It’s not very often that I witness history in the making, but that’s exactly what transpired recently in Stuttgart...
The historic occasion was the launch of the world’s first all-electric, 26-t truck. It came as a huge surprise to everyone and the Daimler team was, understandably, ebullient. “Tesla is sprinkling fairy dust; today we are showing you reality,” one senior executive whispered to me. (He was, of course, alluding to a week-old statement by Elon Musk, in which he revealed that heavy-duty trucks “are in the early stages of development at Tesla and should be ready for unveiling next year”.)
With Musk, anything is possible. The South African is famous for pulling newsworthy (if not necessarily profitable) vehicles out of a hat in a surprisingly short period of time.
Yet another company – Nikola Motor Company (err yes, it’s also named after Nikola Tesla) – is also going to make electric trucks. In fact, it’s already taking orders for its Nikola One, a 1 491-kW (2 000 hp) truck, which has a range of 1 931 km (1 200 miles).
This truck sounds sensational – you don’t even have to plug it in; it has a natural-gas-powered turbine that charges the truck’s batteries while it’s driving. CEO Trevor Milton is very positive about potential for the Nikola One. “We believe we will pass the current market leaders like Daimler, PACCAR, Volvo, and Navistar in sales orders within the first 12 to 24 months,” he asserts.
That’s uber cool. There’s only one (rather large) problem: Nikola hasn’t actually built a truck yet. (Did someone mention fairy dust again?) On the other hand, Daimler has.
Daimler’s truck is called the Urban eTruck. It’s not ready for series production just yet (that will happen in 2020), but we saw it driving – in the metal. It’s real. There isn’t a speck of fairy dust around.
Not surprisingly, Wolfgang Bernhard, member of the board of management of Daimler AG, Daimler Trucks and Buses, was nothing short of elated at the reveal. “Today we ring in a new era. The first 120 years of truck history were a pure diesel era. With this day, electro mobility arrives for the truck,” he announced.
In the past, many industry experts have doubted the potential for electro mobility within heavy-duty trucks. Bernhard admitted that he was one such sceptic. “We’ve been busy working on electric drives for many years. In the past, our experts were very cautious. And I will honestly say that I myself was very sceptical.
“It’s long seemed as if the applications for batteries in trucks were extremely limited, due to the high cost and long charging times – and due to limited performance. To give you an idea: A decade ago the battery in a 25-t truck would have made up one-third of its total weight!” he revealed.
Things have changed. “Now the time is right for the electric truck, because two key factors have come together: the technology has made great progress – and the market is emerging. More cities are putting restrictions on truck traffic – all around the globe. To cite just three examples: at night and on weekends, London allows trucks over 18 t only on major thoroughfares. And from 2020 onwards trucks will only be allowed in the city if they meet Euro-6 standards.
“In Beijing, experts anticipate that, in the future, trucks will only be authorised to negotiate all municipalities if they comply with the China VI emission standards, and Paris is even considering no longer allowing any trucks with a conventional drivetrain into the city from 2020,” Bernhard pointed out.
According to Bernhard, battery costs are reducing dramatically (costs will drop by a factor of 2,5 by 2025, versus 2007). Performance, on the other hand, is set to increase by a factor of 2,5 over the same period.
“That makes electric cars economical, and will soon make electric trucks economical. However, that’s not the case in all applications. Specifically, the progress that’s been made in batteries is not enough for long-distance hauling – but for distribution it is. In cities the electric truck can be a reality in the near future,” he pointed out.
It certainly does appear as though the Urban eTruck, specifically, could most certainly become a reality in many modern cities by the start of the next decade. So, exactly what can we expect?
I cannot comment on the design; that’s only going to be revealed at the IAA this month (September). I also cannot comment on the driving experience; while I drove the mighty impressive Fuso Canter E-Cell in Stuttgart (and will report on this in next month’s FOCUS), journalists were not permitted to drive the one-of-a-kind eTruck. However, I can certainly share the technical details pertaining to this innovation.
The Urban eTruck is based on a heavy-duty, three-axle, short-radius Mercedes-Benz distribution truck, but, of course, the developers at Daimler Trucks totally revised the drive concept. For instance, the entire conventional drivetrain was replaced by an electrically driven rear axle with electric motors directly adjacent to the wheel hubs. Their maximum output is 2 x 125 kW,
while the peak torque is 2 x 500 Nm. In combination with the gearing, the torque at the wheel reaches 11 000 Nm.
The axle is based on the ZF AVE 130 (which has already proved its worth in its basic version as a low-floor portal axle in hybrid and fuel-cell buses from Mercedes-Benz). However, the axle has been comprehensively modified for use in the Urban eTruck.
For instance, there is a new axle housing, which is significantly raised to give a ground clearance of over 200 mm. The method of axle attachment has also been reconfigured on account of the frame-type construction.
Another characteristic of the axle used in this particular application is its super single tyres (size 495/45 R22.5). These were selected because of the frame width of the chassis in combination with the positioning of the electric-drive motors adjacent to the wheel hubs. Also, super singles are considerably less heavy than conventional twin tyres, making for a higher payload. The maximum permissible axle load of the drive axle is 11,5 t.
The leading and trailing axles of the Urban eTruck are familiar, tried-and-tested components from Mercedes-Benz trucks. They are each shod with single tyres of size 315/70 R22.5. The trailing axle is steered and, for weight reasons, the Urban eTruck is equipped with aluminium wheels.
The power is supplied by a battery pack consisting of three modules of lithium-ion batteries with a total capacity of 212 kWh. This results in a range of up to 200 km – normally enough for a typical day’s delivery round.
Depending on the desired range, the modular battery pack can be customised by adding or removing batteries. The Urban eTruck is connected to the charging station using the Europe-wide standardised Combined Charging System (CCS) Type-2 connector. With a charging power of 100 kW, the fully discharged batteries are charged to 100 percent in two to three hours.
The Urban eTruck dispenses with elaborate, heavy on-board charging technology, as the batteries are charged exclusively at stationary charging stations back at the fleet depot, with a charging power up to 150 kW. The stationary charging station also ensures preconditioning of the vehicle to enable the Urban eTruck to achieve its maximum range.
Payload is, of course, everything in the world of trucking; so how does the eTruck fare in this regard? Well, it’s slightly disadvantaged versus conventional trucks – but not as badly as one would imagine. Allow me to explain...
The electrically driven axle weighs around 1 000 kg, while the other necessary electrical components add up to a further 900 kg. The heaviest components are the batteries, including mountings, which weigh in at 2 500 kg. This is offset by the absence of an engine, transmission, propeller shaft, differential and fuel tank, which together come to around 2 700 kg.
This means that the Urban eTruck has an extra weight of about 1 700 kg, but, as the European Union (EU) Commission is in favour of increasing the permissible gross vehicle weight of trucks with alternative drives by a maximum of one tonne, this will more or less cancel out the weight disadvantage of the electric drive.
This will raise the permissible gross vehicle weight of the three-axle rigid truck from 25 to 26 t, which will bring the original extra weight down to 700 kg compared with a directly comparable diesel-powered truck.
So there you have it – the eTruck in a nutshell. Bernhard is convinced that it will place Daimler at the forefront of the electro-mobility segment. “We have made the electric truck an integral part of our technology strategy. We are driving progress in autonomous and connected driving – just as we will drive developments in electric driving.
“Electric trucks are an integral part of our product portfolio. Our goal is to provide our customers with electric trucks in the near future that are economical for them; trucks that work in distribution transport and prove to be highly reliable,” he told journalists from 20 countries who had gathered at the reveal.
So Daimler is at the forefront, but what of Tesla? “I read the article about Tesla. We have many years of experience in producing cars and vehicles. We have a huge sales network. We have many customers who we are talking to. I think we are well prepared to serve this segment,” was his response.
I think so too ...
EXCLUSIVE! Q&A with Wolfgang Bernhard
While at the launch of the Mercedes-Benz Urban eTruck in Stuttgart, FOCUS was privileged to secure an exclusive interview with Wolfgang Bernhard, member of the board of management of Daimler AG, Daimler Trucks and Buses. Here are some of the highlights of that discussion:
What is the most viable option for introduction in a developing country, such as South Africa – an electric truck such as the eTruck, an autonomous truck, or a Euro-6 truck?
Euro 6 would be first, because it’s available and can be widely used. Second would be autonomous, because of the long distances trucks travel in South Africa. The roads are also well marked. It would make the roads safer and the trucks would be more fuel efficient.
The electric truck would be number three; it could be used in South Africa. Thankfully, South Africa does not have mega cities such as Tokyo or Los Angeles, thus the eTruck truck would be the exception rather than the rule.
Is there a market for electric trucks in other emerging markets?
Yes. We see an interest worldwide – even in Indonesia and China. About ten percent of all trucks are used for urban distribution haulage. It’s possible that all these trucks will be electrified in future.
Will you produce the cells in-house?
No. In the world market there is a lot of competition for the best cells. We will keep our know-how on the engine side. We will purchase the cells and produce our own battery packs.
The South African market is very price sensitive; we won’t pay more for a “green” truck. When will an electric truck cost the same as a one that runs on diesel?
I completely understand this sentiment! We have the economic interests of our customers at heart. It’s not about paying money! It’s about earning money! Within emerging markets and emerging companies, the sticker price is important, because they need financing. However, we are seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.
The eTruck is still more expensive than a conventional vehicle, but we are working on that. I think that we are getting to a stage whereby the total cost of ownership of an electric truck and a diesel truck will be the same after four years.
It was a bold – and costly – move to introduce the eTruck now. Why now?
So far, nobody has earned any money with electric mobility. The right timing is always crucial for innovation, because whoever delivers a new technology too early will lose money, and whoever delivers a new technology too late loses the market. So, now is when electric mobility has arrived for the truck. Now is when the time is right.
Are you working on a recharging infrastructure, like a network of fuel stations?
With local distribution trucks, this isn’t really necessary. They return to their home depot and park. This means that they can charge overnight and they’re always parked at the same spot. We believe for that you don’t need multiple charging stations.
How important is the range of 200 km?
Not necessarily that important. We launched the truck today with this range because we wanted to make a statement. Some customers won’t require such a large range; some may only need 50 km. These things are scalable. It’s not one size fits all.
In the truck business, size matters. We can scale down the batteries and make the truck less expensive. This is just the starting point; it’s not the end point in terms of development.
What do you think about the future of South Africa?
I’m worried. We are worried about the political instability of the country. In the political arena the country has turned for the worse. I believe that it is so important that the South African population has a government that enjoys full trust and is competent. I hope that the country is going to find a way back, because its well-being and its future will depend on it.
The business climate has to be conducive to investment! Just look at the situation in Brazil! We trust that the country will turn a corner, but we are very concerned. We offer any help in order to support the country. We do not only with words, but also with investments that we have put into the country in terms of technology and products.
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