On Thursday, Elon Musk will unveil Tesla's latest creation: a semi truck. Not as sexy as an affordable electric car, perhaps, but an electric truck will have more impact on Musk's larger mission, which is to make the world's transportation infrastructure more sustainable.
It sounds ludicrous at first. Tesla may have done a good job proving that electric cars can be fast and fun, but even the longest-range car runs out of juice after 315 miles. And unlike a sleek Model S, trucks are as aerodynamic as the side of a house, they have to haul heavy loads, and drivers who are paid to cross the country as quickly as possible won’t be thrilled at the idea of long charging stops.
But heavy haulers with electric locomotion have a lot of advantages over dirty diesel trucks, which consume fossil fuel and pump out CO2 (which is bad for global warming) and generate particulates and nitrogen oxides (which are bad for people). Electric trucks are simply much cleaner.
They might be funner too: Electric motors are actually ideal for big rigs, because they produce gobs of torque instantly, meaning a trucker would find an electric 18-wheeler zippy and smooth—no mashing through 10 or more gears to get up to speed like in a conventional truck.
That range thing is still an issue though. Elon may be big on batteries, but they are bulky and heavy, so carrying enough to give a truck decent range robs it of cargo carrying capability. Tesla's superchargers can top up a car in 40 minutes, but increase the size of the battery, and you increase the charging time, even if you install super-duper chargers.
Whatever Musk’s solution is, the truck world isn't waiting to roll out electric truck designs of their own. Some are pure electrics for local deliveries to cut city pollution, some use hydrogen fuel cells, others crack the long distance issue with cables over the freeway that deliver electricity on the move. “You have different possibilities to feed the electric motor, from overhead contact lines, to inductive charging, to batteries, but the future is electric drive, definitely,” says Andreas Thon, vice president for electrification at Siemens. He’s running a trial on a congested section of street near the Ports of LA and Long Beach, in Southern California. In conjunction with the South Coast Air Quality Management District, Siemens has strung overhead cables above a one-mile section of highway, and they’re nearing the end of a six month trial involving three trucks that are adapted with overhead pantographs, like a street car, to grab power from the cables.
So far, Thon says, the results have been positive. Similar trials in Germany and Sweden have also gone well, and Siemens is hoping to propose a longer test route on the 710 freeway, which is wall-to-wall with trucks from those Californian ports to inland distribution centers.
Overhead power makes sense on such truck-heavy roads, but building a web of cables over every freeway isn't practical. Hydrogen fuel cells might be though. Once heralded as the ideal solution to range anxiety in electric cars, the cells can be refueled as easily as a gas car with liquid H2, which a fuel cell then combines with oxygen from the air to make electricity and water (the only thing that drips out of the tailpipe). And the infrastructure issue might be surmountable: The idea of building a network of hydrogen fueling stations has limited their appeal, but building a string of H2 fuel stations at truck stops would be an easier sell than trying to make them as ubiquitous as gas stations. Indeed, Nikola One, an 18-wheeler from a Tesla-inspired startup, promises 1,200 miles of range from its hydrogen fuel tank. That’s going to be tough for any battery to beat.
Fuel cells would work for short-range routes as well: Toyota is currently running Project Portal, a shiny, hydrogen-powered, 18-wheeler, around the Port of Los Angeles. It only has a range of 200 miles, but that's fine if the truck is just shuttling freight around inside the port. "We can build just one or two big refueling stations that everyone can use," said Toyota engineer, Tak Yokoo, in April when the tests started.
And then there's the jet-inspired trucks. A Tesla co-founder, Ian Wright, who left the company early on, is building a turbine-powered garbage truck to eliminate the obnoxious diesel grumble and noxious black fumes that follow these necessary evils through the streets. Wrightspeed's machine has a battery, but when that runs out, the truck switches to a turbine to generate electricity to power the motors, like a souped up Chevrolet Volt. Although the turbine runs on fuel, as a hybrid, the truck is more efficient than a conventional engine. It sounds weird, but the drivetrains are already on the roads in a FedeEx trial.
Delivery vans are getting an electric makeover too. Chanje, a California startup, is building an all-electric panel van for everyone from florists to donut shops to make their in-town deliveries. Its 100-mile range is plenty for city routes, and it's surprisingly sprightly to drive. And UPS is planning to convert half of its New York City fleet to run on electricity by 2022.
Whichever strategy (or strategies) prevail, it's clear that the big truck builders like Volvo, Scania, and Transpower (they're involved in the Siemens electrification trials) are as optimistic about electrification as startups are. Tesla already has a lot on its plate, dealing with Model 3 “production hell,” but whatever Elon Musk unveils on Thursday, and however successful it is, electric trucks of all sizes, with all their benefits, are already hitting the streets.
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