This time, Elon Musk is not alone.
In mid-December, Daimler delivered its first 14 Fuso eCanter electric delivery trucks to customers in Germany, a reminder that while Tesla caught car companies flat-footed in 2012, incumbent truck makers are already preparing their countermeasures.
In Daimler’s case, these weren’t even the eCanter’s first deliveries. Customer trials with prototype vehicles began in 2014, and Japanese production began in July for convenience store chain 7-11 (headquartered in Tokyo), which is deploying 25 eCanters.
The trucks, some of which were also delivered to UPS in September, have an 82.8-kilowatt-hour battery and a payload of 3.5 tons. Daimler plans to increase production as lower-cost, longer-range batteries become available in 2019.
Though delivery trucks and Class 8 tractor-trailers don’t compete directly with the larger, heavier Tesla Semi, the timeline coincides with that vehicle's planned premiere.
Despite its 300-kwh battery, Daimler’s larger E-Fuso Vision One prototype won’t compete head-on with the Tesla Semi either.
E-Fuso Vision One concept
Demonstrating the challenge battery weight may pose for over-the-road trucking, the Vision One’s payload is 2 tons less than that of a comparable diesel-powered Class 7 truck: It’s rated to haul 11 tons (22,000 pounds) of goods up to 220 miles.
Also from Daimler came the Mercedes-Benz Electric Truck concept unveiled this summer, featuring a dual-display cabin. The prototype offers a range of 125 miles from 212 kwh of batteries.
The company's Freightliner division, it should be noted, has a commanding 37-percent share of the Class 8 (semi truck) market in the United States.
Expected future EU regulations allowing higher permissible gross weights for alternative-fuel vehicles would effectively shrink the Mercedes e-truck’s weight penalty to1,500 pounds.
A commercial version with more battery capacity may well be launched as the Tesla Semi’s debut approaches.
Other major truck makers in North America
The other major players in the North American trucking market have not yet shown electric Class 8 trucks, but some have chosen to focus first on smaller vehicles, perhaps reflecting available battery options.
Navistar International and Volkswagen have announced a collaboration on a medium-duty electric truck—a likely competitor for the E-Fuso Vision One—to arrive in 2019.
Toyota 'Project Portal' proof-of-concept hydrogen fuel-cell powered semi tractor, for Port of LA
Mack (a division of Volvo) and Peterbilt have displayed refuse-truck concepts to gain electrification experience from small numbers of trucks with hard urban and suburban duty cycles.
Kenworth appears to have taken a diversified approach, partnering on a plug-in hybrid battery / microturbine Class 7 truck and a fuel cell-powered Class 8 drayage (short-haul) truck at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
Toyota’s "Project Portal" fuel-cell powered Class 8 truck happens to use a Kenworth chassis, but there does not appear to be any coordination between the companies. (The Toyota family of companies already includes the truck brand Hino.)
For its part, engine specialist Cummins showed its electric “AEOS” concept in late summer, a Class 7 truck offering 100 miles of range from a 140-kwh battery.
The company recently acquired Brammo, best known for its electric motorcycles, presumably to bolster its own internal battery expertise.
Tesla Semi: a weighty take
Much has been speculated about the size and weight of the Tesla Semi battery packs, with many observers skeptical that Tesla can deliver the promised range without sacrificing payload capacity.
A 2012 Tesla Model S 85-kwh pack using “18650” cylindrical cells reportedly weighed 600 kg (1323 lb), or 7.1 kg/kwh. Today, a 2017 Tesla Model 3 80-kwh battery pack using the newer “2170” format weighs 480 kg (1058 lb), or 6.0 kg/kWh.
The five-year lag produced roughly a 15-percent improvement in pack power density by weight, a reminder that while battery cells continue to improve quickly, they only represent a portion of the total weight of a battery pack.
A diesel semi engine and drivetrain together weigh on the order of 5,000 lbs, or 2,300 kg.
Tesla is targeting energy consumption of less than 2 kwh/mile, but will need to provide additional batteries in the event of cold-weather operation or loss of battery capacity over time.
Tesla Model S battery pack teardown: frame from YouTube video by JehuGarcia, Feb 2017
More improvement needed
If Tesla provides 2 kwh of batteries per mile of range, it would need a 600-kwh battery to provide 300 miles of range and a 1,000-kwh battery for 500 miles.
To achieve weight equivalence with a diesel tractor, Tesla’s 300-mile Semi would need a pack energy density of roughly 3.8 kg/kWh. (2,300 kg / 600 kWh)—which would represent a 36-percent improvement over the Model 3 battery pack.
The 500-mile Semi would require a battery pack energy density of roughly 2.3 kg/Wkh (2,300 kg / 1,000 kWh) which represents a 62 percent improvement.
These calculations do not include the weight of the electric motors or drivetrain, so could be underestimates of the energy densities Tesla would require to achieve weight parity.
One mitigating factor is that most freight “cubes out” (runs out of container space) before reaching its government vehicle weight limits, so exact weight parity may not be necessary for e-trucks to succeed.
A second factor is that regulators in some jurisdictions may be willing to increase allowable weights for alternative-fuel vehicles, as discussed for the Mercedes Benz Electric Truck section above.
BYD and Wayne Engineering electric garbage truck
BYD (a la BMW): We don't Twitter, we deliver
In the e-truck sector, the Chinese company BYD echoes the phrasing of a BMW tweet from the Los Angeles auto show this past November.
Best known for its electric buses, of which it sold almost 15,000 worldwide last year, BYD is a behemoth battery cell producer that also happens to be backed by famed financier Warren Buffett.
It already sells a line of electric trucks in the United States, though volumes are presently low—the American division expects to ship 70 e-trucks by year’s end. Still, the company has a head start over incumbents similar to the lead Tesla has enjoyed with luxury e-cars.
For now, BYD assembles its e-trucks in its bus manufacturing plant in Lancaster, California. It announced an electric truck factory in Ontario, Canada, in support of an agreement to supply e-trucks to leading Canadian retailer Loblaws—which will also test 25 Semis from Tesla.
BYD’s Class 8 truck brochure lists a 92-mile range from a 188-kwh lithium-iron-phosphate battery. That specification dates to August 2016, so a longer-range successor seems likely to be offered by 2019.
Nikola Motor: cheap electricity, meet free fuel
Tesla’s most Tesla-esque challenger in the trucking space is Nikola Motor, which plans bring its fuel cell-powered Class 8 truck to market in … 2019.
Unveiled almost a year before the Tesla Semi, the Nikola One—to which the Semi bears a striking resemblance, owing to both companies’ emphasis on aerodynamics—pairs a 320-kwh battery with a 300-kilowatt range-extending hydrogen fuel cell.
Before Tesla announced its million-mile warranty and roughly one-sixth reduction in cost-per-mile, Nikola had promised a million miles of free fuel and half the operating cost of diesel.
More importantly, while the Tesla Semis may struggle to come down to the weight of a Class 8 long-haul diesel rig, Nikola claims its fuel-cell tractor will have a weight advantage over diesels at roughly 2,000 lb lighter.
This is plausible, as Toyota’s fuel-cell drayage truck is comparable in weight to a diesel, without any efforts made at lightweighting.
Chanje V8070 Class 5 electric delivery van, Brooklyn, NY, Nov 2017
Perhaps most importantly, Nikola has partnered with transportation titan Ryder, which will provide nationwide sales, service and warranty coverage. Ryder serves in this capacity for other startups, including Chanje and and Workhorse, as well.
Nikola has also contracted with established assembler Fitzgerald Glider Kits to manufacture its first 5,000 units, perhaps learning from Tesla’s “production hell”.
Most recently, commercial transportation titan WABCO invested $10 million for a 1-percent stake in Nikola Motor
These established players together may help to mitigate concerns large firms may have about signing on with an unproven startup.
Nikola One electric semi truck
These factors have allowed Nikola to log reservations for 8,000 trucks to date. CEO Trevor Milton has also robustly claimed that “[o]ne of the largest, most well-known brands in America will be moving all their freight with our trucks.”
The Tesla Semi, meanwhile, is known to have several hundred reservations, possibly more than 1,000.
As for Nikola’s mystery client, two companies are rapidly deploying hydrogen infrastructure at their distribution centres, and Amazon and Wal-Mart both hold stakes in fuel cell forklift vendor Plug Power.
With on-site hydrogen infrastructure already paid for by the fuel cell forklifts’ productivity savings, expanding that infrastructure to accommodate truck refueling could be faster and cheaper than building on-site megawatt-scale charging arrays.
Such arrays seem likely to require inclusion of large-scale battery energy storage units to minimize demand charges from local utilities.
Prototype plug-in electric delivery van with fuel-cell range extender to be tested by UPS in 2017
S-curve, meet step function?
However much electrification disrupts the trucking landscape, the metamorphosis will take place at a pace far faster than for passenger vehicles.
This is because trucking services are essentially a commodity; cost is an overriding priority, so when a superior technology arrives, the market can shift en masse.
Zero-emission trucks could go from 0 to 100 percent market share in a relatively short period of time—perhaps a decade or two—especially in areas where diesel will be heavily taxed for its carbon content.
The S-curve of technology adoption could well be steep enough, from a long-term perspective, to resemble a step function.
The disruptive innovations outlined in Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma applied to commodity products.
As a consumer market subject to the whims and vagaries of people’s preferences and peccadilloes, passenger vehicles seem likely to take much longer to transition to zero-emission options.
2018 Chevrolet Bolt EV
It remains true that in 2017, very few car buyers flocked to buy a Nissan Leaf or Chevy Bolt EV for reasons of lower total cost of ownership, just as relatively few Japanese car buyers purchased the then-debuting Toyota Prius in December 1997.
Twenty years on, hybrids still only account for about 15 percent of Toyota’s worldwide sales, and only about 2 percent of global vehicle sales.
The possibility of a “step function” market shift makes the trucking sector a better barometer for the advance of zero-emission transportation than the larger, more heterogeneous, less predictable consumer car market.
With Tesla now lending its aspirational, luxury-vehicle halo to the industry, it would be ironic if the company's disruptive ethos took root far faster in the highly competitive, commoditized market for commercial trucks than in cars.