Gallery: First-time feel behind electric truck wheels

Aug. 19, 2022
Kenworth ride-and-drive features the latest EV technology hitting the commercial vehicle market, including its hydrogen-electric Class 8 and new TX-18 automatic transmission.

Tucked away in the trees of northern Washington state is the Paccar technical center, where the manufacturer develops and tests some of its latest technologies. Kenworth executives invited me and some other journalists to the facility’s 1.6-mile test track last week to take some of their new electric trucks for a spin, no CDL required.

Full disclosure: As the newest member of the FleetOwner team, I had never driven any truck beyond a pickup. Class 8s are a world away from the Kia Rio subcompact I own, so I inferred one thing before ever stepping in the cab: Kenworth must have good safety tech.

Kenworth T680E

The first truck I drove was the T680E, the battery-electric version of Kenworth’s T680 diesel Class 8. I was immediately floored by how quiet it was, gliding along the track—except for an instant when I didn’t turn wide enough and ran some trailer wheels off the asphalt and into the gravel. When you drive an electric truck, you form a different relationship with the equipment as you hear sounds you wouldn’t have been able to with a diesel engine chugging underneath. Axles squeak and suspension bobs with every turn of the wheel, and you become especially in tune with the trailer’s movement as you listen to it behind you.

See also: Kenworth's electric future

Speaking with Kenworth’s executives, they said their production team spends extra time in development tweaking the truck to minimize those noises typically masked by a diesel engine. They also touted the benefits it will have for drivers not having to be shaken by loud, rumbling engines eight or more hours a day.

The T680E, which has a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of 82,000 lb., was hauling a loaded trailer. At the time I drove it, it had a gross weight of about 70,0000 lb. That’s why I was shocked when the brakes, despite having to halt 35 tons, stopped on a dime. In fact, I had to stop myself from stopping too abruptly. The T680E’s regenerative braking has three levels that drivers can toggle through at the touch of a button to adjust to varying weather conditions or terrain.

Batteries are far and away the No. 1 factor in BEV range, said Andy Zehnder, Kenworth’s director of fleet sales—advanced technology and strategic accounts. Any company that makes bold claims about the range of their BEVs is likely doing so because they have installed a larger battery, not because they somehow designed a truck that is drastically more efficient or aerodynamic than the competition’s vehicle, he said.

The T680E is equipped with a 396 kWh battery pack that charges in three hours using a CCS1 port. That amount of electricity gives the truck a 150-mile range that, by Kenworth’s estimates, meets the needs of 20% of the market. That’s also enough electricity to power 10 homes for 24 hours.

TX-18 and TX-18 Pro

All the trucks at the event had automatic transmissions, and as I sped up and down the track, I didn’t notice any lurching, never feeling like I was being thrown around the cab. The two W990 diesel trucks I drove, one with a day cab and one with the 52-inch flat top sleeper option, were equipped with Paccar’s new TX-18 and TX-18 Pro transmissions, respectively. Both have 18 forward gears, the TX-18 has three reverse gears. The TX-18 Pro has six. They support maximums of 510 horsepower, 1,850 lb.-ft. of torque capacity, and 140,000-lb. GVWRs. Arguably as important is that, as I exited the W990 flat top, a gaggle of Kenworth executives and journalists were discussing how much they love its look.

See also: Paccar TX-18, TX-18 Pro automated transmissions available for order

The TX-18 and TX-18 Pro are designed for heavy vocational applications, and while I didn’t exactly get to put them through the gauntlet while circling the track, the trucks were nevertheless shifting with ease as I hauled a 65,000-75,000 lb. gross weight.

T680 FCEV

I’d read and written a lot about hydrogen trucks, so I was excited to try the T680 FCEV (fuel cell electric vehicle). This variant of the T680 was used in a 10-truck demonstration project with the Port of Los Angeles. Kenworth had built the trucks with Toyota and a fuel station with Shell. The trucks were used in drayage applications, actually hauling freight. The T680 FCEV boasts a 60kg hydrogen tank, refuellable in 15 minutes, that gives it a 300-mile range. The model, however, is not available for order.

It handled similarly to the T680E battery-electric. One main difference for the driver lies in the amount of noise. The motor of the T680 FCEV is situated much closer to the driver than in the T680E, resulting in a more noticeable series of whirring noises as I zipped up and down the track. While still quieter than a diesel truck, my focus lay more within the cab and what was immediately in front of me than on the trailer behind me as it did when I drove the T680E.

K270E

The K270E is a Class 6 vehicle that I rode in but didn’t drive. Nimbler than its Class 8 cousins, its 100 to 200-mile range is suited for regional applications. You could have heard a pin drop in the cab it was so silent. I imagine this responsive, agile, yet quiet truck will be liked by drivers in urban environments who can maneuver the truck around city streets during the day and charge it by night.

Common wisdom says it's a question of when, not if, electrification is coming. Kenworth certainly seems to see it as inevitable and is doing what it can to cover all bases.

About the Author

Scott Keith

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