The Tesla Semi truck was on the back burner until the president’s climate bill passed.
This much is clear: Tesla is going to start delivering Semi trucks on Dec. 1, a full five years after Elon Musk started taking orders for them. The first ones are going to PepsiCo, which will put them to work at a Frito-Lay facility in Modesto, California, and a beverages plant in Sacramento.
From there, details are fuzzy for a product the world has known about since 2017.
Specifications? “500 mile range & super fun to drive,” Musk tweeted last week.
There isn’t a whole lot more information on Tesla’s website, aside from a zero-to-60 acceleration time, which doesn’t rank particularly high on truckers’ priority list. Braking distance, for example, is far more important than beating another big rig off the line, as one ex-trucker pointed out after Musk’s prototype presentation years ago. (It takes 20 seconds to get up to 60 miles per hour, by the way).
How many Semis is PepsiCo getting? Musk and the food and beverage giant haven’t said.
And why is the Semi finally going into production? Musk hasn’t addressed this, but the climate legislation President Joe Biden signed into law in August sure looks like the reason.
Before the Inflation Reduction Act, Musk had said the Semi was more or less on hold because Tesla didn’t have enough batteries. The Semi uses roughly five times the number of cells a car would, but won’t sell for five times what a car does, so it didn’t make sense to produce trucks until the company had worked through battery production constraints, the CEO said in January of last year.
Those cell constraints don’t seem to have lifted — Musk referred to battery output as “the fundamental rate limiter” for transitioning to sustainable energy during Tesla’s most recent earnings call. It also didn’t sound during that July call like the company was close to meaningfully ramping up output of the larger battery cells that Musk has suggested the Semi will use. He referred to those cells as important for Tesla’s plans for 2023, but not this year.
A week after that earnings call, Senator Joe Manchin and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced they’d agreed on legislation that would enact major parts of Biden’s climate agenda. While the up to $7,500 clean car tax credit that consumers will be eligible for grabbed a lot of headlines, costlier commercial vehicles qualify for a much bigger incentive: as much as $40,000 per truck.
And low and behold, days after the Senate passed the bill, Musk announced the Semi would start shipping this year.
Musk wasn’t begging for the big incentives. On the contrary, he spoke out against Biden’s earlier Build Back Better proposal, saying he believed “the role of government should be that of like a referee, but not a player on the field” and calling for Washington to “get out of the way and not impede progress.”
But rather than get in the way, the Inflation Reduction Act appears to have spurred Tesla to progress its stalled product. The tax credit “will turbocharge adoption of electric medium-duty and heavy-duty trucks,” according to RMI, a clean energy-focused nonprofit. “The IRA tax credit makes owning an electric truck cheaper than owning a diesel one in most use cases, with urban and regional electric trucks becoming cost-superior to diesel ones as soon as 2023.”
Musk’s frustrations with the Biden administration have been well-documented. If the IRA tax credit is as effective as hoped in stoking demand for electric heavy trucks, this may well be another policy that elicits a thumbs-up reply.