Future shocks and electric drivelines

Does the future for trucking inevitably revolve around electric power, or are there viable alternatives?

There are two contrasting ways of looking at the presentation on electric trucks made by Royal Mail’s fleet engineering boss Grahame Bennett and Arrival’s Ben Jardine at the latest big annual Microlise transport conference in Coventry.

Some see the Royal Mail trial of battery-powered 7.5-tonners built by Arrival in Banbury, Oxfordshire, and Bennett’s clear enthusiasm for these vehicles as yet more powerful evidence, if it were needed, that the days of conventional, diesel-engined trucks are numbered.

Seasoned, sceptical observers note that we’ve been here before, many times, with breakthroughs in battery technology always promised to be just around the corner. The promises often came from fledgling companies that went bust shortly afterwards. Somehow, this is one corner that never seems to be fully turned.

The sceptics might even recall reports of two years ago on a high-profile start-up: Charge R&D (formerly Charge Engineering) of Banbury, Oxfordshire. No, it is no mere coincidence that Charge and Arrival are both based in Banbury. They are, in effect, the same organisation just with a name change.

Financial backing for Charge/Arrival comes from Kinetik, a US$500 million investment company set up by Denis Sverdlov, a former deputy communication and mass media minister in the Russian Federation government who made his fortune with Yota, a giant Russian mobile telecommunications and broadband services provider.

More names jumping on the EV bandwagon

Arrival is far from alone, of course, in riding the current wave of keen interest in electric drivelines for heavy commercial vehicles. Tesla, of electric self-driving car fame (or infamy, if you prefer), recently unveiled its first maximum weight battery-powered truck in the US. And some big fleets have even placed orders already, we are told. Though quite why any responsible truck operator would be bowled over by the flamboyant Tesla boss Elon Musk’s claims about this truck’s acceleration figures remains a mystery to us.

Much more familiar and long-established names are jumping on the electric bandwagon, including latterly Irizar, the Spanish coachbuilder which built its strong reputation in the UK mainly through bodywork on Scania coach chassis.

Irizar electric truck
Irizar 6×2 battery-powered truck prototype

This month, at the opening of a €75 million (£66 million) “e-mobility” factory in Spain, focused mainly on the production of battery-powered coaches, Irizar sprang a surprise by unveiling a three-axle (6×2) battery-powered truck prototype, evidently using bodywork borrowed from coaches. Details are sketchy, to say the least, but it seems that the truck market sector Irizar has its sights mainly set on is refuse collection, and the sort of waste management operator buying Mercedes Econic and Dennis Eagle Elite chassis at present.

It seems likely that the Irizar truck’s electric motor will come with the option of a small “range-extender” gas engine from Iveco. Production is planned to start in Spain next year.

DAF Trucks and VDL join forces

Another big European coach manufacturer seeing great potential in transferring electric driveline know-how into the truck market is VDL, the Dutch group with famous coach names such as Bova and Jonckheere under its umbrella. This month VDL announced that it had teamed up with its near neighbour DAF Trucks (both are based in Eindhoven) to produce an all-electric, two-axle truck, the DAF CF Electric VDL E-Power.

DAF-VDL CF Electric truck
DAF CF Electric VDL E-Power

VDL already knows DAF well, as a long-standing customer for its diesel engines in many coaches.

“This e-truck is the culmination of 65 years of collaboration between DAF and VDL Groep,” says VDL chairman Willem van der Leegte.

“This is a pooling of resources between two Eindhoven firms, who excel in terms of their strong foundations and soundness, and high-level innovation, respectively.

Our e-truck represents a leap forward in the direction of more sustainable freight transport. VDL has proven itself as a leader in fully electric buses for public transport and has already delivered hundreds of electric buses to public transport operators throughout Europe”, ”

The electric CF has a 210kW electric motor and a 170kWh lithium-ion battery pack. Maximum range on a full charge is put at around 100km. It is reckoned that the batteries can be fully charged in as little as 1.5 hours.

Like Irizar, DAF and VDL apparently have waste management in urban areas as a top target sector for potential customers for the electric CF, even though the first examples being put on show are two-axle tractive units.

“DAF has a strong history of developing innovative solutions to meet the evolving needs of our customers and we will continue to provide them with the full complement of appropriate technology choices to ensure their success,” says DAF Trucks president Preston Feight.

“DAF was among the first manufacturers to introduce a hybrid electric distribution truck in Europe and has continued to develop hybrid and electric powertrains. As cities announce their intention to require zero emissions and ultra-low noise, we will make sure our customers have the optimal solutions for their success.”

Shell reaches for the stars

But are those “optimal solutions” bound to be all battery-powered, one way or another? Certainly not, judging by the Starship truck recently unveiled by Shell’s lubricants division. It is hard to imagine a more futuristic-looking maximum weight (Class 8 in North America) articulated rig than this.

But the Starship is not battery-powered. Its power unit is a Cummins 15-litre diesel engine. Carbon fibre is used extensively in the truck’s chassis and bodywork. The semi-trailer has solar panels on its roof.

Shell AirFlow Starship concept truck
Shell and AirFlow present a different approach to the future

A long established US-based aerodynamics specialist firm called AirFlow Truck Company co-operated closely with Shell in the truck’s design. This month the truck is running fully freighted from coast to coast in the US to demonstrate just how efficient it can be.

“We seek projects such as the Starship initiative to keep Shell at the leading edge of technology development and energy efficiency,” says Robert Mainwaring, innovation technology manager at Shell Lubricants.

“Working with AirFlow Truck Company and other suppliers gives Shell Lubricants the opportunity to align with innovative companies to explore what is really possible in fuel efficiency.

“Transport accounts for more than one-quarter of the world’s total energy use and one-fifth of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions: 72% of which is attributable to road transportation, of which trucks make up a significant part. Increasing efficiency and fuel economy in the commercial transport sector could, therefore, make considerable progress to help reduce emissions.

“Shell firmly believes that collaborative, co-engineering, relationships are essential to the effective reduction in emissions and enhancements in efficiency and have developed such co-engineering relationships with several world-leading OEM (original equipment manufacturers).

“The relationship with the AirFlow Truck Company and other suppliers to build the Starship project is part of a collaborative process led by Shell that encourages co-engineering, and has resulted in a truck that will be used to challenge how trucking efficiency is defined.”

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.