Big-truck maker Freightliner said that it plans to launch a pair of long-range electric trucks by 2021.

The new electric trucks, a tractor-trailer and a smaller truck for deliveries, will take advantage of the battery-electric technology being developed by Freightliner's corporate parent, Daimler AG (NASDAQOTH:DDAIF), as it prepares to do battle with Silicon Valley upstart Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA).

About the electric Freightliners

Daimler's truck unit showed the two battery-electric Freightliners at an investor event on June 7. Both are intended for sale in North America.

An eCascadia, a tractor-trailer truck with no trailer attached, and an eM2 106, a smallish box truck, are shown parked outside.

Freightliner's eCascadia and eM2 106 are battery-electric trucks that will launch in North America in 2021. Image source: Daimler AG.

First up was the Freightliner eCascadia, a full-blown Class 8 heavy-duty truck based on Freightliner's diesel-powered Cascadia. It has a 550-kilowatt-hour (kWh) battery pack feeding a heavy-duty 730-horsepower drivetrain, ample for hauling full-sized trailers. Daimler said it will have a range of about 250 miles, and its big battery pack can be recharged to about 80% capacity (or 200 miles' worth) in less than 90 minutes.

The other truck, the Freightliner eM2 106, is intended for what the industry calls "last-mile" duty -- local-level distribution and delivery services. The eM2 has a 325-kWh battery pack, a 480 horsepower drivetrain, and range of about 230 miles. It can be recharged to 80% capacity (or about 184 miles of range) within 60 minutes, Daimler said.

Daimler said it will distribute about 30 of the electric trucks to select customers in North America as part of a testing program by the end of 2018. It plans to put both trucks into full production in 2021.

Why Tesla has Daimler's full attention

Simply put, Daimler takes the threat of disruption posed by Tesla very, very seriously.

It should: Among Daimler's brands is luxury-vehicle giant Mercedes-Benz, which sits directly in the market segments at which Tesla has taken aim -- and has already taken some share. Tesla's Model S sedan and Model X SUV compete directly against upper-level Mercedes-Benz models, and Mercedes is preparing to respond with several electric models of its own.

But like Tesla's, Daimler's interests go beyond luxury cars. Daimler is also a leading maker of trucks and buses, from delivery vans all the way up to tractor-trailers. Daimler has already unveiled a small electric delivery truck as well as a battery-electric school bus, and it showed a prototype 26-ton midsize electric truck back in 2016. With Tesla's upcoming Semi taking aim at the market for big trucks, it's no surprise that Daimler has determined to meet it head-on.

A red Tesla Semi tractor-trailer truck, seen head-on

Tesla hopes its battery-electric Semi will upend the market for big trucks. Image source: Tesla, Inc.

Will the electric Freightliners really compete with the Tesla Semi?

Tesla already has a handful of orders (and deposits) for the Semi, most coming from big corporate customers that likely ordered a few Semis in order to "kick the tires," to test out the new truck before committing to larger orders.

Most are probably also thinking in terms of testing out Tesla, too. Tesla's deadlines have a way of slipping, and its promises have tended to get scaled back over time. As of right now, the company doesn't appear to have anywhere to build the Semi, or to have begun a large-scale effort to get it into production.

Those same corporate customers know that dealing with Freightliner won't be like dealing with Tesla. Freightliner has long-standing relationships with many heavy-truck operators that know that -- like most truck makers -- the company will deliver on its product announcements.

If Tesla were able to get thousands of Semis onto U.S. highways before the electric Freightliners launch in 2021, it could potentially raise the bar in ways that might leave Daimler scrambling to catch up. As of right now, that doesn't look too likely -- but Daimler knows that it needs to get competitive electric trucks to market around the world as soon as it can.

Of course, we won't know how these Freightliners -- or the Tesla Semi, or any other electric Class 8 trucks -- will work out in practice until they're on the road hauling freight for customers. Stay tuned.

John Rosevear has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Tesla. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.