Data was recently released about the performance of Tesla’s new semi truck, which is being used in a pilot program at a Sacramento, California PepsiCo plant. Apparently, the “zero-emissions” festooned semis are successfully delivering soda and junk food, albeit on short routes and with limited schedules due to range limitations. (NB: I’m going to assume the zero emissions claim omits the embodied emissions of the truck’s production and the energy needed to charge its 10,000 pound battery cell and the emissions from the transportation infrastructure the truck depends on and a whole bunch of other stuff.)
The Tesla semi brings to mind a piece I wrote a few months ago entitled, “Why Most Sustainable Technology is Bullshit.” In the piece, I argued that until humanity starts developing sustainable demand — a state where what’s consumed is what’s needed and available in an ongoing manner — developing more sustainable supplies is pointless. Put another way, before endeavoring to make supposedly low-impact replacements of existing products (e.g. a diesel semi for an EV one), it should be asked if a product needs to exist at all, since so many of today’s products are intrinsically unnecessary and unsustainable. There will never be a sustainable motor yacht or McMansion or Dodge Hellcat or single use plastic bottle because the reasons for these things’ existences are rooted in excess, waste, and unreasonable pursuits of convenience.
Does the Tesla semi belong in the “doesn’t need to exist” category? Hard to say. The embodied energy of the existing, internal combustion trucking infrastructure, along with ICE’s performance advantages over EVs could argue for their continued use until real solutions (not EVs) are found.
But even if Tesla’s semi was superior to diesel models — possessing better range, speed, lower environmental impact, etc. — those advantages can be rapidly negated if they’re performing unnecessary or ecologically harmful duties — like delivering PepsiCo products.
PepsiCo is the second largest plastic polluter in the world (Coke is still #1!). In fact, PepsiCo is such a prodigious polluter, New York State just launched a lawsuit against them for “endangering public health through its single-use plastic bottles, caps and wrappers,” per Reuters. Moreover, PepsiCo’s high sugar, low nutrient products are a major culprit in the explosion of obesity, diabetes, and other metabolic maladies. The most sustainable thing one can do with PespiCo’s products — all of them — is throw them away as soon as they’re made.
One could argue that the Tesla semi is a neutral vessel — one that can just as easily carry biodynamically-grown vegetables as palettes of soda. Applying this logic, why not use a zero/low emissions EV over an ICE semi? The reason is that treating the Tesla semi as a sustainable solution obscures the real problem that needs solving, which dramatically reducing the scale of consumerism and its polluting infrastructure. Technology is only as sustainable as the system it’s part of, and Tesla seems far more focused on replacing small components of an inherently dirty system with questionably clean technology than it is with developing real sustainable systems.