Renewed charge

Sept. 6, 2016
Increasing interest in electricity is leading to new truck concepts

There was a time when electric trucks were all the rage. Everyone wanted one, it seemed. That was a long time ago—more than 100 years, in fact. Still, America’s fascination with electric vehicles has remained. Throughout time, supporters have been telling anyone who will listen that the future is electric.

It was 100 years ago, and it still is today. Funny thing about the future, though, is it never seems to arrive.

In trucking circles, the electric vehicle has had some success, but it has been limited. And it has been limited mostly to small delivery vans. Azure Dynamics seemed to have a great future ahead of it supplying electric powertrains, but the charge didn’t last. Azure was the preferred supplier for the Ford Transit Connect electric. Despite this, Azure Dynamics couldn’t make it as an entity, filing for bankruptcy protection and shutting down.

Smith Electric Vehicles, another promising entry, also found success, this time in the Class 3-5 market with its electric delivery vans. Again, despite government incentives to buy the vehicles, Smith Electric could not make it, closing up shop for good in 2015.

Despite these high-profile failures, electric vehicle advocates continue to tout the future. Is it finally here? That remains a big question mark, but recent activity suggests we are rolling down another path of trial.

“For the first time in a long time, the electric truck may have a viable future. And that future is closer than it appears.”

Just this year, Elon Musk of Tesla announced he was going to build an electric truck. Not just any electric delivery truck, though, Musk envisions a heavy-duty electric tractor. Lest you think the demands of a Class 8 truck are too much for electric power and Musk is clearly out of his mind, it’s good to know he is not alone.

A Salt Lake City, UT, company call­ed Nikola One is building a Class 8 electric truck as well. According to the company, not only is the truck a zero-emissions model (it will use compressed natural gas to power a turbine to charge the battery bank), but interest has been so high that more than 7,000 tractors have been reserved.

“Nikola has engineered the holy grail of the trucking industry. We are not aware of any zero-emissions truck in the world that can haul 80,000 lbs. more than 1,000 mi. and do it without stopping,” says Trevor Milton, founder and CEO.

Are Milton and Musk right about the possibilities of a heavy-duty electric truck? These are, after all, not “truck guys.” But Daimler is, and it thinks there is a market for a heavy electric truck. Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz unit in Europe has unveiled the Urban eTruck, a 26-ton-capacity heavy truck, and its Fuso unit is also running customer trials of a Canter E-Cell delivery truck.

Why all the renewed interest suddenly in electric trucks?

“Nowadays, costs, performance and charging times have developed so rapidly that now there is a trend reversal in the distribution sector: The time is ripe for the electric truck,” says Dr. Wolfgang Bernhard, responsible for Daimler Trucks & Buses.

Adding to that, a recent analysis from IHS Automotive suggests that technology is allowing for smaller, yet more powerful, battery packs.

“The weight of the battery pack, as well as its obvious packaging requirements, has until now stymied the creation of a fully electric heavy-duty truck. However, the progress that has been made in cell development in terms of increasing power storage and lowering cost means that this concept is now a viable one,” IHS wrote.

There are many other reasons for the interest, but for the first time in a long time, the electric truck may have a viable future. And that future may be closer than it appears.  

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