Driven to Do Good

Joshua Resnick ’01 helps build a revolutionary big rig

January 4, 2019
Share
Share

Some 34 million semi trucks—also known as tractor-trailers or 18 wheelers—are currently in operation across the United States, hauling more than 10 billion tons of goods every year. In 2016 commercial trucks used 38.8 billion gallons of diesel fuel, at a cost of nearly $90 billion. And while trucking is a vital element in the national and world economy, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, medium- and heavy-duty trucks are also responsible for spewing 470 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year—a number that has nearly doubled over the last two decades.

But the era of noisy, polluting diesel trucks may soon be coming to an end, thanks to a team of engineers at Tesla who are working on a revolutionary new kind of big rig. The Tesla Semi will be able to travel as far as 500 miles on a single charge, consuming less than 2 kilowatt-hours per mile. That’s good news for the environment and a boon for trucking companies, which can expect to save as much as $100,000 per vehicle, per year, that they'd otherwise have spent on fuel. The Tesla Semi is also billed as the safest truck ever, with an “Enhanced Autopilot” system that helps avoid collisions. And instead of a roaring engine, it makes a quiet, spaceship-like sound as it revs from 0 to 60 miles per hour—fully loaded—in 20 seconds or less.

“This will have a huge impact on the economics of trucking,” says Joshua Resnick ’01, a senior engineer on Tesla’s semi team who has worked on the truck since the program’s inception in 2015 and designed the system architecture for its electronic controls. “There’s a ton of interest and a ton of people who have pre-ordered the vehicle.”

Building the world’s first all-electric semi truck is a challenge that makes sense for the electrical engineering alum, whose friends call him “the mad scientist.” In a career that has taken him from a basement lab in WPI’s Atwater Kent Laboratories, to a remote Alaskan fishing community, to the foothills outside America’s high-tech capital (Palo Alto), Resnick has spent his life tinkering with everything from fusion reactors to fishing boats. But building things is not his only passion. With a master’s in theology and experience working with at-risk youth, he is also driven by a mission to do good. And that, he says, is what makes Tesla the perfect fit.

“We’re a very ideological company,” he explains. “We're focused on transitioning the world to sustainable transportation, and it’s exciting to work at a company that’s on the leading edge. Because for me, what matters at the end of the day is, am I doing something that matters?”

Creative Freedom

When Resnick arrived at WPI in the fall of 1997, he was already an amateur engineer—he had spent his high school years avidly building and flying radio-controlled airplanes and helicopters, experimenting with the possibilities of flight. Once on campus, he immediately sought out the machine shop.

Resnick Outside Tesla’s Dumbarton Facility In California.
Resnick Outside Tesla’s Dumbarton
Facility In California.

“It was great, because I could just walk into the shop and make whatever I wanted,” he recalls. “I liked having that freedom and having all those good tools to work with. Even while I was taking my core classes, I had the opportunity to be creative on my own, and that's really where I thrive the most. I was just making stuff!”

Some of the stuff Resnick wound up making was far from ordinary.

“The Tesla coil got me in trouble with Campus Security,” he confesses. “My roommate and I were outside the dorm turning it on and making these giant electrical discharges—like, literally, I'm talking continuous eight-foot sparks. It's a pretty scary contraption and it makes a lot of noise—it sounds like a machine gun.”

Noticing the spectacle, a security officer stepped out of his car. While he couldn’t determine if the freshmen were technically breaking a rule, he told them the sparks needed to stop flying.

“I wonder if they added ‘no building Tesla coils’ to the campus rule book later,” he muses.

Other extracurricular projects received a better reception, like a tabletop nuclear fusion reactor, which earned him a mention in American Scientist magazine when he was a sophomore. Soon, faculty began to seek out Resnick’s help on their own research projects. Professor Alexander Emanuel offered him a disused lab space in the basement, complete with voltage generators and other power equipment. Professor David Cyganski asked for his assistance on a series of physics experiments, and their collaboration eventually led to an MQP that Cyganski still marvels over.

“The things he wanted to tackle were outside the realm of what many students might be interested in,” he says.

Resnick’s project investigated a phenomenon observed in prior radioactivity studies that seemed to violate the laws of physics. Believing the anomaly might be caused by environmental irregularities, he began with a commercial refrigerator, which he converted into an apparatus that controlled temperature to within 1/1,000 of a degree. After experimenting with temperature, air pressure, humidity, and other factors, Resnick and Cyganski were stunned to learn that the anomaly was caused by an error with a very commonly used sensor.

No one would have seen it coming, His project was an absolute tour de force.
Professor David Cyganski

Looking for Answers

After graduation, Resnick surprised his WPI professors when he went on to earn a master’s degree in theology from Hellenic College Holy Cross, in Brookline, Mass.  

“I was very interested in the intersection between faith and science,” Resnick explains. “I feel that it is important to maintain a perspective of awe and mystery in the face of nature and the universe, and not think we have all the answers. Ultimately, realizing we don’t have all the answers is what drives scientists and theologians alike to seek for deeper understanding. The problem is when either discipline takes its own answers too seriously—or stops looking deeper.”

That perspective would influence the next phase of Resnick’s life, an adventure that took him to Kodiak Island, off the southern coast of Alaska. With a population of about 13,000 and an economy that revolves around fishing, Kodiak also has its share of social problems, including drug abuse and alcoholism. Resnick worked with at-risk youth, mentoring high school students and running a science camp. But he soon realized he was still an engineer at heart, and he found his way to working on the island’s fleet of fishing boats. Eventually, he started his own company, installing power systems designed to survive challenging conditions at sea.

“If you've ever seen the TV series Deadliest Catch,” he says, “I literally worked on many of those boats. They typically have anywhere between 250 kilowatts to half a megawatt of installed electrical power—those are some pretty big generators, and those systems require a lot of engineering and maintenance.”

The business alerted Resnick to opportunities for innovation—the boats were running the same type of equipment, including polluting diesel generators, that they'd been using for decades.

“A lot of these boats could be all-electric,” he says. “And so I think there's a lot of opportunity in that space—a lot that could happen to improve their energy efficiency and sustainability.”

A $500,000 grant from Alaska’s Emerging Energy Technology Fund allowed Resnick to assemble a small team of researchers to explore the possibilities. They wound up developing new technology for battery-powered electric propulsion and enhanced efficiency of diesel generators, providing the state with a blueprint for modernizing the fleet. But while the technology was solid, Resnick and his family (he and his wife, Lucia, now have five children) were in need of a change of scenery. Long a fan of Tesla’s work toward sustainable transportation, he sought out a recruiter and wound up finding a perfect opportunity.

Team Dynamics

In 2015 Resnick moved from Kodiak to California, settling south of Silicon Valley in a redwood forest outside Santa Cruz. Once a small business owner in a remote fishing community, now he'd be working at a top emerging technology company—one with a charismatic, if sometimes controversial, founder, Elon Musk, who had the eyes of the world trained on what he would do next. It was a bit of an adjustment.

Resnick takes a moment to reflect at Tesla’s headquarters in California
Resnick takes a moment to reflect at Tesla’s headquarters in California

“Tesla is very team-oriented, and I found this to be a growth point for myself,” Resnick says, explaining that there is a small team of engineers working intently on the semi truck. But like most Tesla projects it’s the product of a company-wide effort. “Learning how to work on these larger teams has been a new experience for me," he says. "People are always leaning on each other’s expertise.”

Resnick’s own expertise is in the truck’s system architecture, which connects the controllers for the various sub-modules that make up its electronics—everything from the drive inverters that power the motors, to the door latches and headlights. He also led the team that designed the wiring harness, which he describes as the truck’s “nervous system.”

At present, the team is designing its production vehicle—one that will be sold to the first round of customers. Pre-orders have already been made by companies like J.B. Hunt, one of the largest logistics companies in the U.S., along with UPS, Pepsi, Walmart, and Anheuser-Busch. Two semis are already on the road, hauling equipment for Tesla’s own use, and excited Tesla fans have made a hobby of reporting sightings on the Internet, posting photos and videos of the trucks in states as far-flung as Colorado, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Illinois.

It’s easy to see why, unlike the currently ubiquitous diesel-powered tractor-trailer, Tesla’s Semi has inspired such buzz. Beyond the revolutionary potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it also boasts sleek, aerodynamic lines, much like the company’s passenger cars—in fact, the Semi, Resnick says is essentially an extra-large version of the vehicles Tesla is already known for.

“If you compare the feel of our truck to a regular diesel truck, it's a totally different experience,” he enthuses. “The acceleration is very smooth, and it accelerates many times faster—even with a payload—than a regular truck. Breaking is smoother, and the driver sits in the center, which gives you a much better view of the road. All of the systems are fully integrated, and it’s just a much cleaner experience.”

As Resnick lists the features of the Semi, it's clear that he is still, at heart, the mad scientist driven by a love and a talent for building things. In fact, he is beginning to sound a little like that WPI freshman who built his own Tesla coil just for the joy of watching sparks fly.