Tesla's teaser photo of the semi. (Tesla)

Wall Street's most prominent Tesla bull says an electric semi-truck that the company plans to unveil later this month might be 70% cheaper to operate than conventional diesel-powered vehicles, and may ignite a fierce contest to dominate a nascent market in intelligent trucks.

In a Sept. 6 note to clients, Morgan Stanley's auto team said it expects Tesla CEO Elon Musk to start taking $5,000 refundable deposits on the truck right after the unveiling, using the same method that in 2016 created outsized buzz around his Model 3 mainstream electric sedan. If the truck attracts thousands of orders — which the note's lead author, Ravi Shanker, said he considers a likelihood — Musk will create pressure on rivals to compete, and fleet owners to order even more trucks.

The bottom line: Shanker thinks semi-trucks will turn into a several-billion-dollar-a-year business for Tesla.

"If the order book fills up quickly," Shanker wrote, "any carrier that holds back placing its order could potentially have to wait several years to get its hands on a Tesla truck, years during which its competitors could be running with up to a 70% cost advantage."

In other speculation and observations, Shanker wrote:

  • The truck to be revealed later this month will be a concept vehicle or a prototype and not meant for sale.
  • The final semi will go on sale in 2020.
  • To keep the cost down to $100,000, it will come without a battery.
  • Tesla will use a swapping system so that truckers won't have to wait for the battery to recharge.
  • The truck will be capable of autonomous "platooning," the system whereby driverless trucks are digitally connected and thus can follow behind a human-driven lead truck.
  • Tesla could earn $11 billion in revenue from semi sales by 2028 by selling 25,000 new trucks a year, and servicing them and their batteries.
  • Tesla has been testing the semi on public roads for several months.

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