Teslas, Milk Floats, and Cultural Change

On Thursday last week, Elon Musk released a design for a battery-powered semi-truck. The sleek nose profile and promise of semi-autonomous electric convoys moving quietly down the highway did not create quite the sensation of Tesla’s earlier Model S and Model 3 cars. The truck, however, spelled the future in a way that nothing else in electric vehicle world has done to date.

tesla semiPart of the reason that Musk’s product is so disruptive is that it changes the image of a semi-truck so directly. Smooth lines, silent operation, increased reliability, a driver located at the center of the spacious cab, and the whole idea of “platoons” of vehicles in follow-your-leader autonomous convoys are all unfamiliar directions. And they are all delivered without any of the trucking world’s signature diesel fumes. Trucks are simply not supposed to lack the business end under the hood where all the horsepower, noise, and the sweet smell of burning diesel is created. But this truck does lack those elements, making Tesla’s design into an aesthetic and technological anomaly.

The other reason the electric semi is so disruptive is that it effects the world outside of trucking so directly. With the announcement, something conceptually big in society shifts.

Power, energy, and work in the transportation sector have always meant liquid hydrocarbon fuels. These fuels come with noise, the emission of particulates, a distinctive odor, and a massive liquid fuel infrastructure. All of this shapes cities and transportation corridors substantially. With the introduction of the electric semi, this finally starts to change.

floatForty years ago in England, electric power on the roads meant milk floats delivering “gold top” and “silver top” to urban residents. (The silver and gold foil tops that capped the reusable glass bottles indicated the thickness of the cream sitting on top of the milk.) These quaint vehicles, driven mostly by men in white coats with peaked hats, didn’t really count as lorries or trucks. They didn’t really count as vehicles at all in any robust sense. They were simply “floats,” a name that perhaps suggested they were not considered serious road-users themselves as much as hovering creameries moving at fifteen miles per hour (or less). When supermarkets heralded the arrival of cheaper milk in larger plastic cartons, the floats disappeared off the majority of streets and into UK memory.

The electric semi is to milk floats as a Boeing 787 is to the Wright brothers’ biplane. While unlikely to create the consumer interest of its more sexy passenger-carrying cousins, the electric semi actually does more to establish battery power’s arrival than anything yet on the street for personal use. It shows that battery-powered vehicles can be the workhorses of modern societies, delivering the materials, the products, and the machine parts to keep industrialized cultures humming. Quite simply, they demonstrate that EV’s can do the dirty work. Battery vehicles stop being a niche market for boutique buyers. They become the default preference for more and more critical social tasks. Daimler, Volvo, diesel engine maker Cummins, BYD, and now Tesla are all vying to shape this impending reality.

A different version of this same structural transformation is already underway with electric buses. Their large size and the relatively short routes of most urban buses makes them highly suited to battery power. There is plenty of room between the axles of a city bus for the batteries needed to run it all day. One electric bus company recently tested a prototype that is able to drive over a thousand miles on a single charge.

Although currently more expensive to buy than their diesel counterparts, battery powered buses are much easier to maintain due to the reduction in the number of moving parts. Its is estimated they cost about $150,000 less in maintenance over the life of the bus. Since electricity is relatively cheap, the fuel cost per mile to run them is nearly 80% less than a diesel bus. The economics of electric buses pencils out compellingly enough that pioneering municipalities are already in the process of converting their diesel bus fleets to electric.

A year or so ago, my home institution, the University of Montana, became the first college in the U.S. to buy electric buses to serve its student population. When the bus manufacturer’s CEO Ryan Popple came to campus to deliver the buses, his company was riding a wave of new orders. Not only are electric buses economically preferable, they are also quieter, easier on the streets, and avoid polluting urban air with particulates. One of Popple’s most striking comments during his visit was to suggest that if people realized how many particulates end up in the cabins of those signature orange school buses commonly used in the U.S., they would not be so keen to load their children into them every morning.

With the emergence of electric buses, semi-trucks, and garbage trucks, expectations about transportation are changing. Along with it are expectations about how industrial society is structured.

True, neither buses nor semis are sexy. Electric transportation will probably still first catch people’s eye through glimpses of boutique products in the personal vehicle market. This is why Musk chose to pair his unveiling of the Tesla semi with the simultaneous unveiling of an upgrade to a Tesla sports car. This car will be able to accelerate from 0-60 in 1.9 seconds, making it the fastest production car ever. He knew that an electric semi with a 500 mile range would not turn as many heads as a souped up Tesla Roadster.

Despite the salesman tactics, the writing about the battery-powered revolution in transportation is certainly more on the wall today than it was a week ago. Electric vehicles are now real vehicles, in the fullest sense of the term, delivering power and reliability that is well on its way to displacing the dominance of liquid fueled versions. EV’s are no longer just golf carts or milk floats.

A Saudi Arabian oil minister looking ahead at his industry’s future pointed out that “the stone age did not end because we ran out of stones.” So is the age of the internal combustion engine now ending because, quite simply, there is a better technology available. The battery powered semi is the most potent emblem yet of this startling fact.

 

 

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