semi, but also shared the group’s concerns about autonomous driving and charging infrastructure.

“I find it hard to believe that anyone in our industry who is truly passionate about trucking wouldn’t be intrigued by something so revolutionary, (especially) if Tesla is actually able to one day make the Semi a reliable truck in our industry,” Girard said. “It excites me as a young business owner with many years ahead of me that there is a company like Tesla making steps towards (reducing) the carbon footprint of our industry as well as offering an almost zero cost to power trucks.”

Energy Transportation Group has a fleet of 80 trucks, and operates in Canada and the U.S.

And while Girard is excited about the Tesla Semi he, too, believes a lot remains unclear.

“We are not quite sure, at the end of the day, what this is going to turn out to be,” he said. “That’s the biggest worry.”

Like the Tesla Semi, the company’s other models have been questioned at times, but Canadian consumers appear to be gaining confidence in the Model S and Model X.

According to Fleetcarma, the number of electric vehicles on our roads is now higher than the number of plug-in hybrids (21,583 EVs to 20,157 PHEVs).

Tesla has sold 8,590 EVs in Canada, according to Fleetcarma data, with the Model S (6,291) the best-selling EV here. The Nissan Leaf is second at 6,283. There are 2,299 Model X’s in Canada, according to the same data.

For Girard, who has considered buying a personal electric vehicle, the biggest selling point about the Tesla Semi, in his mind, is the environmental benefit.

“Having young daughters, and you look at all these problems with our Earth in the next 100 years, I think, first off, that’s No. 1, the carbon footprint,” Girard said.

“The fact that we wouldn’t have to rely on a fuel is very important, as well.”

Loblaws is also making the move as part of a major plan to reduce emissions. The grocery chain has committed to having a fully electric or hybrid truck fleet by 2030 as it aims to reduce its carbon footprint by 30 percent.

In a statement, Loblaws says the move to an electric or hybrid fleet will help reduce CO2 emissions by 94,000 tons a year, or the equivalent of 20,000 cars on the road.

Elias Demangos, president and CEO of Fortigo Freight Services, also believes reducing carbon emissions is a major benefit of the Tesla Semi, along with the cost savings of eliminating fuel.

Not having to rely on diesel will cut the Fortigo’s energy costs by about half, Demangos said.

“You don’t necessarily eliminate the cost of fuel or energy,” he said.

While cost savings are an advantage, the exact savings remain a mystery, Girard said.

“Until you see what is the cost of the truck, you can’t know what your actual cost difference will be,” he said.

Cost for the Tesla Semi has not been revealed, but buyers can expect to pay about $260,000 Canadian, according to a Wall Street Journal report

Girard also wonders if Tesla plans to make a city version of the Semi for local transportation. So far, the Semi has only been shown with a sleeper cab setup.

“If the product is that good, we would change every single one of our city trucks,” he said. “Because we know they are all within the mileage capacity (800 kilometres) for a day.”

“That would save us tons” on expenses, Girard said.

In its presentation in November, Tesla said the Semi would not only save fuel costs, but also requires less maintenance. It estimated a cost reduction of $260,000 Canadian on fuel alone when driven 1.6 million km.

Demangos believes Fortigo has been ahead of the curve with respect to adopting new technology, and he sees the Tesla Semi as another way to differentiate his firm from the competition.

“For us, a lot of this is a technology play,” Demangos said. “When I look at our business, I spend a good portion of my time managing a technology company.”

The ability to integrate Fortigo’s systems with the Tesla Semi will allow for efficiencies, Demangos said.

Built-in connectivity features allow the Tesla Semi to connect to the company’s fleet management software.

“The truck (will be started) before the driver even gets to it, knows exactly what the route is going to be, knows what routes to take based on traffic. That is where we hope our integration with the Tesla truck … is going to really help to continue to keep us ahead of our competitors.”

The safety advancements on the Semi are also an advantage, Demangos said.  They include auto emergency braking, auto collision avoidance and lane keeping assistance among others, he said.

Demangos said Fortigo’s plan is to test the Semi on several routes, mainly in the Toronto and Montreal areas, including the Toronto-Montreal corridor on the Trans-Canada Highway.

That raises the spectre of the one thing many EV users worry about: Charging infrastructure.

Fortigo, which operates 500 trucks, will install chargers at its yards for recharging.

Demangos said that his trucks are generally at their home base at the end of every day, with most travelling less than the estimated 800-kilometre range of the Tesla Semi. Because of that, he isn’t overly concerned about charging for the Fortigo fleet.

But for long-haul transporters, “making sure they are in key areas” is vital, Demangos said.

“I am sure Tesla and the government will figure out where the majority of the traffic flows,” he said. For the Toronto-Montreal corridor, it would be ideal to have a charging station at the midway point.

“Strategically placing them where the long-haul carriers have the volume would be most beneficial,” he said.

Recharging is also a concern for Girard, who worries about the downtime on long-haul routes.

“That’s really a major question. How long is it going to last, where are your charging stations, how long is it going to take to charge?” he said. “There’s many unanswered questions at this point.”

If it takes three hours to recharge, Girard said being shut down for that long would be a major worry.

“The downtime may not be worth it. The cost of the unit is going to be more, so we are going to have to be more efficient on our running time,” Girard said.

Tesla says that quickly charging the Semi will require megachargers, which offer high-speed DC charging. They would add about 640 kilometres of range is 30 minutes.

Tesla also says regenerative braking will recover 98 per cent of kinetic energy, although there probably isn’t much braking while cruising on the highway.  

Girard and Demangos also see the Tesla Semi as a recruiting tool.

“We honestly think there is a case here to be made for driver retention,” Demangos said, noting the older demographic of drivers. “There is a driver shortage in the transportation industry.”

Girard believes being an innovator in the industry can  be positive for the company.

“Maybe it will allow us to attract and recruit younger drivers who may be looking to switch to a Tesla or get into the market because the industry is moving into being more technical,” he said.

One apprehension for both companies is the effect of the cold Canadian winter on the battery.

How long will the batteries last in the cold and will the trucks start in the morning, Girard wondered.

“Our biggest fear is switching to a unit like the Tesla Semi and have this thing not starting all throughout the winter,” he said, adding that the current diesel fleet can have difficulties with starting in the cold.

Demangos acknowledges that cold weather is a potential risk, but believes that technological advancements will mitigate the negative effects.

“With technology of batteries and how it has gotten exponentially better, by the time this truck comes out in two years, I think the battery technology will have gotten just that much better than what it is today,” he said, adding that he has confidence in Tesla delivering the range promised, no matter the weather.

While he has confidence in the battery, Demangos isn’t prepared to fully trust the Semi’s autonomous capabilities.

He equates it to an airplane, which at times can have three pilots in the cockpit.

“They are not necessarily always commanding the plane,” he said. “But on certain key manoeuvres … the pilot takes over.”

He believes the Tesla Semi could operate in much the same way.

“I see it where it is semi-autonomous. Where there’s a driver in the truck, doing the navigation and the driving in the city centre, until it gets onto the 401. (Then if) it’s a clear day, there’s not that much traffic, he presses the autopilot (button) and the truck goes down semi-autonomously,” Demangos said as an example.

He also said it would be nearly impossible to have an autonomous truck make a delivery in downtown Toronto or Montreal because of the pedestrians, cars, traffic and construction.

“Then what about the delivery? You have 40 boxes to deliver off the back end of the trailer. You still need a professional driver,” he said.

Girard says the Energy Transportation Group would consider using the autonomous feature, once he is confident it is safe for everyone.

“But for me it seems so future forward that I don’t know if it will be reality in the next five years, 10 years. (Maybe) it is 20 years away?”

He also raised the spectre of the Tesla Semi’s autonomous feature being hacked and wondered what kind of security will be put in place.

“I would never want to participate into a program that isn’t safe for the general public just to make a buck,” he said.