Tesla Model X

Tesla master plan: Electric trucks and buses

Tesla Model X

Tesla Model X

Electric vehicle pioneer Tesla plans to add electric trucks and buses to its product line-up, according to the company’s founder and chief executive Elon Musk.

Announcing the company’s “Master Plan, Part Deux” via a blog post at the Tesla.com website, Musk also confirmed plans for a compact SUV smaller than the Model X, and an electric pick-up truck, both slated to follow the upcoming mid-sized Model 3 saloon.

Musk said plans for “heavy-duty electric trucks and high passenger-density urban transport” are already in the early stages of development with initial designs likely to be unveiled next year. He stated that the Tesla Semi – an electric tractor unit for large articulated lorries – would reduce freight transport costs and increase safety compared to today’s diesel-powered trucks.

The Tesla bus, meanwhile, was described as a fully autonomous shared vehicle that would travel door-to-door, summoned via smartphone, or callable from fixed bus-stops. Musk said the vehicle would “shrink” today’s bus designs, dispensing with a central aisle to devote more interior space to passengers as well as buggies, bicycles and wheelchairs.

Musk also addressed future plans for Tesla’s Autopilot self-driving technology, in the wake of controversy over the fatal crash of a Model S under Autopilot control. The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has launched an investigation into the accident, which happened in Florida in May.

Autopilot controls acceleration, braking and steering including lane-keeping and lane changing, using a variety of sensors built into Tesla cars. It is only partially autonomous, meaning drivers must at least touch the steering wheel from time to time to keep it working. The software is also switched off by default and, when activated, cautions the driver that they must stay poised to retake control.

This approach has been widely criticised. John Lee, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and an expert in human-machine interaction, told MIT Technology Review earlier this month that, “fundamentally and physiologically, people are ill-suited to monitoring systems for occasional faults”.

However, Musk defended the company’s approach, stating: “When used correctly, it is already significantly safer than a person driving by themselves and it would therefore be morally reprehensible to delay release simply for fear of bad press or some mercantile calculation of legal liability.”

Musk also noted that Tesla describes Autopilot as a “beta” feature, a label intended to “decrease complacency and indicate that it will continue to improve”. He added that when Autopilot becomes roughly 10 times safer than the US vehicle average, the beta label will be removed.

Musk also looked forward to a future where Autopilot is mature enough to drive Tesla cars when they are empty, and when regulators have approved fully autonomous cars. He forecast that Tesla owners would be able to earn money by hiring their car out to transport other people when it would otherwise be sitting idle.

“You will be able to add your car to the Tesla shared fleet just by tapping a button on the Tesla phone app and have it generate income for you while you’re at work or on vacation”, Musk said. The cash generated would help pay for the car, he noted, adding that this meant there would be no need to build a Tesla model smaller or cheaper than the Model 3.

Musk’s blog post also discussed Tesla’s planned merger with SolarCity – a solar energy firm also founded and part owned by Musk. The deal is yet to be confirmed, but Musk outlined how the company’s expertise would complement Tesla’s Powerwall business, which employs reclaimed Tesla vehicle batteries for home energy storage.

He said Tesla planned to simplify the process of homeowners becoming more self-sufficient in energy generation. Powerwall’s battery storage addresses the fact that solar generation and domestic energy consumption tend to peak at different times of day. Musk added that the combination of SolarCity and Tesla would provide customers with “one ordering experience, one installation, one service contact, one phone app”.

Musk said that solar power had always been a key plank of Tesla’s first master plan, outlined ten years ago and which sketched out progress from the initial “expensive” Tesla Roadster to the “lower price” Model S and on to the “affordable” Model 3.

Musk didn’t give any updates on the Model 3, which is still officially due towards the end of next year. The upcoming electric saloon is currently available to pre-order in the UK with a £1,000 deposit, while full UK prices are not due to be announced until next year. Arrangements for access to Tesla’s network of Supercharger fast chargers also remain to be clarified. At a Tesla shareholder meeting in May, Musk confirmed that Supercharger access will not be included in the base price of the Model 3, which is due to cost from $35,000 in the US. Model S and Model X owners are automatically given full rights to use the chargers.

Meanwhile the first examples of Tesla’s Model X SUV are due to arrive in the UK in early 2017. Orders are currently open, with prices starting at £64,480 after a £4,500 contribution from the Plug-in Car Grant.

All Model X cars will provide four-wheel-drive, with the entry-level 60D specification providing an estimated 220 miles of range. The base level car is actually built with a 75kW battery and owners can pay to unlock 75D specification at any time. The 75D model costs £74,480 and has a rated range of 259 miles. A 90D model with a 303-mile range costs from £82,780, while a sporty P90D offers improved acceleration (and slightly reduced range) from £100,180.

By Lem Bingley

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