Taking a quick spin with Daimler’s electric trucks

Jim Park
Daimler’s Innovation Fleet includes the eM2 106 chassis, an eCascadia Class 8 tractor, a Thomas Built electric school bus, and a Fuso eCanter Class 4 delivery truck.

LAS VEGAS, Nev. — As trade journalists, we are exposed early to emerging technologies. In the case of battery electric vehicles, we have been writing about them for close to five years now. My first BEV test drive was in 2015, and I have driven about a dozen since then. Except for three of them, most of those trucks were “proof of concept” vehicles, that is, someone bolted a bunch electric stuff onto an existing diesel truck chassis to show it can be done.

They succeeded in generating enough of a buzz and the twinkle of possibility to move the concept forward, but it’s sobering to think how far off these things really are for the folks who will eventually use them. It will still be at a least two years before medium- and heavy-duty (Class 6, 7 and 8) battery-electric trucks are available for fleet consumption.

At the risk of over-simplifying things, making light-duty electric trucks work in the real world is fairly easy. Battery capacity and weight are the big limiting factors in any electric vehicle, but weight isn’t a huge concern with courier trucks, last-mile delivery applications, or even transit and school buses. Range is commensurate battery capacity (size and weight), and since these vehicles generally run less than 150 km per day and have plenty of regenerative-braking charging opportunities or short duty cycles (school and transit buses), the battery size and weight can be limited. That’s not the case with heavier classes of truck.

Daimler Trucks is just now inviting fleets to the table for serious discussions and in-fleet testing of these trucks. It’s not that Daimler is late to the game, it’s that the company has been evaluating which technologies are best suited to the market and have a real chance of succeeding. There is a lot more to medium and heavy battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) than simply replacing the diesel powertrain with a bunch of electric stuff.

It should be noted that Volvo Trucks announced last year that it would have a medium-duty electric truck, the FE, available to European consumers sometime in 2019. There are also plans to bring a VNR Electric to North America by 2020. Meanwhile, Volov will also begin testing battery-powered refuse trucks and short-haul Class 8 tractors sometime this year.

On this iteration of the eM2, the motor was mounted a few feet forward of the drive axle. It uses a convention differential gear, but future generations of the truck could feature a motor mounted directly to or within the axle.

Peterbilt has already begun fleet tests with a refuse truck, the Model 520EV, and a short-haul Class 8 tractor, the Model 579EV. The company also just unveiled its entrant to the battery-powered medium-duty market, the Model 220EV. It’s slated to go into fleet tests this summer.

Mack says it will have a battery version of the LR refuse chassis in customer tests in 2019, and International has pledged to bring a medium-duty BEV to the game sometime this year, but we haven’t seen anything from them yet.

Just before the Consumer Electronics Show opened in Las Vegas in January, Daimler Trucks introduced its Innovation Fleet of four battery electric vehicles. The fleet includes an M2 106 chassis with an electric powertrain, called the eM2. There’s an eCascadia Class 8 tractor, a Thomas Built electric school bus and a Fuso eCanter Class 4 delivery truck. The eCantor was launched last summer by Fuso (owned by Daimler) in New York City and already dozens of them are in service around the U.S.

The introduction of the Innovation Fleet was accompanied by a frank discussion of the hurdles still to be overcome before wide-scale adoption and scaled-up production begins. Challenges range from the cost and weight of the batteries to the appropriate location of the charging plug and what the residual might look like on a five-year-old electric truck.

Andreas Jurtzka, e-mobility lead for Daimler Trucks North America, says the OEM must know what the customers’ business is in order to design an appropriate powertrain, while considering range and payload — and of course the weight and cost of the batteries.

To illustrate the point, Daimler had an eM2 at CES and Peterbilt had just unveiled its Model 220EV. According to the spec’s for both trucks provided by the companies, the battery capacity on the eM2 is more than twice that of the 220EV — 325 kWh compared to 148 kWh. That doesn’t mean one truck is better than the other, it only implies that the two trucks probably have different target applications.

Having double the battery capacity suggests the eM2 will be heavier and more expensive than the 220EV. It will have a longer range, but it may suffer from payload limitations as a result of the heavier battery pack. For the pickup and delivery applications with the eM2, Daimler is looking at a range of 370 km, while the spec’s provided by Peterbilt indicate they are looking at 160-km range.

And the final consideration is price. Neither Peterbilt nor Daimler talked about price, but both acknowledged that they will be expensive. There are all kinds of subsidies available in the U.S for BEVs, but few in Canada, and without some hard numbers to compare, it’s impossible to determine the return on investment.

So, all that to say, when we do test drive evaluations on electric trucks, we look at them differently than we do diesels. We have a pretty good idea what to expect from an M2 106 chassis with respect to visibility, ride quality and maneuverability. None of that changed with the electric version. We also know from past experience with electric motors that they are very torquey, giving drivers a quick launch. But Daimler had two eM2 chassis in Las Vegas that day, and there were differences.

The eM2 is a promising configuration for Class 6 and 7 delivery trucks. The desired range and payload capacity are highly dependent on battery weight, and of course, cost.

One was the actual truck delivered to Penske in late December, the other was a prototype with which Daimler has been doing some internal testing. The Penske truck reportedly had three battery packs while the stock truck had just one.

Performance between the two was noticeably different, but without knowing the technical differences and being unable to factor in cost and weight, it wouldn’t be fair to say the Penske truck was a better choice than the stock truck. Performance was more than adequate on both trucks, acceleration was good, regen braking performance was akin to Level 1 or 2 with a diesel engine brake, and of course both trucks were dead quiet.

The eCascadia in town for the event was fully loaded, and very close to an 80,000-pound gross vehicle weighta. It had  battery capacity of 550 kWh and peak output of 730 kW (978 hp). The projected range for the truck was 400 km. It too was quiet and quick, and felt very light under foot for a fully loaded five-axle vehicle. Its electric motors clearly outperformed the diesel engines I was used to during a launch and the acceleration phase. As Cascadias go, the electric version was no different from the diesel except, of course, for the near silence in the cab.

Peterbilt did not have a 220EV available for test drives.

Daimler and the other OEMs have a lot of evaluation and validation work ahead of them, but it looks like battery electric trucks will be on the market soon. Just don’t expect to see one in every fleet in town. They will shine in certain application but current technology will limit the markets they can serve successfully at a reasonable return for the fleets.

Read more about the Year of the Electric Truck


Jim Park

Jim Park was a CDL driver and owner-operator from 1978 until 1998, when he began his second career as a trucking journalist. During that career transition, he hosted an overnight radio show on a Hamilton, Ontario radio station and later went on to anchor the trucking news in SiriusXM's Road Dog Trucking channel. Jim is a regular contributor to Today's Trucking and Trucknews.com, and produces Focus On and On the Spot test drive videos.

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