At at least one point on Thursday, Elon Musk was making a lot of sense. On stage at his Nevada Gigafactory announcing the long-anticipated (and greatly delayed) rollout of the Tesla Semi, Twitter’s new CEO made a very good point about the potential benefit of an electric truck compared to the diesel version. “When you factor in the number of hours driven and the weight it’s carrying, although it’s only one percent of vehicle production, it’s actually 20 percent of vehicle emissions,” he said, adding that the 4 million semi-trucks on the road also account for a third of all the U.S.’s particulate emissions. “From a health impact, especially in cities, this is a huge impact.” Which is why the first 100 trucks produced by Tesla for PepsiCo, which will ferry Doritos and Mountain Dew around the country at distances of up to 500 miles per charge, received a $15 million grant from California’s climate agency as part of an air-pollution-reduction program. As I experienced the fleeting sensation of agreeing with Elon Musk about something — and even excitement about the Tesla Semi — I was reminded of the twin promise he made when he first announced his plan for these trucks five years ago: There was supposed to be a Tesla Bus. But where is it? After all, he’s put the public-transportation industry (and humanity, in its own way) through in the last five years, I think we deserve the Tesla Bus.
In a 2016 document outlining a broad ten-year strategy for Tesla, Musk highlighted the importance of electrifying both trucking and transit. “In addition to consumer vehicles, there are two other types of electric vehicle needed: heavy-duty trucks and high passenger-density urban transport,” he wrote. He was right! Electrifying the country’s buses has become a primary goal for transit agencies — buses travel through densely populated cities, exposing everyone around them to toxic fumes. Electrification also saves cities money since they cost less to maintain and require fewer repairs. And adding more reliable, efficient electric buses also brings with it the potential to get more drivers out of their own emissions-spewing vehicles, delivering cleaner air and less congestion. There are big electric-vehicle manufacturers like BYD delivering substantial electric-bus orders in the U.S. now. But there’s also plenty of opportunity: A recent survey showed that only 1,268 buses out of a total of 63,530 total buses nationwide are actively operating as electric.
Of course, we know what Musk did instead of building the Tesla Bus. He spent the next few years insulting transit experts and equating riding buses to sitting next to mass murderers. He also started a tunneling company that has convinced elected officials across the country that they should invest in pricey underground lanes for cars instead of, say, dedicated bus lanes for, say, the Tesla Bus.
Tesla has shown what the automaker is capable of, Musk’s often unfulfilled claims aside. An entire portion of Thursday’s presentation focused on all the research that Tesla’s engineers had done in service of the semi project: ride-alongs on long-distance routes in order to add details truck drivers had asked for, like dual navigation touchscreens and an increased cab height. Bus operators experience many of the same challenges and, like truck drivers, are facing a nationwide hiring shortage. The public-transit industry is desperately in need of vehicles that help agencies operate their fleets more efficiently while contributing to an environment that’s safer and cleaner for everyone in and around them. (And if Tesla’s buses need any repairs, GM can fix them.)
But the presentation, sadly, made no mention of the Tesla Bus. Instead, we were shown an unreleased “robotaxi” with a white sheet draped over the top. I don’t want a robotaxi, with its dubious self-driving capabilities, clogging up our streets. I want a Tesla Bus, driven by a person, getting thousands of passengers to school and work every day. I want a Tesla Bus that will actually end traffic. At this point, I honestly don’t care if it looks like a Stormtrooper helmet. Just give us the Tesla Bus!