A little more than three years ago, Marc Bédard was invited to deliver a keynote speech on whether the electrification of heavy trucks was possible. This year, the same organization invited him back to discuss how profitable an electric truck could be.
“There’s no more concern about the feasibility of electric trucks. Now the focus is on the business aspect,” says the president of Lion Electric Co., which recently unveiled the prototype for a Class 8 truck known as the Lion 8.
Early interest in the underlying business case has attracted orders from none other than CN. Now he’s competing head to head for a share of the emerging electric vehicle market coveted by established and emerging original equipment manufacturers alike.
The manufacturer based in St-Jérôme, Qué. — with branches in California and New York State — was founded in 2008, shortly after Bédard left his role as a merger and acquisitions specialist at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).
It originally focused on building electric school buses. But the idea of creating electric trucks aimed at local and regional applications was inspired by suggestions from truck fleet managers who saw those buses in action.
Bédard says he wants to provide the market with efficient, ready-to-work electric trucks that “don’t look like flying saucers.“
“Bringing up new and innovative technologies doesn’t mean going overboard. We try to keep customers in their comfort zone. We call it controlled innovation,” he says.
Switching from diesel to electric power is already a big enough leap for many trucking professionals without shaking up their entire vision of what road transportation is and should be, Bédard adds.
Something as simple as the steering wheel location in Lion trucks is the result of extensive consultations, looking at factors such as whether it made sense to move the wheel to the center of the cab.
“They’re used to driving on the left and want to keep it that way,” he says, referring to the types of insights that emerged through a survey of more than 500 drivers. Familiar work environments could even play a role in helping to retain drivers, he suggests.
Bédard and his 150-member team – including 70 engineers – want to apply the same principle when it comes to meeting the needs of technicians. Conventional components will be used in Lion’s electric trucks wherever possible. Against the backdrop of emerging technologies like the battery packs, the Dana axles and antilock braking systems might seem familiar, even comforting.
While he’s a chartered accountant by trade, Bédard is an amateur mechanic himself. “When I was younger, I used to dismantle and reassemble motorcycles. That’s how I learned. I always loved engineering and new technologies,” he says. “I’m more the manufacturing type than cufflinks and office on the 35th floor.”
He likes to interact with products that roll off the Lion assembly line.
Bédard’s interest in electric vehicles even extends to his personal car. He likes the feel of that driving experience, and the retarding forces that kick in when he releases the throttle. And he knows that such forces in an electric vehicle also deliver maintenance-related benefits, such as a longer lifespan for foundation brakes.
Lion’s electric trucks promise to do that very thing.
“The brakes last three times longer on an electric truck. The brake lights turn on the moment you release the acceleration pedal. Otherwise, you could get rear-ended,” he says.
Bedard also believes many components could last longer on a truck that’s purpose-built to be electric, rather than coming in the form of a retrofitted platform that normally runs on diesel power. Suspensions or tires, for example, could benefit from the optimized weight distribution that flexible motor and battery locations allow.
But some habits die hard in the trucking industry, and Bédard finds himself sharing a challenge that’s also faced by conventional truck makers when it comes to spec’ing powertrain components.
Customers who tend to pick an oversized diesel engine on a conventional truck are the same ones who are tempted to stack too many costly and payload-restricting battery packs on an electric vehicle, he says.
“You don’t rent a five-bedroom apartment when you need only three.”
Then there are the questions about how the vehicle batteries will work in a Canadian climate. According to Lion’s president, extreme heat is more of a challenge in terms of battery management.
“Electric power doesn’t fear cold. In fact, cold helps save batteries’ life,” Bédard says. He claims that correctly plugged-in battery packs will never fail to start a well-designed electric truck, no matter how cold it is outside.
What really drains a battery’s power is the energy used to heat a cab, he says. That’s why Lion suggests using small auxiliary diesel heaters to heat cabs during winter months. “The solution works just fine on our electric school buses that have 40-feet long cabs.”
His success will involve challenging misconceptions, and keeping an eye on future opportunities. Electric longhaul trucks are likely still five years away, Bédard says, but heavy electric trucks of other sorts will be road-ready before that.
Lion plans to make sure of it.
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