Editorial: America’s next big thing?

A high-tech semitrailer, or another such game-changer, is exactly what our economy needs right now.

A Silicon Valley company did something exciting last week, and for once it involved something more significant than a new app to help us kill time on our smartphones.

Tesla, the company that already is making electric cars, unveiled a prototype electric-powered semitrailer that can go 500 miles on a single battery charge and is powerful enough that it goes 65 mph up steep hills.

It could be a game-changer for the transportation industry, and anything that changes the transportation industry will change all of America. Tesla CEO Elon Musk says the electric semi will be 20 percent cheaper to operate than a traditional diesel truck. If true, the entire trucking industry will be converting to electric semi trucks as soon as it is feasible.

Decreasing the price to transport goods will affect nearly every sector of the U.S. economy. Goods theoretically would become cheaper. The amount of fuel that could be saved — the trucking industry consumes billions of gallons of fuel per year — would put downward pressure on oil prices, perhaps saving all of us money whether we have an electric vehicle or not. The amount of capital investment the trucking industry would make to replace their old fleets could do wonders for the U.S. manufacturing sector, assuming the semitrailers would be built in America.

Of course, this prototype semitrailer may be delivering nothing more than a load of bull. Tesla isn’t a profitable company, and Musk has been better at touting grand ideas than delivering on the nuts and bolts of actually manufacturing new products.

But Musk is awfully talented at thinking big. American industry needs big thoughts if the country hopes to remain the world leader for generations to come. American innovation has been the greatest and most consistent force to drive the U.S. economy to new heights. If you wonder why our latest economic recovery has been a bit sluggish, part of the answer is America has been in an innovation rut.

Arguably, the bursting of the internet onto the scene was the last great innovation to hit the U.S. economy. It made the movement of information much quicker and more efficient, which in turn did great things for the American economy. But all that occurred quite some time ago. Spin-off companies have done exciting new things with the Internet — think Facebook and Twitter — but they have been more sizzle than steak when it comes to driving the economy forward.

Certainly, the Internet age can still produce some great advancements, but like any innovation, it loses steam over time. That’s why any great economy must constantly be looking for its next product, its next idea that can change the game.

Has America done enough in that regard lately? Since the turn of the century, we’ve made phones better, we’ve made video games better, and we can read books on a tablet better. It can be argued that the most innovative U.S. sector has been the financial industry. It created complicated financial instruments that allowed us to play Russian roulette with the mortgage market and nearly implode the world’s economy.

America needs its next big thing. Maybe a semitrailer will get us back on the road to finding it.