When upfitting electric work trucks, don’t just drill baby drill

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If there’s one common warning for upfitters working on battery-electric vehicles it’s this: Don’t just drill baby drill. The unfamiliar wiring tucked underneath could be dangerous.

“We have no-drill zones,” explained Adrian Steel chief engineer George Bernwanger, referring to the need for upfitters to train employees about the nuances of zero-emission vehicle designs. SAE programs that focus on high-voltage systems can help.

upfitting panel discussion at Green Truck Summit
There was a common theme of “safety first” during a panel discussion guiding those who work on electric vehicles. (Photo: John G. Smith)

“Safety is the most important thing,” he said, offering the guidance during a panel discussion at the Green Truck Summit in Indianapolis.

“Disabling a system also doesn’t disable a battery,” he warned. “The battery’s still powered [at that point], so you have to be careful.”

There is admittedly a lot of technical information available to those who work on electrified trucks and vans. But the volume of content can be overwhelming, Bernwanger said. “The quantities are quite large.” Documents can run hundreds of pages deep.

That can slow down a project if you don’t know what to look for. Only weeks ago Bernwanger found himself fielding a call about an electric van that couldn’t be pulled off a flatbed because the battery was dead. It sounds like a simple issue, but nobody had the procedure for a jump start. If the information had been in hand before the van arrived, the delays would have been avoided.

It would be more helpful if information came with quick links organized by individual audiences, he suggested.

Ray Eyles, chief nameplate engineer on the Ford Transit and eTransit platforms, said about half of the body equipment mounting manual for the eTransit is new. That said, efforts have been made to ensure some commonality with the van’s combustion-powered counterparts. Attachment points in the Transit and eTransit are unchanged, he said.

But as an added not of caution, he recommended using drill stops to ensure there’s no worry about drilling too deep.

Beyond the safety requirements, Eyles noted that upfitters will need access to charging stations to ensure that vehicles are delivered to end users with an acceptable state of charge.

In other cases, common processes might need to evolve. Shops that weld equipment offline, with plans to incorporate full assemblies, can run into challenges with heavy weights. A battery pack can weigh 1,000 lb., he explained. And unlike a traditional fuel tank, there’s no opportunity to drain a fluid in the name of lightening the load.

Issues will also evolve, as well.

Will electric reefers continue to run on 400-volt power, or will that increase to 800 volts, he asked, wondering what the final standards will become. “We’re in an era where the pace of change is very fast.”

“It’s really early for upfitters, and especially those that need to power a piece of hydraulic equipment,” said Mike Moore, Altec’s principal engineering manager. That means they’ll need to familiarize themselves with new space constraints that can affect outriggers, body compartments, and the underlying hydraulic hoses and cabling runs.

He suggested it would be helpful to ask OEMs to offer walkaround reviews on the trucks, so teams become more comfortable with the equipment. In some cases, selected tasks may also need to be left in the hands of the OEMs themselves.

“Traditionally we may have drilled the frame ourselves,” Moore said of past practices. “It is going to be a lot tougher.”

Evolving and expanding applications

Box trucks and refrigerated bodies have been identified as the prime applications for many electric work trucks, said Alexander Voets, eMobility product marketing and sales strategy manager at Daimler Trucks North America. But he also sees opportunities for equipment such as aerial cranes.

“They don’t drive a lot, but they are sitting in one spot for a number of hours potentially, working on something, and they usually come back to base as well. So it’s a very good use case,” he said.

No matter what the truck will ultimately be used for, the placement of any related components will be vital. Batteries are shifting the center of gravity toward the back of electric work trucks, he said as an example.

Lessons about where everything fits will take time, too. Just keep in mind that diesel-powered vehicles were optimized over decades, he said. And there will be a mix of diesel- and electric-powered trucks for a while yet.

“It will be a transition for quite some time to come because we’re going to see both technologies for a number of years.”

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John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking, trucknews.com, TruckTech, Transport Routier, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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