Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced in April that the company is working on pushing a long-haul electric semi truck to market, which is set to be formally revealed in September. Now, Reuters has viewed e-mail correspondence between Tesla and the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles that indicate that the company has discussed testing semi trucks on the state’s roads.The Reuters report also mentioned that the semis would be outfitted with autonomous functions, so they could traverse the nation’s highways without a driver in the front seat. The e-mails seemed to indicate that Tesla’s semis would “platoon,” that is, drive in a formation such that a number of trucks could follow a lead vehicle. It's unclear whether the lead vehicle would have a driver, or operate autonomously with a person in the front seat to monitor safety.
The idea of “platooning” autonomous semis is an old one. More than a year ago, the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment held an autonomous truck platooning demo that involved automakers such as DAF Trucks, Daimler, IVECO, MAN, Scania, and Volvo. The advantages of platooning is that it's theoretically safer—if the lead truck slows down, the rest automatically follow. It also offers most of the trucks decreased wind resistance, which could help increase an EV semi's range—a major concern given the weight freight companies load semis with. Of course, there are social ramifications too. Platooning reduces the number of drivers that a shipping company would have to employ.
Autonomous trucking has been a popular goal among entrepreneurs as well. Last October, the Silicon Valley startup Otto used an autonomous truck to ship beer in Colorado. Otto was shortly thereafter sold to Uber, where it became embroiled in a scandal with the Nevada DMV for flouting the state’s autonomous testing rules. Besides producing a video showing an Otto truck driving down a road without any safety personnel in the front seat, the company also executed the drive without the appropriate autonomous testing permit. (Otto later claimed it did in fact have an engineer farther back in the cab of the truck.) It appears Tesla learned Uber’s lesson and contacted the state’s DMV first, although the Nevada DMV said that Tesla has not yet applied for the necessary permits to test an autonomous semi in the state.
Reuters also reported that California DMV officials will meet with Tesla this week “to talk about Tesla's efforts with autonomous trucks.”
Tesla has been working on its autonomous driving software for years, and recently the company jumped into building its own hardware too, after a public spat with sensor maker Mobileye. Ars has reached out to Tesla for comment and we'll update if we receive a response.