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Tesla’s Electric Big Rig May be Next Step in Trucking Evolution—And Walmart’s Already Ordered Some

Tesla’s unveiling of its first all-electric big rig has drawn immediate customers from among some of the country’s biggest trucking fleets, and symbolizes swiftly moving changes in commercial transportation.

J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. and Walmart Stores Inc., which operate fleets of thousands of trucks, said Friday they had reserved Tesla’s truck, which chief executive Elon Musk rolled out at an event in Hawthorne, California, on Thursday. The first highway-ready vehicles aren’t due out until 2019, but the company is taking $5,000 deposits.

The Wall Street Journal reported that truck leasing and fleet management company Ryder System Inc. is in the process of placing its initial order for a fleet of Tesla semi-trucks.

The “semi” is designed to run up to 500 miles on a single charge and incorporates Tesla’s semiautonomous driving system, which the company said could allow big rigs to travel in autonomous convoys with other trucks. The company did not provide a sticker price, but said the truck would be cheaper to operate than diesel rivals and could potentially cost less than transport by rail.

“The Tesla truck appears to best current diesel truck performance in almost every measurable way,” analysts at Morgan Stanley said in a note, praising the launch as the beginning of a “new age of trucking,” according to the Journal.

Walmart has preordered five units for the U.S. and 10 for its Canadian division, and sees potential for the trucks to help meet company targets for lower emissions. Walmart has one of the largest private fleets in the U.S., with some 6,000 trucks. Walmart has tested other new vehicle technology, including diesel-electric hybrid trucks and some that run on liquefied natural gas or other alternative fuels.

[Read more about logistics: UPS Joins Blockchain Trucking Group as Technology Grows in Logistics Sector]

J.B. Hunt said the Tesla trucks will support West Coast operations of its intermodal unit, where freight is moved long distance by road and rail, and its dedicated contract division, which provides trucking services for companies that have outsourced their private fleet operations.

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Tesla said it is planning to build a global network of “megachargers,” where truckers could recharge vehicles in about 30 minutes, gaining another 400 miles of range.

Other companies are working on electric trucks, including medium-duty and delivery vehicles.

UPS said last week it was joining with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority on new technology to convert UPS package delivery vehicles from diesel to electric. UPS and Unique Electric Solutions will design, build, test and make the conversions.

If successful, the Bronx-based project is expected to bring a production version of the converted truck to the streets of New York City by this spring. In addition to producing a new, cost-effective all-electric conversion kit, the project will deliver a blueprint for converting up to three UPS vehicles a day, which could lead to the conversion of up to 1,500 UPS delivery trucks operating in New York City by 2022.

UPS operates more than 770 electric or hybrid electric vehicles in urban settings around the world, part of a fleet of more than 8,500 alternative fuel and advanced technology vehicles worldwide. The company has invested more than $750 million in alternative fuel and advanced technology vehicles and fueling stations globally since 2009.

The WSJ noted that Daimler AG, which makes Freightliner big rigs, showed off an electric prototype in October. U.S. Xpress, a large fleet, said earlier this year it had ordered hydrogen-electric semi-trucks from Nikola Motor Co., to be delivered in 2020.