Automotive > Powertrain, Body, Chassis & Safety Blog

Heavy Trucks – Tesla Part Two

by Kevin Mak | 7月 27, 2016

It has been ten years since Tesla boss Elon Musk drafted his Master Plan for the start-up auto maker.  With the rare success in making EVs look cool and building an impressive 373,000-unit pre-order book for the Model 3, Musk has recently drafted his “Master Plan Part Deux” – a strategy for Tesla for the next ten years, which included electric trucks.  Coincidentally, Daimler previewed its electric trucks today.

Part Deux is aimed at generating further business growth for Tesla.  With the Model 3 and its pick-up truck and crossover variants coming soon, one would expect compact models should come next?  Part Deux scotches such rumors since Strategy Analytics believes that mass market auto makers already have that market to themselves and that Musk also foresees the arrival of autonomous ride-sharing vehicles that could kill-off the second car runabout from family driveways. 

That just leaves the heavy duty truck as the final frontier for Tesla to conquer.  

However, there are serious challenges in developing electric trucks, since large trucks will need lots of batteries to propel them:

  • Cost - The high battery costs give pure electric trucks an uncompetitive price premium over existing gasoline and diesel trucks, making them too expensive to purchase or lease.  An early attempt to develop the Mercedes-Benz Vito E-Cell commercial van in 2009 failed because of a lack of demand, possibly due to its high cost. 
  • Weight - Burdened with heavy batteries, electric trucks have a lower payload and would need to make more frequent journeys to deliver the same payload as other trucks.   Approximately a third of the total weight of the electric truck would be taken up by batteries.
  • Driving Range - The lack of energy density in batteries would limit the driving range of electric trucks and make them only relevant for short range, local deliveries.  This is the reason why the only commercial vehicles that come with pure electric powertrains are small C-Segment delivery vans.
  • Charging Times - When battery requirements increase, it lengthens the time needed to recharge the electric truck.  This reduces the time the electric truck can make deliveries and so earns less money for the fleet.

This ultimately makes it very difficult for Tesla to enter the heavy duty truck market.  In addition to expanding the Supercharger network, building the Gigafactory, acquiring Solar City and developing an autonomous ride-sharing service – it makes it difficult for Tesla to make a profit and puts further pressure on its shareholders.

By contrast, Daimler has gone about truck electrification from an evolving perspective:

  • Daimler realizes the challenges in electrifying such large vehicles and has used its experience in the truck market to electrify its trucks on an incremental scale, starting with mild hybrids before attempting the development of pure electric trucks.
  • Battery technology is an Achilles Heel to electrification.  When recent battery technology improvements arrived, they have given pure electric trucks an opportunity to increase driving range and to reduce battery cost, weight and charging times to a more marketable level.
  • The emergence of high volume battery cell manufacturing for automotive has enabled auto makers to tap into this economy of scale and lower battery cost in electric vehicles.  The battery cell is the only component where Daimler does not supply itself in-house.

Recent events have also brought concerns to Daimler’s truck customers, who want to be prepared for such outcomes:

  • City authorities are proposing mandates to limit air pollution and so require the exclusion of certain, if not all, combustion engines in city centers.
  • Some cities, such as London, have also banned the entry of trucks on certain roads during the day, meaning that there will be a demand for quieter, electric trucks to make deliveries at night.
  • Such mandates will have a greater impact as more people move to cities to live and work.
  • Electric powertrains are also being incentivized, reducing the time to payback the purchase premium.  

Furthermore, deliveries have evolved to become a “hub and spoke” system, particularly in food distribution.  Food from rural areas is delivered from the supplier to the suburban warehouse from which it is bundled together with other loads onto larger trucks that make the “spoke” delivery to the main warehouse (“hub”) in the city center. 

  • The Mercedes-Benz Urban e-Truck was previewed today to serve this type of urban distribution.  Its 200 km targeted driving range is sufficient for this delivery role.  The “hub” warehouse will have the facilities for the Urban e-Truck to be fast-charged in two hours from a 100 kW DC source or charged overnight (in ten hours) from a 20 kW source. 
  • Urban e-Truck uses a standard Mercedes-Benz 6 x 2 truck chassis on which the three battery modules can be placed inside the chassis frame and that other discrete components, such as the battery cooling module, can also be attached to.  The two 125 kW electric motors are housed over the axles.  Since demand for electric trucks will be limited, it makes sense to use common parts from other trucks to limit cost – this is one advantage that Tesla does not have.
  • Despite the challenges to electrification, the Urban e-Truck only loses 700 kg of payload to a 25 (metric) ton diesel truck.   Daimler aims to reduce this payload differential with further development.
  • Another key requirement for fleet operators is that the electric truck can still perform its duties and can remain profitable.  According to Daimler trials with the Fuso Canter E-Cell medium truck, after 10,000 km of driving, the electric truck can save €1,000 in operational costs over an equivalent diesel truck.

To conclude, electric trucks are only just starting to enter the market.  Developing electric trucks will be very difficult and therefore, the market will be limited to existing truck makers with experience with electrification.  

However, similar concerns were made when the first Tesla Master Plan was drafted ten years ago – it will take an exceptionally innovative talent for a newcomer to be successful in the electric truck market.


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