Leno: Tesla proves America is still in the engineering game

Looking down from the Tesla Semi, it sure seems like things are looking up in America. Give our engineers a challenge and they’ll respond with the best of them. Tesla

Not long ago, I drove the Tesla Semi, which is their idea of an electric over-the-road hauler. It was sort of like driving a giant McLaren F1. You sit in the middle of the cab with a couple of computer screens, and even though it’s the size of a building, it feels as fast as a Tesla car (it isn’t, but for a huge truck, it sure feels like it). The windshield pillars are pulled way back, so you can see everything, and it’s extremely comfortable, and, of course, very quiet. One thing I didn’t like is that the windows don’t go down, which is a little disconcerting. They only open sideways, and just a crack, so you can maybe slip a Wendy’s single through, but you’re more or less sealed up in it.

We set up a trailer loaded with cars, and I backed the Tesla in, hooked up, put it in drive, and pulled away. And even though the whole rig with the trailer now weighed about 80,000 pounds, I could not tell the difference between having and not having the load attached. It accelerated exactly the same, and it’ll go 500 miles. It was amazing, and I think if you’re a trucker, especially a short-hauler like we have thousands of in LA going from port to warehouse and back again, this is the future. No dirty fuel, no changing the oil every other week, and you can pull it right into a warehouse to attach and detach the trailer because there’s no emissions.

I admit I am a huge fan of the Tesla story. OK, the Cybertruck isn’t necessarily my thing, but I grew up at a time when a pickup truck was a radiator, an engine, a cab, and a bed. And I’m old enough to remember the first pickup truck that was not a pickup, the 1961 Corvair Rampside. It didn’t really sell because it didn’t look like a pickup truck. But I get that the Cybertruck is for a different generation. It’s the best example of an over-40/under-40 car in a while, meaning people over 40 can’t stand it and people under 40 think it’s totally cool.

But the genius of Tesla is not in the cars, it’s in the infrastructure. Elon Musk came to the garage in 2007 with his Roadster based on the Lotus, and I drove it. I told him it was great, and he said that he planned to build charging stations all up and down California so you could pull in and charge for free. I remember thinking, “Well, that’ll never happen.” But as he was building the cars, he was also building the charging stations, and you see today that the Tesla charging network is a big reason people are buying the cars.

Tesla Semi front three quarter station

I think about when I was a kid, how a lot of American cars were all about the marketing. They would bring in guys from Whirlpool or somewhere and whatever they knew about selling washers, they would apply to cars, so it was all marketing hooey. The GT version was just the basic car with fancy wheels, a stripe, and a cartoon character on the fender. Those cars are nostalgic and fun to play with today, but they were never cutting edge. Nowadays, it seems like the president of General Motors is at the Nürburgring every other week. Personally, I think American engineering is now the equal of anything from Europe or Asia. Take the C8 Corvette; it’s built out of aluminum and magnesium in a union shop paying a union wage and it’s under $100,000. Europeans can’t do that. Heck, nobody else can do that.

Tesla Semi road action

I guess that makes me a techno-optimist. I look around and I see a world that seems better in just about every way. Sure, there are problems, but the average person lives a much better life, in large part due to technology. And American engineering and American manufacturing are on the upswing again. Tesla and the Corvette are only two examples, but it seems like every week there’s an announcement of a new breakthrough in clean energy or a new battery plant or chip factory being built somewhere in the U.S. Wasn’t it just yesterday that Japan was going to put us out of business? Then it was China. I think we tend to write ourselves off too quickly, because here we are, still in the game.

People my age often complain that America isn’t what it used to be. A lot of them are like Mark Twain, who is credited with saying, “I’m in favor of progress; it’s change I don’t like.” In the end, it doesn’t really matter what America used to be, it only matters where it is headed. And to me, it looks like it’s headed in a pretty good direction.




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    Thanks, Jay! That was a really encouraging and refreshing article! Nice to hear from someone who loves our country 🙂

    Interesting that he says part of the magic is the corvette is made in a union shop. Leno was always an anti union right winger. Perhaps he’s had a change of heart in his old age.

    I am interested to se if the Tesla Semi can make a dent in the trucking world. It is very interesting to see.

    I ran into Jay at a British car show at Santa Barbara Community College many years ago. We were all in line to get hot dogs when he got in the back of the line. Several people made a big deal about it and tried to get him to go to the front of the line, but he refused, laughed and said that he would wait like everyone else. We ended up discussing how to cold start a Rolls Royce (or Bentley) hot rod that had a RR Merlin engine in it from a Supermarine Spitfire. Gotta love this guy.

    Ridiculous comparison…complete apples and oranges. There are things the P16 in the video can do that an EV truck can’t and vice-versa. I can’t imagine that P16 making deliveries in an inner-city enviroment.

    Do you call all consumer-grade pickups “toys?” The P16 is one hell of a truck, but it is not even remotely comparable for the same uses as an F150, Silverado, or Ram.

    Actually, the P16 is an ideal candidate for being replaced with an electric truck.

    Short distances, slow speeds and incredible torque required! All thing the ET is best at.

    That is why we already have electric trucks doing port hauling and other short haul work. The real game-change will occur when an ET has a 500+ mile range and a under 60-minute recharge time.

    Self-driving is also going to happen (at scale) to big-rigs first but not as soon as some people think. Simple economics.

    Great article as always, Jay. I’m 66 and am a car-guy. But, when it comes to my “regular” driver, I really like the newer machines….. they just work well! As for the all-electric vehicles….. well, I will likely never have one but that’s not because I think they aren’t the future …. I’ve just hit a space in time where I can work the technology I have and its enough. But, for the newer generations, the things coming down the pike are just amazing and I’m glad the U.S. is where a lot of it is happening. Keep the optimism up, Jay — really encouraging!!

    Soo happy to finally read an article about Optimistic American Manufacturing. We’ve been great for most of my 76 years, and I truly believe we can still be great into the future. Amen

    Electric power comes into it’s own in the large trucks that have room for batteries and cam really utilize the great torque they offer . I would venture a guess that will take over the short haul market rapidly. I would like to one day meet Jay Leno as he is obviously a fellow “Gear Head”
    Nice article!

    Good to hear Jay’s thoughts.
    My only concern in his optimism is the sizeable part of our population that really don’t want to work, design or succeed.
    Go to any college or coffeehouse and you’ll find folks who are against the Teams model and will fight any attempt at building a new plant that will build stuff.
    Sure, they want a new iPad and cell phone, but don’t want to see what it takes to get one designed, built and in their hands.

    Oh, they want three meals a day but only think of the effort it takes for them to go to the store….not the work and materials it takes to get the food to them.
    And they’re anti-plastic…until they have a key d and realize how handy disposable diapers are.

    Yes, we have the talent to build whatever we need. But now we, as a society, are our own worst enemies.

    What planet are YOU living on? If you have not noticed, we are building new plants, designing new chips, and improving our EV tech at a rapid rate. We are short of skilled labor for the moment, but that will come around now that the major corporations are paying a proper wage to the line workers who build the machines. We have record employment, while China is suffering with a 20% unemployment rate, inflation, pandemic , and major companies pulling out of the market in fear of the Chinese Government and the country’s stability. American business is coming home, and our major car companies have signed a labor agreement that will allow the line workers a living wage, and the ability to purchase what they are building. Jay and I are within half a month of being the same age, and I think that both of us are tired of hearing that “The young don’t want to work”, or “They don’t like cars”. Stupid stuff, really. I have a 9 year old daughter, and she looks at the future with amazement and wonder, and can’t wait to participate. The other college kids are in fact working in teams, planning for the future. Our young people are not all doom and gloom, and most can’t wait to make our world better, more affordable, and more fun.

    New research says micro plastics in our air, water & food may cause Parkinson’s. Only 20% of plastics are recyclable. They’re choking us to death.

    Hmmm…I have Millennial and Gen-Z children, nephews, and nieces who are college grads (or steadily working towards degrees) and are working (or will work) as mechanical engineers (including at GM), pharmacists, physical and speech therapists, RN’s, journalists, teachers, computer engineers (both hardware and software), Army officers, CPA’s, successful business owners, and other important fields. As always, generalizations and stereotypes, while usually not without basis, can be a dangerous and inaccurate thing.

    One thing I liked about Jay’s comments was the balance of optimism and pragmatism. It seems many folks in this country are very negative now. Sad when I’ve seen far worse around the world.

    The future of transportation will involve many different systems, but note that China is advancing rapidly due to government investment in business and research. They are now the leading country in EV technology and manufacturing. Our government needs to invest here just like it did in technology during the “race to the moon” in the sixties that paid back many times over in advanced technology that put us out front.

    Jay, as a car guy I respect you. I have never heard a bad word about you as a person or as a host. Your knowledge of all things vehicle are second to none, however I don’t share your optimism with the direction of our country and its industry. But that’s why we live in America. We can agree to disagree.

    I think another thing that helps keep America ahead is things aren’t so over engineered that repair costs aren’t costing more than what the vehicle is worth. You look at the German cars, nicely engineered but extremely expensive to repair and they seem to have just as many issues as anything else . Somehow it seems that the American products parts and repair costs are less. That may also be because parts, both new and used, are more plentiful. I just know I would rather work on a new American vehicle than any other, especially if I’m paying for the parts. Just my thoughts.

    I love Jay, but I’m not sure I understand why the beginning of the article was written like the EV truck would somehow benefit truck drivers. One of its purposes is to eliminate the need for a driver.

    To quote ed_audio, “One of its purposes is to eliminate the need for a driver.”

    Don’t you see? There will be no need for drivers. The trucks will eventually be autonomous. Just like Cruise, WayMo and DARPA research, they are trying to eliminate humans from the transportation game.

    Eliminating the ‘human factor’ in some cases can mean eliminating human error. As a specie we’re capable of genius and stupidity. Ley’s capitalize on the genius part.

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