Electric avenues: where are they leading?

A Daimler press conference in Berlin last month could easily be dismissed as just another of those so-what news stories.

OK, so a handful of big German fleet operators have taken delivery of a tiny number of 7.5-tonnes-GVW trucks with an all-electric driveline instead of a diesel engine. And yes, the Fuso eCanter is indeed as claimed, the first all-electric truck in “series production” (not simply another prototype or concept vehicle, in other words) in Europe.

But this latest Canter is, in essence, not much different from the E-Cell battery-powered model first unveiled in Germany way back at the 2010 Hannover commercial vehicles show. That truck was, in turn, a development of the Eco Hybrid (diesel/electric) Canter which first started trials with UK fleets as far back as 2006.

The global launch of the production version of the latest eCanter came last September in New York City, followed soon afterwards by more fanfare at the October 2017 Tokyo motor show where the Daimler group announced plans to electrify its entire Fuso division over an unspecified number of years.

So is there really much more to the Berlin shindig than a quartet of the most environmentally-aware German fleet operators (DHL, DB Schenker, Rhenus Home Delivery and Dachser) finally taking delivery of a truck which has been under development one way or another for decades?

Marc Llistosella, Daimler
Marc Llistosella, outgoing head of Daimler Trucks Asia

Well yes there is actually, though some of the real significance began to emerge only after the event.

The Berlin presentation by Mitsubishi Fuso Truck and Bus Corporation (89% owned by Daimler, with all remaining shares owned by various Mitsubishi group companies) turns out to be the final one with Marc Llistosella at the company’s helm.

Llistosella, a 50-year-old Daimler group high-flyer, has surprised many observers by resigning as head of Daimler Trucks Asia (encompassing Fuso as well as Daimler India).

He is to leave the group entirely by the end of March, “to pursue new career challenges”, according to a Daimler statement. His successor as boss of the Asia division is Hartmut Schick, head of Daimler Buses for the past nine years.

Llistosella is a passionate and eloquent advocate of electrification of truck drivelines. Though nobody is suggesting that his departure from Daimler could signal any radical change of direction there, speculation is rife that he could be about to join one of its up and coming rivals in electric truck development.

Electric trucks gathering pace

The much-hyped, battery-powered US Class Eight tractor from Elon Musk’s ambitious electric car-making operation, Tesla, was unveiled last October.

Arguably of far more significance in the real world of truck operation is an announcement from Wabco, a leading global supplier of truck braking systems and various electronic control equipment, that came less than a week after the eCanter presentation in Berlin.

Wabco has spent about US$10 million (£7.4 million) acquiring shares in Nikola Motor Company, a Utah-based truck maker set up only four years ago and focused exclusively on hydrogen/electric heavy trucks.

Wabco now has about a 1% Nikola shareholding and has agreed to work closely with the truck maker on accelerating development of safety-related technologies, including electronic braking systems, specifically for electric commercial vehicles.

In his December Berlin presentation and during the subsequent question-and-answer session, Llistosella made no secret of how acutely aware he is of the speed at which Chinese automotive giants are developing electric and autonomous vehicle technology.

Most buses in operation now in China are electrically powered, he points out, and there are plans for the country to have no fewer than 4.5 million electric vehicle fast-charging stations up and running within the next three years.

WABCO Nikola Truck
WABCO Nikola Two

Geely moves on Volvo Trucks

Anyone who doubted that such developments in China could soon have a huge knock-on effect on European truck manufacturers and truck operators were disabused of the notion only two weeks after the Berlin event.

That was when news broke that China’s Geely Holdings (owner of Volvo Cars and London Taxi Company) has bought an 8.2% shareholding in AB Volvo (manufacturer of Volvo Trucks, Volvo Buses, construction equipment and marine engines), worth around US$3.3 billion (£2.4 billion) at current market prices. Geely is now the biggest single AB Volvo shareholder.

Intriguingly, AB Volvo itself owns 45% of Dongfeng, one of China’s biggest truck makers. Though Geely is reported to have no plans to bring Volvo Cars and Volvo Trucks back together again, it has surely not escaped AB Volvo’s top brass that Volvo Cars is committed to switching entirely from petrol and diesel engines to electric drivelines in the near future. And Volvo Cars boss Håkan Samuelsson is no stranger to the commercial vehicle world; he is a former Scania research and development chief who subsequently headed MAN for several years.

All in all, then, the formal handover last month of the first Fuso eCanters to European truck fleets may go down in history almost accidentally as a turning point in European truck electrification.

Fuso eCanter shows the pros and cons of electrification

There is certainly nothing revolutionary about the latest eCanter specification. The diesel engine is replaced by a lithium-ion battery pack and 129kW electric motor driving through a single-ratio gearbox to the rear drive axle.

As with all electric vehicles, torque is impressive. In this case it’s 420Nm, giving the truck ultra-smooth and rapid acceleration. This was underlined by a brief test drive around central Berlin.

Exceptionally low driveline noise compared to even the quietest diesel 7.5-tonner will surely be welcomed by drivers, but there are some evident downsides to this.

One is that sounds which a driver would normally never notice because they are masked by engine noise suddenly come to the fore. On the truck we drove, a fan was cutting in from time to time even though ambient temperature was low, around freezing. A Fuso engineer doubts that the noise came from the battery pack cooling fans and suspects it was the truck’s air-conditioning – a noise that would go unnoticed by a driver of a diesel-engined truck.

Far more serious is the risk posed to other road-users, pedestrians in particular, by a truck emitting none of the usual noises that automatically warn of its presence in built-up areas.

This risk has long been recognised by regulators worldwide and in another sign of how electric commercial vehicle development is gathering pace, the European Parliament has now signed off legislation designed to minimise this risk.

The EU regulation on “acoustic vehicle alerting systems” (AVAS) for vehicles with hybrid and pure-electric drivelines comes into force next year. It spells out precisely what sound-generating systems are required on such vehicles.

On sound type and volume, for example, the regulation specifies: “The sound to be generated by the AVAS shall be a continuous sound that provides information to the pedestrians and other road users of a vehicle in operation.

“The sound shall be easily indicative of vehicle behaviour, for example, through the automatic variation of sound level or characteristics in synchronisation with vehicle speed. The sound shall be similar to the sound of a vehicle of the same category equipped with an internal combustion engine.”

FUSO eCanter charging in New York
FUSO eCanter charging in New York

The next few years will see significant developments

Lars Schroeter, the Daimler engineer based in Tokyo who heads the eCanter development programme, confirms that AVAS is by no means the only innovation we can expect to see on this truck within the next couple of years.

“The eCanter will be continuously upgraded to maximise profitability for our customers and to lead the industry forward,” he says. “The key challenges for us are range extension, payload increase and charging infrastructure.”

Range on a full charge at present is put at “over 100 km”. Battery pack weight is about 600 kg. The aim is to increase that range by 2019 by 20 to 30% and to cut battery weight, according to Schroeter.

A drive axle specifically for the eCanter is now under development in-house at Daimler, he reveals. This will offer greater mechanical efficiency, not least as a result of the electric motor being mounted closer to it.

Even before such developments reach production stage, operators like DHL need little convincing of the benefits of pure electric trucks by comparison with diesel, it seems.

Uwe Brinks is chief executive of DHL Freight. “The use of alternative drivetrains, as in the all-electric eCanter, plays a major role in reaching our corporate goals to reduce all logistics-related emissions to zero by 2050,” he says.

“DHL Freight is firmly committed to playing its part in this. With the help of the eCanter we want to reduce the emissions and local air pollutants of our logistics and so optimise our own CO2 (carbon dioxide) footprint as well as those of our customers.”

 

Tim Blakemore
Tim Blakemore
Tim Blakemore is an award-winning automotive journalist and the former editor of our sister title, Commercial Vehicle Engineer magazine. He is also the UK representative on the panel of judges for the biennial, pan-European Trailer Innovation Award scheme.

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