Self-driving Electric Trucks? Sounds Like a Plan

Charge Electric Truck

“We find trucks today totally unacceptable. Loud, pollutive, and unfriendly. This has to change.” Strong words from Denis Sverdlov, CEO of Charge, a company that is planning to do something about it. While we rely on big rigs to deliver just about everything we use every day they are loud, they smell, and worse yet they average about 40 L/100 km on the highway. But what’s the alternative, when propane and compressed natural gas powered trucks aren’t significantly better? Electric trucks, of course. So why aren’t we using electric trucks already?

Going electric on the open road has problems. Existing prototypes require massive batteries and have disappointing ranges. That means that for now, electric trucks only work in town. Which is perfect! That’s where big trucks perform worst anyway. Sitting and idling in traffic, idling while loading and unloading, constant stop-start at traffic lights. All of that can bring fuel economy down even more, to 57.5 L/100 km or worse. That’s less than 2 km per litre, and don’t forget the noise and smell if you’re beside one or trying to enjoy a meal on a sidewalk patio downtown.

Mercedes has a prototype truck that adds a 212 kWh battery (three times the size of a Tesla Model S P85’s pack) to get a 200 km range, and a company called Wrightspeed has developed a system that uses a smaller battery and adds a complicated diesel turbine to keep a truck charged. Volvo has a system where the truck gets electric power from the road, like a streetcar. But those are expensive solutions tacked on to existing truck designs. Even if some, like the beer-delivering Otto truck, are impressive.

Without massive diesels, massive batteries, huge quantities of fuel, and the frames needed to handle the weight and power, you can redesign the whole truck. Without having to electrify every road in town.

Charge Formula E

That’s what Charge is doing. The British truck-maker is starting from a clean sheet, using lightweight materials and simplified construction to help make electric delivery trucks a reality. A more efficient, better-designed truck can haul the same cargo and get more range from less electricity. Charge says that their new design and production methods mean that one person can assemble an entire truck in just four hours. The company claims an electric range of 160 km, then adds a small range-extender engine to boost the range up to 800 km. They say that thanks to the design and electric power, operating costs are reduced more than 50 percent compared with conventional trucks and that pricing should be in line with existing trucks as well. There will be a range of trucks ranging from box-style delivery vans to 26 tonne straight trucks.

The company is closely linked with the autonomous racing series Roborace (Sverdlov is in charge of both), and the trucks will be designed for full self-driving once that step passes legal hurdles. The connection between delivery truck and race car is a natural one since a green light in Toronto or Montreal traffic and the first turn of a Formula 1 race are pretty much the same things. They can also share electric motor and battery pack development. Charge is also the official electric truck of Formula E, and their prototype has been parading around Formula E cars and drivers all season.

The first factory is scheduled to open in 2017, in Oxfordshire. Production should start soon after.

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Evan Williams

Evan Williams

Evan is based in Halifax, and has been a car nut for as long as anyone can remember. He autocrosses, does lapping days and TSD rallies, breaks cars and then fixes them again.