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Tesla Inc. to Unveil "Next Level" Semi This Year

By Daniel Sparks - Apr 13, 2017 at 7:32PM

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As promised, Tesla's heavy-duty truck is scheduled to be unveiled later this year. Here's what investors should know.

In an update on its long-term plans last summer, Tesla (TSLA 5.14%) CEO Elon Musk said one of the company's main priorities in the future will be to expand its vehicle offerings "to cover the major forms of terrestrial transport," including commercial vehicles like "heavy-duty trucks and high passenger-density urban transport."

When Tesla announced plans for these vehicles last year, they were in the early stages of development and were excepted to be unveiled in 2017. While there's no new information on Tesla's passenger vehicle, Musk said on Twitter Thursday that the heavy-duty truck, or "Tesla Semi," is on track for an unveiling in September.

Tesla factory in Fremont, CA

Image source: Author.

Tesla commercial vehicles

"Tesla Semi truck unveil set for September," Musk tweeted. "Team has done an amazing job. Seriously next level."

Few things are known about Tesla's semi, but Musk did say in the company's "Master Plan, Part Deux" blog post last year that the Semi will "deliver a substantial reduction in the cost of cargo transport, while increasing safety and making it really fun to operate."

Tesla isn't the first company to show an interest in electric semis. Indeed, Mercedes-Benz has already started small-series production of an all-electric heavy-duty truck, which it calls the Urban eTruck. Capable of about 125 miles of range, the Urban eTruck is focused on short-distance applications.

The Tesla Semi would just be one facet of Tesla's plan to move beyond its consumer vehicles, which currently include its Model S sedan, Model X SUV, and its upcoming higher-volume, lower-cost Model 3 sedan. The other main commercial vehicle Tesla wants to bring to market is its high passenger-density urban transport vehicle, or what Tesla has also called the "Tesla minibus."

The minibus, which Tesla says isn't the official name of the vehicle yet, will be built on the company's Model X platform, Musk noted in the company's second-quarter earnings call last year. Musk explained the reasoning of an all-electric minibus in more detail in the company's master plan last summer.

With the advent of autonomy, it will probably make sense to shrink the size of buses and transition the role of bus driver to that of fleet manager. Traffic congestion would improve due to increased passenger areal density by eliminating the center aisle and putting seats where there are currently entryways, and matching acceleration and braking to other vehicles, thus avoiding the inertial impedance to smooth traffic flow of traditional heavy buses. It would also take people all the way to their destination. Fixed summon buttons at existing bus stops would serve those who don't have a phone. Design accommodates wheelchairs, strollers and bikes.

Tesla vehicle production.

Tesla vehicle production. Image source: Author.

Why it matters

Tesla believes an aggressive production ramp-up of compelling electric vehicles, along with an expansion of its lineup to address more of the major transportation markets, will help it in its mission "to accelerate the world's transition to sustainable energy." By bringing compelling electric vehicles to market, Tesla is betting it can catalyze manufacturers and consumers to transition to electric vehicles more rapidly.

Tesla Semi represents a key part of this plan. While a Tesla-branded heavy-duty truck is still too far away for investors to begin pricing in its potential impact on the company's business, it's something investors should keep an eye on -- particularly when it's unveiled in September.

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