morehomemain

Go Inside the New Tesla Semi: Features, Screens, Seats, and More

Motor Trend01/25/2023

Tesla Semi 85
See all 88 photos

Tesla fans with Ruffled feathers over perpetually delayed products can finally Lay off the brand. After much waiting (only four years late), the electric Tesla Semi's first customer, PepsiCo, has taken delivery of its first examples of the big rig. The beverage and snack food conglomerate's Frito-Lay division will take center stage in the company's Tesla truck rollout plans at its Modesto, California, factory and distribution center, so we visited the upgraded 80-acre zero-emissions facility to experience the Tesla Semi firsthand and talk to its drivers about what it's like to drive.

Frito-Lay's 15 new Tesla Semis made their debut at an event celebrating the Modesto factory's transformation into a zero-emissions pilot project for Pepsi as it aims to achieve zero emissions across its operations by 2040. The revamped facility is massive: 500,000 square feet dedicated to turning potatoes and corn into Lays, Ruffles, Doritos, Cheetos, and Fritos chips, powered by a massive onsite solar facility and local renewable energy projects, both backed by 2.7 MWh of onsite battery storage. Helping the factory distribute its snacks throughout the American west are three electric BYD 8Y yard tractors, six Peterbilt 220EV electric box trucks for local last-mile deliveries, 38 natural-gas powered Volvo VNL trucks for long-distance slogs, and of course, six (and counting) Tesla Semis, used for out-and-back trips across the region.

Semi Specs

Although Tesla is famously (and sometimes annoyingly) secretive about sharing its vehicle specs, we were able to gather a few details from Frito-Lay, its drivers, and Tesla representatives. The Tesla Semi's powertrain is as good a place as any to start.

Making "three times the power of the average diesel semi," according to a media-trained Tesla rep, the electric Tesla Semi effectively sports a lightly modified Model S Plaid tri-motor powertrain spun around backward. The Model S's front motor drives the Semi's rear axle, functioning as the "highway drive unit," while the Plaid's dual rear motors are mounted on the Semi's middle axle. These motors feature a Rivian-like clutch, allowing them to be used for acceleration and to decouple once at speed for improved efficiency. Considering the bestselling semi in the U.S., the Freightliner Cascadia, sports 350 hp in its basic form and that "three times" that figure is 1,050, we're fairly confident in saying the Semi matches the Model S and Model X Plaid's 1,020 hp, and possibly its 1,050 lb-ft of torque, as well.

As for its battery—well, logic dictates we should look at the Plaid again. The few PepsiCo Tesla Semi drivers present during our visit said the truck has a 1,000-kWh battery pack, or 1 megawatt-hour (MWh), which equals 10 Plaid battery packs daisy-chained together. That jives with Tesla's claim of 500 miles of range and company chief Elon Musk's claim of the Semi using 2 kW per mile traveled. In real-world use, Frito-Lay's drivers told us the Semi's routes are much shorter. A typical day for them might have them leaving Modesto in the morning with a load of chips (weighing less than the truck's 82,000 gross combined vehicle-weight rating) and running an out-and-back loop to places like San Jose or Concord, both about 85 miles away.

Taking a Charge

The out-and-backs are crucial because at the moment there are few places to charge an electric Tesla Semi. Frito-Lay installed four Superchargers onsite in dedicated "Tesla Semi" parking stalls, all of which feature a unique squarish plug incompatible with any other Tesla we're aware of. The chargers are capable of outputting 750 kW, far exceeding the 250-kW peak rates of Tesla's passenger vehicles and existing Supercharger network. That, says Frito-Lay, is good enough to charge its fleet of Tesla Semis from nearly empty to 70 percent in about a half hour (good for 400 miles), and to 100 percent in about 90 minutes.

Interestingly, the four Tesla chargers are positioned in such a way that the Semis must unhitch their trailers and back in to plug into each one's charge port, which is located on the driver's side, just forward of the middle axle. Tap the port, and it automatically motors open or closed, while the braided charger cable is about as thick as a soda can and is easier to manage than the DC fast-charger cables you find at a typical Electrify America station.

Neither Tesla nor PepsiCo disclosed the Semi's price, but Frito-Lay employees told us Tesla is responsible for all maintenance and service for the first year.

A Closer Look Inside

We weren't able to drive the Semi (though one of Frito-Lay's drivers said it "drove like a car" and called it incredibly comfortable), but we were able to spend a good amount of time poking around inside. Pull the electric door handle release on either side of the truck, and the rear-opening doors reveal a bus-like set of steps. Climb up and into the Semi's cabin and you find, as our photographer put it, more air and empty space than a Lays bag. The roughly 3-by-7-foot space features a rubberized subway-like floor, Tesla headliner cloth on the walls, a jump seat on the right side, and plenty of headroom to enable a six-footer to walk around and stretch.

Walk around to the captain's chair, plop down into the suspended center seat, and you have a commanding view of the road with great visibility. The massive sideview mirrors are backed up by camera displays on the left and right infotainment screens. Most functions in the Semi are controlled by those displays. Aside from the camera views, the left display solely shows truck-status information such as tire pressure, while the right display functions as the main infotainment interface. It features suspension settings, trailer hitch controls, HVAC functions (including the seat-heater settings), navigation, trip functions, and a host of apps, such as Spotify and "Caraoke." You can see every screen in the Tesla Semi in our photo gallery—there are quite a few.

Notably absent, though, is a dedicated software suite for Frito-Lay drivers, such as what Rivian offers for Amazon drivers in its EDV Prime van, and BrightDrop offers on the Zevo 600 for FedEx drivers. Instead, the drivers use the Tesla app on their phones as a key and rely on a PepsiCo-supplied portable tablet kept in the storage cubby on the cabin's right side, next to two wireless phone chargers, cupholders, and switches for the hazards, parking brake, and trailer-brake air supply.

Those latter three switches are some of the cabin's few physical controls. They're joined by some steering wheel rockers, an automatic gear selector and windshield-wiper/turn-signal stalks from Tesla's street cars, seat controls, accelerator and brake pedals, and switches to pop the frunk (which stores power electronics) and the left- and right-side exterior storage lockers located behind the doors (these are big enough for emergency supplies or a driver's duffel). There are also two manually operated minivan-style pop-out window handles. While the windows don't roll down, they open enough to make it easy for a driver to stick their arm through to pay a toll or exchange paperwork. Interestingly, the windows aft of the doors are fake, but Tesla appears to be leaving itself room to build a sleeper cab if either it or a customer has the interest.

Who Cares?

Although material and build quality is typical Tesla (mixed), there's no denying the utter curb appeal of the electric Tesla Semi. For what it lacks in the chrome showiness typical in 18-wheelers, it makes up for it with both its novel looks and the technologies it brings to the table. While Frito-Lay's larger investment in natural-gas-powered Volvo semis speaks volumes about its confidence in electric tractor-trailers at the moment, as Tesla joins existing competitors like the Freightliner eCascadia, Peterbilt 579EV, and Volvo VNR Electric, the segment will only get more competitive and its offerings even better. PepsiCo has ordered 100 Tesla Semis for its various fleets, so be on the lookout for one near you.