Otto who? Tesla is ready to test electric, self-driving big rigs in Nevada and California

August 10, 2017

You can say a lot of things about Tesla and its CEO, Elon Musk, but you certainly can't call them slackers. They've crafted a plan for world domination that includes electric cars, self-driving technology, solar power, and energy storage, among other things--and they're not done yet.

For Tesla's next trick, it would like to transform the world of shipping by developing autonomous big rigs. And it would like to begin testing them in Nevada and California next month, please.

What sets Tesla apart?

To be fair, Tesla wouldn't be the first company to attempt a makeover of the world's trucking industry. Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, and beleaguered Uber subsidiary Otto have been among the firms working on similar projects for some time. 

But most of the competitors in this arena have focused solely on making semis self-driving. Few have seriously discussed making those trucks battery-powered. That's what sets Tesla apart.

Musk revealed Tesla's plans to build autonomous, electric big rigs last September, as part of his Master Plan, Part 2. (There was also talk of a self-driving bus, ICYMI.) Tesla plans to unveil its 18-wheeler to the world next month, and soon after, it wants to start running road tests.

When and where?

Tesla began discussing the possibility of such tests with regulators in Nevada at least two months ago, and it had an initial meeting with officials at California's Department of Motor Vehicles yesterday. 

Based on Tesla's work in the field of self-driving electric cars, you might think that the company's application to test big rigs would be a no-brainer. There are a couple of unusual things about Tesla's proposal though:

1. The tests would involve multiple vehicles. Like Volvo, Tesla is working on platooning technology that would allow big rigs to travel in a convoy, with vehicles in back receiving info about traffic, road hazards, and other important details from the truck in front. 

2. The tests would be conducted entirely without humans. A filing with the Nevada DMV , acquired by Reuters, lays out Tesla's aim very clearly:

"To insure we are on the same page, our primary goal is the ability to operate our prototype test trucks in a continuous manner across the state line and within the States of Nevada and California in a platooning and/or Autonomous mode without having a person in the vehicle."

Will it happen?

Will Tesla get approval for its tests? That remains to be seen. 

On the one hand, the thought of having unmanned, self-driving big rigs on public roads will probably give officials in California and Nevada cause to pause. Even when Otto conducted its headline-grabbing beer run last year, there was a driver in the cabin (though not in the driver's seat, as was required by law). 

On the other hand, if Tesla can persuade Nevada and California that its vehicles are safe, there's no federal law that would trump their ability to let Tesla run trials on highways. Per legislation pending in Congress, tests of larger self-driving vehicles are conducted entirely at the discretion of individual states--something that could work to Tesla's advantage. Stay tuned.

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