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A jolt for heavy trucks

In contrast to the farm sector, electrification is making rapid gains in heavy trucks

Over the past several years, whenever Country Guide has tracked progress toward electrification in ag equipment, we’ve seen a stop-and-go process with manufacturers showing several new concept models one year, followed by little if anything the next.

The contrast with the heavy truck sector is striking. There, we’re seeing a consistent and rapid march toward alternative drive systems. Electrification is going mainstream.

Already, several electric truck models are about to enter the market. Prototypes are logging miles at commercial carriers, where transport executives are actively evaluating their usefulness, and a few manufacturers are even reporting firm orders on the books.

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There are clear duty-cycle differences between Class 8 highway truck engines and those in farm machines, so it’s hard to say how advances in the truck sector will carry over to ag equipment. Besides, unlike in trucking, big capacity in a single machine may not be the future for farmers. Instead, many concept ag machines have shrunk to the size of current lawn-and-garden equipment, hitching their wagons to automation instead of scale.

But like the trend in heavy trucks, many of these next-generation small ag robots also rely on electricity for drive systems. So if automation continues to advance, electric drives may also become mainstream in ag equipment — at some point.

Even so, the number of companies vying to break into the electric heavy truck market suggests it’s the sector that will take the lead. Here’s some of the evidence:

Volvo Europe recently introduced two separate trucks to the market there. One of them, the FE, is designed to be a garbage truck and the first model will begin making the early morning rounds collecting refuse in 2019 in Hamburg, Germany, where city fathers like the idea that silent electric drives won’t be waking up as many residents.

Volvo’s FL truck is one of two electric models the brand is introducing to the European market.
photo: Volvo

The FE gets an effective 200-kilometre range. Its lithium-ion batteries fully recharge in just 1.5 hours.

Back on these shores, Tesla, the company founded by Elon Musk, whose recent pot-smoking public interview shook up investors and regulators, expects its all-electric Tesla Semi to hit the market soon. It’s arguably the most famous of all the alternative-drive heavy trucks introduced to the public so far.

Tesla is now taking deposits for future delivery of the trucks, which have MSRPs of US$190,000 and US$230,000 for the two models that will be built.

Tesla is accepting pre-delivery deposits from companies to get delivery of the first group of semi trucks the brand will begin delivering to the market at some time in the near future.
photo: Tesla

The cheaper truck offers a 475-kilometre range, while the more expensive version gets a published range of 800 kilometres, although some industry analysts chalk that claim up to marketing hyperbole and doubt the technology exists to deliver 800 kilometres on a single battery charge. That hasn’t seemed to dampen interest, though. Musk revealed during an investor-relations session — when he was apparently not stoned — that the company has about 2,000 standing orders for them.

Thor, a small California-based company with just 18 employees, is also offering a truck along the lines of the Tesla Semi. The Thor ET-One uses cylindrical lithium-ion battery cells capable of rapid charging, giving the truck a 300-mile range. Thor says the battery pack can be easily replaced to take advantage of new battery technologies as they become available.

The company, which calls itself a “transportation lab,” is now offering fleet owners a chance to get in on a limited number of private demonstrations of the ET-One. Production is scheduled to begin in 2019 and the firm is already accepting pre-orders. Sale prices will range from US$150,000 to US$200,000, depending on the model.

The new breed of electric trucks has generally been given a top-to-bottom redesign, as this interior view of a Thor truck demonstrates.
photo: Thor

With Elon Musk already taking the surname of the famous electrical inventor Nikola Tesla for his company, another firm has taken what’s left and branded their truck with that inventor’s first name, Nikola.

Nikola Motor Company trucks use 800-volt electric drive motors and rely on compressed hydrogen fuel cells to keep the 240- to 320-kilowatt-hour battery packs charged. Two models, the Nikola One and Nikola Two, are on offer, and the specs are impressive, with 1,000 horsepower and 2, To make refuelling stops possible, the firm is planning to open a network of hydrogen refuelling stations across North America to support future truck fleets. And it, too, is already taking orders for production trucks, which it plans to start delivering in 2020.

Nikola plans to have two truck models on the market, with first deliveries expected in 2020.
photo: Nikola

Daimler, the parent company of the better-known Freightliner brand, has created a spin-off organization called E-Mobility Group to consolidate all its electric truck R&D under one roof. The company’s Fuso brand has already released the eTruck with a 26,000-kilogram GVW. Now, it’s getting ready to launch an electric version of the popular and long-running Freightliner Cascadia model, which will be built on the same chassis as the diesel version. It will be paired with an all-electric medium-duty model called the eM2 106

The eCascadia will get a range of 250 miles (400 kilometres) and an effective power peak output of over 700 horsepower. A corporate description says the truck can be “recharged to 80 per cent in about 90 minutes” to add another 320 kilometres to its range.

The plan is to have about 30 electric Freightliners delivered to fleets by the end of this year for in-field testing.

In August of 2017 Cummins unveiled a “demonstrator” all-electric truck that uses a 140-kWh battery pack as a replacement for a typical Cummins 12-litre diesel. That replacement, claims the company, is equal in weight to the removed engine and fuel tanks, so payload capacity is unchanged.

This truck has a range of about 100 miles, but that can be extended to 300 with an expanded battery pack. The truck can get some recharge from a regenerative braking system, and there is potential for solar panel installation on the roof of the trailer.

Paccar’s Kenworth brand announced in 2017 it was embarking on research into three separate alternative energy models that included battery electric, CNG and hydrogen power. It’s new T680 prototype HCET (Hybrid Electric Cargo Transportation) truck uses lithium-ion batteries to give it an electric-only 30-mile range. The CNG engine can recharge the batteries and extend its range up to 250 miles. It will enter service to do local hauling for the Port of Los Angles and Long Beach late in 2018.

But as all this advancement on the electrification front takes place, those with an interest in diesel power aren’t just taking things lying down. Responding to discussions at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco in September, Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, a lobby group whose members include AGCO, General Motors, Cummins and Bosch to name a few, had this to say:

“The diversity of economic and energy needs around the world is substantial. While the summit has focused on options like ‘electrifying everything’ or switching to alternative forms of energy, many such approaches are aspirational or far outside the practical consideration for many cities and countries.

“We should all embrace innovation and opportunity in every form, and at the same time not lose sight of technologies that deliver climate progress today on a wide scale. Making progress on global climate commitments requires a mix of proven and existing technologies working alongside new technologies. Among these must be the new generation of diesel power.”

For most applications diesel still has the edge. That much is clear, but as technology advances and needs change, it’s hard to say how long this will remain true. With virtually every manufacturer exploring energy alternatives, it looks more and more obvious that diesel’s reign as king of the heavy machinery world is under threat.

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