The most surprising thing about
driving the giant electric trucks was the noise. Sure, the motors were
mostly silent, just giving off the characteristic
whirrrrrr-hummmmm that one expects from any EV. And the parking
brakes did the standard, noisy-truck pssssh blow off when the
bright yellow Bendix air brake release was pushed in.
What I didnít expect was the incessant
Freightliner, which has some 40-percent
of the big-rig market here in the US,
is leading the way in developing electric tractor-trailer trucks.
Sure, thereís the
Tesla Semi, but development prototypes of Freightlinerís eCascadia
truck are in the hands of customers right now.
Across Southern California and elsewhere,
the rigs are hauling real cargo and giving off zero emissions as part
of a test fleet to help identify and fix problems ahead of a
commercial rollout of the electric truck. And after 800,000 miles,
things seem to be going well.
From L to R; Freightliner eCascadia and
eM2, Morgan-Olson/Freightliner Custom Chassis Company electric step
van, and the Thomas Built ĎJouleyí electric school bus.
Golson / Inverse
The prototype trucks were in LA as part
of a roadshow to get potential trucking customers excited about
electric, and Freightliner was able to carve out some time to invite a
few journalists behind the wheel. Because I donít have the commercial
driverís license necessary to legally drive a vehicle with a gross
vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of 26,001 or more pounds on the road, we
met in the parking lot of the stadium where the LA Galaxy soccer team
plays to take the trucks for a circular spin.
We began with the awkwardly-named Thomas
Saf-T-Liner C2 Jouley electric school bus. Thomas Built, like
Freightliner, is a subsidiary of Daimler Trucks and this electric bus
is already on sale and being used to ferry kids at a number of school
districts around the country.
It was like every school bus Iíve ever
been in with a couple of exceptions: for one, it was clean. For
another, it had seat belts for the kids that they may or may not
actually wear. I jumped into the driverís seat and fired up the bus.
for the charge indicator where the tachometer would normally be (left
side of the instrument cluster), thereís nothing here that would
suggest this isnít a standard school bus.Jordan
Golson / Inverse
Turning the key was a little
anticlimactic. Thereís a beep, the dashboard lights up, and then ...
not much happens. But with a pair of button presses, I release the air
brake and shift into drive and off we go.
If youíve driven an electric car before
you can probably imagine what happened next. The enormous bus, capable
of carrying 81 passengers up to 135 clean, emission-free miles
launched itself across the parking lot with the speed and agility of a
massive bus half its size.
Thomas says the Jouley can go from 0 to
60 MPH in a blistering 49 seconds thanks to 295 horsepower
and a 226 kWh battery. The powertrain in the bus is actually from
Proterra, a company that specializes in large electric transit
buses and in which Daimler Trucks is an investor.
DC fast charging allows the bus to charge
up in around three hours (while the kids are at school, see) and
the bus is vehicle-to-grid capable. Imagine using a school bus in an
emergency situation to help evacuate a nursing home or to
keep it powered in lieu of a generator, and you see the potential
A school bus is actually one of the most
perfect electric vehicles because theyíre constantly stopping (and
stop-and-go driving is the most efficient way to drive an EV because
of the regenerative braking capabilities), they run fixed routes, and
donít generally drive long distances.
The Jouley has two drive modes depending
on how much regenerative braking one wants, and, with a little
practice, itís easy to see how a bus driver used to stopping and
starting hundreds of times a day could get really good at single-pedal
driving. It likely wouldnít be too hard to time things just
right and stop precisely at little Timmy's feet, though, if my
childhood bus driver was any indication, FULL SPEED AHEAD and
STOOOOOOP are the only two drive modes that school bus drivers
One of the biggest benefits of the
electric school bus, according to a public relations rep for Thomas,
is the lack of engine noise ó because it makes it easier for the
driver to keep an ear on troublemaking kids in the back who might have
previously had their exploits drowned out by a droning diesel.
But the bus really squeaked. I
was told it was the window panes moving around against each other and
was assured that it would be much less noticeable with a full load of
eCascadia's instrument cluster might as well be from a regular
big-rig, if not for the enormous charge indicator.
Golson / Inverse
The red step van also has a powertrain
from Proterra, fitted to a MT50e chassis from Freightliner Custom
Chassis Corp. This is the sort of van you see a hundred times a day
and to which you never give much thought: think UPS, FedEx, bakery
delivery, or municipal utility vans.
Proterra and FCCC build the chassis and
powertrain and then an upfitter like
Morgan Olson can customize it however you want. Want a food truck
or to make commercial laundry deliveries? They can make it happen.
One holiday season I worked as a driver
helper for UPS. It was the hardest Iíve ever worked, climbing in and
out of that brown truck more than 200 times per day slinging packages
for a brisk New England December.
My UPS driver and I didnít go very far in
absolute terms and the 170-mile electric range of the MT50e would be
more than enough for many delivery routes, not to mention being a heck
of a lot quieter in the suburban subdivisions that we spent most of
our time in.
The step van drove like any other Iíve
driven, only electric. And perhaps the most surprising thing about it
was how utterly boring it was. Yes, it was electric. But youíd barely
notice it unless you popped open the fuel filler cap on the side and
saw the electric charge port sitting there.
And golly, did it make a lot of rattles
and bangs. Commercial trucks arenít known for
Rolls-Royce levels of quiet refinement, but this was something
else. Still, itís nothing turning up the radio canít fix.
Freightliner has 12 of
prototype eM2 electric trucks in the hands of customers for testing.
Golson / Inverse
The eM2 is a top-to-bottom
Freightliner product, using a powertrain and battery system
developed in-house at Daimler. Featuring an (up to) 315 kWh battery
pack, the truck can go as far as 230 miles on a charge depending on
the configuration. These medium-duty trucks might be used for things
like furniture delivery or other types of local
And like with the step-van, the biggest
advantage to this truck is for those outside it rather than in. Itís
alarmingly, extraordinarily quiet. Setting off, the only sign that
itís about to move is the psssh of the air brakes releasing.
It does have a noisemaker, like all EVs do these days, but itís far,
far quieter than a diesel truck of this size would be. A Manhattan
full of EV trucks would be such a different place, itís scarcely
possible to imagine what it would sound like.
At the risk of repeating myself, driving
the eM2 is a wholly unexciting enterprise. It takes off with an
unexpected amount of thrust and the regenerative braking is just as
impressive. But, the entire experience was so normal. And
thatís the idea, of course.
Electric trucks are supposed to be easy,
with no significant learning curve for delivery drivers. Because fleet
trucks are typically replaced one at a time, drivers might be on an
electric truck one day and in a standard internal combustion one the
next. If the trucks didnít drive nearly identically, this could be a
problem. Instead, the cab is identical between the two, right
down to the automatic transmission and the key to start it up.
Freightliner eCascadia is a silent giant.
Golson / Inverse
But I was here to live out my Smokey
and the Bandit fantasies with the Class 8
Freightliner eCascadia. This is a 525 horsepower beast that can go
up to 250 miles thanks to a 475 kWh usable capacity battery that can
recharge to 80 percent in just 90 minutes on the right DC fast
Freightliner has 28 of these in the hands
of real customers in Long Beach and beyond, hauling goods for big
trucking companies like JB Hunt and Schneider National. These
companies buy trucks by the thousands, so impressing them is essential
to a successful EV transition. The environmental benefits are
certainly important, but so is having reliable trucks that keep
deliveries on schedule and on budget.
And driving it was awesome.
Sure, it was in the parking lot of a
soccer stadium in LA, but I was behind the wheel of a big rig weighing
some 60,000 pounds between tractor and trailer. A gentle prod of the
throttle sent us rolling along, without any strain or lurching. Iíve
ridden in 18-wheelers before and I couldnít quite put my finger on
what was different at first, but then it hit me: there are no
Drive next to a semi-truck setting off
from a stoplight and itís a repeating refrain of vvvvrrrMMMMMMMMMMMMMvvvvvrrrrMMMMMMMMMMM
as the truck revs up and down the power band, changing gears over and
over and over. The eCascadia has only two gears, and thanks to the
always-available torque, the second is only used at highway speeds.
The truck pulls away smoothly and cleanly
and stops the same way. Itís certainly not fast, but it wouldnít be
maddeningly slow in stop-and-go Long Beach traffic either.
Thereís no frunk here.
Mechanical bits abound under the hood of the eCascadia.
Golson / Inverse
Iím not sure what I was expecting, but
the whole experience was incredibly ordinary. Sure driving a
tractor-trailer was fun, but thatís not because it was electric.
The trucks were as advertised: clean,
quiet, and ready to get to work ó even if they are a bit rattly.
The Freightliner Mt50e goes into
production late this year, while final versions of the eCascadia and
eM2 will start hitting fleets in late 2022 or early 2023.
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