The first details are coming out about the plans of Tesla Inc. and its Chief Executive Elon Musk to build an electric semi-truck.
“I don’t want to jump the gun on the Tesla semi-truck unveiling later this year, but I think, it’s going to be a good product, and will defy people’s expectations on what an electric truck can do,” Musk said during a conference call with investors earlier this week.
The head of the Palo Alto, Calif., electric car company said he believes that all forms of ground transportation will eventually have electric powertrains.
“I really do not see any segment of transport that will not be electric, in fact I’m highly confident that all transport will go fully electric with the ironic exception of rockets,” said Musk, who is also chief executive of SpaceEx, a rocket manufacturer.
Musk believes electric heavy-duty trucks will be climate change fighters.
“It’s probably 10 times as much hydrocarbon saved for a semi as for a pickup truck,” he said.
Tesla plans to unveil its heavy-duty truck prototype in September.
Components from Tesla’s Model 3 compact sedan, scheduled to go into production later this year, will be used in the semi-truck, Musk said.
“Most of that semi is actually made out of Model 3 parts,” Musk said.
The truck, for example, will use a combination of Model 3 motors. That will lower the cost of the truck because it will leverage the volume production of the sedan’s parts. Tesla plans to manufacture the big rig rather than contract or license production.
“It’s going to have a very good gross margin,” Musk said.
He claimed it will be more profitable than traditional Class 8 trucks.
Musk said he is focused on building a semi-truck before a light duty pickup because he wants to demonstrate that electric transport can even work as a heavy-duty commercial vehicle.
But there’s also a Tesla pickup truck in the future.
“They’re not going to be widely separated in time,” he said.
Some Wall Street analysts believe there’s a business case for a Tesla heavy-duty truck.
It’s a big area of opportunity for Tesla, Alexander Potter, an analyst with Piper Jaffray & Co., wrote in a recent report to investors.
The North American market for trucks in the heaviest Class 8 weight segment is a $30 billion business. There’s even more opportunity for heavy-duty electric trucks in the smaller Class 5 to 7 trucks and abroad, Potter said.
“The market is clearly large enough to matter,” he said.
Tesla’s challenge is to make sure that savings from operating an electric truck justify what’s likely to be a more expensive vehicle.
“Namely, the incremental cost of an EV must be offset by reductions in fuel, maintenance, and other operating costs,” Potter said.
For a Class 8 ‘hub-and-spoke’ truck traveling 350 miles a day, Potter said fleets could justify paying $50,000 to $75,000 more for an electric daycab configured rig as long as operating expenses are 25 cents to 35 cents less per mile than a comparable diesel vehicle.
“This would be no small feat, but Tesla may be capable of achieving these goals,” Potter said.
Over the years, alternative technologies have failed to replace diesel trucks because of the limited refueling infrastructure, dropping oil prices and efforts aimed at increasing fuel efficiency for diesel trucks, Potter said.
But Tesla can learn from the errors made in the past.
“Tesla should focus its initial efforts on low-mpg fleets with fixed routes,” Potter said.
Ideal targets are fleets that facilitate urban pickup-and-delivery and shipping for relatively small loads of freight, he said.
Hub-and-spoke distribution routes as well as vocational and municipal fleets are also “low hanging fruit,” Potter said.
And traditional trucking companies are ripe for disruption.
Many manufacturers with old school methods will undoubtedly face the challenge of leveraging outdated production infrastructures while protecting margins and investing simultaneously in advanced technology, Potter said.
There’s also the eHighway project currently testing in Carson, Calif., that the South Coast Air Quality Management District is working on with German engineering giant Siemens and several other partners. The venture features a catenary system to help charge electric trucks faster.
In a TED talk in late April, Tesla Inc. chief executive Elon Musk teased the company’s upcoming electric big rig, saying that the “spry,” single-speed vehicle will be able to “out-torque any diesel semi.” The truck is set to debut in September.
Daimler Trucks unveiled the Mercedes-Benz Urban e-Truck last year and has already begin building a small batch of the vehicles, which can haul up to 26 tons. The company will go into full production by 2020 if demand allows.
“The technology is real and the technology works,” said ACT panelist Michael Simon, TransPower’s chief executive.
It’s just taking off faster in some places than others.
Norway, where battery electric vehicles have the largest market share out of any other country, saw a surge in from 2.5 percent in 2011 to more than a third of all sales in 2016, said Andy Swanton, the Los Angeles-based vice president of truck sales for electric vehicle manufacturer BYD.
In China – where BYD is headquartered – roughly 120,000 zero-emission battery-electric buses are running, making up more than 20 percent of the domestic market share.
That’s compared with some 10,000 similar buses in the U.S., Swanton said.
Currently, vehicles that travel 50 to 200 miles in a single-duty cycle are the best candidates for electrification here, he said.
During a panel earlier in the week, Steve Gilligan, vice president of product and vocational marketing for Navistar’s North American business unit, said something similar: that today’s batteries are best suited to lighter vehicles that only need to operate eight to 10 hours a day and can then be returned a centralized hub to be recharged overnight.
“Class 8 over-the-road long haul is the most difficult scenario for electrification,” he said. “It’s application-critical.”
The battery-electric economics are also tough, panelists said.
For passenger cars, the purchase price before incentives is 85 percent higher on average for an electric vehicle, Swanton said. The differential ranges from 19 percent between a Mercedes Benz C Class and an electric B250e to a whopping 163 percent between Nissan’s Versa and its electric Leaf model.
For a 40-foot transit bus, that’s a jump from $450,000 for a diesel vehicle to $750,000 for an electric version. Electric trucks, meanwhile, cost two to three times more than conventional ones, Swanton said.
So if fleets are going to adopt battery-electric vehicles, it won’t be in one fell swoop, said Tim Reeser, co-founder of fuel-efficiency solutions provider Lightning Systems in Loveland, Colo.
“There’s no panacea,” he said. “We have to ask what’s realistic, what can I do on my retrofit fleets today, because I’m not going to buy all-new electric tomorrow.
Still, some experts said electrification poses a threat to traditional cargo-carrying trucks.
Soon after Musk first announced Tesla’s electric semi-truck in April, Piper Jaffray analyst Alexander Potter downgraded engine and truck manufacturers Cummins and Paccar. In a research note, he cited lower maintenance expenses, dropping battery costs and an fundamentally more efficient propulsion system among the reasons why electric truck payback times could soon decline to less than two years –“short enough to generate interest among fleets.”
The North American Class 8 market is “clearly large enough to matter,” representing at least $30 billion in revenue off of 250,000 unit sales a year at $120,000 apiece, he wrote.
“Tesla’s presence looms large,” Potter wrote. “Laugh all you want, but this trend cannot be ignored.”
Panelists at ACT agreed, proposing several strategies to make battery-electric vehicles more appealing to fleet managers.
Abas Goodarzi, chief executive of US Hybrid Corp., suggested customizing electrification technology already in place for monorails and other applications, rather than starting development from scratch.
Reeser promoted an analytics system that can track driver style, vehicle health and other factors external to the technology itself that might affect how electrification performs. For a fleet with a few hundred buses, collecting and analyzing data manually could cost millions of dollars in lost fuel efficiency, he said.
If fleets had access to creative financing – such as partial leases – or dedicated utility rates for commercial vehicle charging, they might be more inclined to electrify their inventory, panelists said.
Converting gas stations to battery swapping outlets could lessen long plug-in charging times. And electric vehicles in the states can benefit from the same kind of incentives, toll road waivers, special bus lane access and preferential parking that helped boost numbers abroad.
“A big piece of this is education from the manufacturers, who need to say that, yes, electricity is expensive, but we can prove how they’re more cost-effective in the long-term,” Swanton said. “And we need to be investing ahead of the curve to prove that this stuff works.”
The electric pickup truck vying to be first to the commercial market has quite a pulse.
Workhorse Group Inc. invited Trucks.com to test the abilities of its pre-production W-15 work truck ahead of its debut at the Advanced Clean Transportation Expo in Long Beach, Calif.
During the short drive, the electric pickup delivered on its promise of impressive power and the utility of a true work truck.
The truck can blast ahead in near silence, quickly building to freeway speeds as it goes from zero to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds. The only sounds are the faint whine of the electric motor and the creaks and clinks of a full-size pickup truck chassis twisting under acceleration.
Yet acceleration is not visceral, like that of the Tesla Model S. Nor is it as peppy as the lightweight Chevrolet Bolt’s.
The W-15 may use a similar powertrain to those vehicles, but it is not designed for car-like performance. Even with its lightweight construction employing carbon-fiber body panels, the W-15 carries a heftiness that differentiates it from other electric vehicles.
Trucks.com took the first working version of the W-15 for a short test drive in downtown Long Beach Monday. The truck is more than the static concept vehicle manufacturers display at auto shows but not quite a full prototype.
The test vehicle serves as a proof of concept the Loveland, Ohio, company can use to show potential clients and win orders. Already, companies such as Duke Energy, Ryder System Inc. and municipalities are signing up to put the truck in their fleets.
The truck is sure to evolve between now and production, said Stephen Burns, chief executive of Workhorse.
Brushed aluminum handles on the inside of the doors may not be available; and cables that hold the liftgate will eventually be replaced with pneumatic struts.
Although the entire body of the test W-15 shown is made of carbon fiber to reduce the vehicle’s weight, production models will use composite plastic body panels with some carbon components.
The vehicle took Workhorse about nine months to build – a quick turnaround for such an ambitious project.
The W-15 is powered by Panasonic lithium-ion battery cells lining the floor of the truck, which give the truck the lowest center of gravity of any production full-size pickup, Burns said. The truck produces an estimated 450 horsepower.
It delivers power with smooth consistency, better suited for the reliability needed under towing and hauling. Workhorse can potentially tailor the power delivery based on customer preference, Burns said. Independent coil suspension on all four wheels provides a smoother ride than the leaf springs employed in most full-size pickups.
The W-15 is capable of 80 miles of all-electric range. It features a three-cylinder “range extender” engine under the hood that generates power for the electric motors when the batteries run low.
The electric motor and extender lie under the hood, beneath a plastic covering adorned with the bright yellow Workhorse logo. A small compartment there can be used for storing cables, or a worksite hardhat or two. A second electric motor is located at the back of the truck and powers the rear axle.
Braking is one area in which the W-15 is expected to change before it reaches production. During the test drive, the brake pedal needed significant pressure to slow the truck.
Unlike some electric vehicles, the W-15 does not immediately decelerate under coasting in order to regenerate power for the electric batteries. Burns said Workhorse could make the brakes more aggressive in the future.
A digital information display faces the driver and provides information such as battery life and range. Providing a clear and crisp picture, the large touch screen controls interior functions, including navigation and air conditioning. Burns said Workhorse made sure to use a screen that can be operated with work gloves.
Unique features highlight the truck’s electric DNA. An orange start button on the left spoke of the steering wheel brings the W-15 to life without fanfare. The front “grille” is made of metalized black plastic that is 20-percent clear, allowing ambient light behind the Workhorse lettering to create a glowing effect at night.
LED lighting is present in the headlamp projectors and taillights, accent lights on the bottom of the front fascia, and hazard lights mounted to the rear of the roof.
The W-15 also has three “fuel” doors: one for electric charging; one for topping off the gasoline extender; and one for a power export that can provide electricity for on-site tools or even home appliances.
Workhorse will continue to tweak the W-15 in the coming months and plans to produce about 30 prototypes to be used for crash testing and other evaluation.
The company currently has 5,000 non-binding orders for the W-15, and has slated production to begin in the fourth quarter of 2018. It invited several potential customers to the Alternative Clean Transportation expo in Long Beach this week with hopes of securing more fleet orders.
The electric truck has 80 miles of all-electric range (AER) paired with a gasoline-powered BMW range extender to enable a total range of 390 miles on a full charge and a full tank of gas.
The unveiling of the production version of the Workhorse W-15 PHEV pickup truck, which we have covered a few times previously, shows the world the new standard for fleet pickup truck efficiency and effectiveness. For the gearheads in the room, yes, the W-15 can lay down the rubber with 460 horsepower and full torque available at zero RPMs, which enables this beast to go 0-60 in just 5.5 seconds.
The battery pack is 60 kWh nameplate with 45 kWh usable to ensure a long life for the pack. This nets out to about 1.78 miles per kWh, which is not great, but for a 7,200 pound truck, it’s about what you would expect. On the gasoline front, it gets 32 mpg highway and 28 mpg city, which is very respectable for a truck.
The Workhorse W-15: Built for Fleets
The W-15 was designed from the ground up as a new take on the pickup truck, with an aim to meet the vast majority of the needs of fleet managers with a zero-emission footprint.
Perhaps equally impressive is the fact that the W-15 is priced at an extremely competitive $52,500, which, due to fuel savings and lower maintenance, comes in at a lower total cost of ownership (TCO) than a comparable Ford F-150. While new technologies always feel risky for fleet managers who bank on predictable track records and stable returns on investments, the financial bottom line is a powerful motivator when it comes time to purchase the next batch of vehicles.
As with most battery-electric vehicles, the W-15 does have a higher sticker price than a comparable internal combustion truck but it makes up the difference over the life of the vehicle with lower fueling costs and lower maintenance. I spoke with Workhorse Group CEO Steve Burns about the W-15 and he shared that it costs 20% as much to charge as a comparable diesel vehicle.
The savings add up quickly, paying off the purchase price premium in around 2 years, meaning that fleet managers will be able to rake in these savings for the rest of the life of the vehicle, resulting in the lower TCO. The W-15 is currently only for sale to fleet managers, which is almost the perfect audience for a financial picture like this, and one that turns traditional models on their heads.
All signs point to Workhorse Group having designed a product that resonates with fleet managers, as it previously announced that it had secured Letters of Intent (LOI) for 1,000 W-15s — enough for Workhorse to move the vehicle into production planning. In addition, Steve Burns shared that Workhorse will announce additional orders it has secured at the ACT Expo this week.
A Plug-In Hybrid Electric … Truck?
Truck owners have a reputation for being tough, for needing a truck that can take a beating, that has endless power and a full tank (or two) of gas (or diesel) that can get them anywhere in the world, on the road or off. So, on the surface, it seems like a rough market for a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle. Digging into the details, however, reveals a compelling set of facts.
Many fleet vehicles travel predictable routes for the most part. Duke Energy trucks, for example, travel an average of 40 miles per day. That means that Duke could convert its fleet of thousands of trucks to a PHEV like the W-15 and run them almost every day on fully electric power (that it also happens to provide), resulting in real cuts to emissions and real financial savings.
As with most consumers, the tough use cases are on the fringes — that handful of times per year when a hurricane hits or a big job is happening in the next state over and Duke needs to get its teams from the region on site. That’s where the range extender (REx) kicks in. In addition to the 80 miles of all-electric range, the W-15 can travel an additional 310 miles on the BMW REx, which is the same unit that the BMW i3 uses. The Workhorse team views the REx as an insurance policy for niche use cases and to give fleet managers the peace of mind that they’re not losing functionality by purchasing a PHEV. It can still do everything that an internal combustion vehicle could do … and then some.
That’s not to say that the W-15 is a shoe-in. While it does appear to have strong traction with fleet managers and even a few consumers who have expressed interest in the truck, there are a number of very real, very difficult hurdles the group has to overcome to achieve success with customers. First and foremost, service. Tesla found out firsthand that it is one thing to get a few thousand vehicles on roads around the world, but that it is another matter entirely to be able to keep them running.
Workhorse Group must ensure fleet managers have what they need in terms of regional support to give the W-15 a fighting chance of survival. With many fleet managers handling their own maintenance and the W-15 not needing nearly as much maintenance as a comparable diesel or gasoline truck, it already has a headstart, but service is definitely an area to keep an eye on as the W-15 moves into production.
Who is Workhorse Group?
The Workhorse Group was originally established in 2007 as Amp Electric Vehicles as a “developmental stage electric vehicle company” that started out with electrifying 2-seater roadsters (sound familiar?). It has fleets in its blood and over the last decade has worked tirelessly to bring innovative solutions to fleet managers around the world. Most recently, Workhorse developed and delivered an electric box truck to market.
The team stepped up its efforts with electric vehicles when the USPS put up the largest request for vehicles in history — it requested bids to upgrade its entire fleet of 180,000 vehicles to electricity. Workhorse saw an opportunity that was too good to pass up and built up a vehicle for the submission. 60 manufacturers initially put in bids, which have since been whittled down to a final 5. While the specifics of the contracting process are still under wraps as part of the agreement, Burns shared that Workhorse is one of the final 5.
Burns shared with me that, “in September, we gave the prototypes of our vehicle to the post office.” He’s hopeful that Workhorse will know within a year who won the bid. It was the learnings from the rigorous process for the USPS bid that convinced the team that the W-15 was possible and that the potential existed for it to disrupt the fleet pickup truck market. “We realized we had basically built a pickup truck.”
A PHEV Pickup for the Masses
It’s clear that fleets are the core focus for the W-15 at launch, but it has gained a surprising following with consumers. They are attracted to the immense torque the W-15 puts out at zero RPMs, the onboard power output capability, and the cost savings vs a fossil fuel truck. CEO Steve Burns shared with me:
“Nobody likes getting 15 miles per gallon. If we can make a pickup that gets the equivalent of 75 miles per gallon, that could be enough to sell a lot of trucks to consumers.”
The W-15 is compelling for all the usual reasons as well. It looks like a beast. It was built with a full steel chassis to ensure durability with carbon fiber (!) body panels to keep the weight to a minimum as much as possible with the onboard 60 kWh battery pack (45 kWh usable). It ditched the conventional leaf springs found in trucks for a 4-wheel independent suspension that provides a much smoother ride and better control of traction.
Traction is a common issue in high-power pickup trucks, as the rear wheels have very little of the vehicle weight on them. The improved suspension paired with the additional weight of the centrally located battery pack gives the W-15 far better traction than comparable pickups, but at a cost — it comes in at a curb weight of a staggering 7,200 pounds. Burns shared, however, that “we anticipate it to get better traction than any gasoline or diesel all-wheel-drive truck” as a result.
Similar to the Tesla Model S and Model X, the W-15 has a frunk that gives it a much larger crumple zone than internal combustion vehicles. It is not in production until late 2018, so it has not been through the NHTSA safety rating process, but Burns is confident, noting that, “we think it’s going to be the safest pickup developed.”
Beyond the crumple zone, Automatic Emergency Braking is standard on the W-15 on all trim packages, giving every W-15 driver the benefit of this advance safety feature. This is a feature familiar to CleanTechnica readers, as it has recently been in the news for Tesla, which only implemented the feature on Autopilot 2.0 vehicles last week after getting dinged by Consumer Reports for the missing feature.
The Elephant in the Room
Tesla. With Tesla having recently announced that it is building a pickup truck that will be revealed in 2018, the competition faced by the W-15 in the plug-in truck market is clear. Having said that, Workhorse has already established a clear position in the market and has earned footholds with major fleets across the United States.
Steve Burns talked with me a bit about Tesla, noting that, “We have great respect for Tesla but a pickup truck is very different than a passenger vehicle. We know fleets. We know truck drivers.” It is out of their deep knowledge of trucks and fleets that Workhorse has built its W-15.
The W-15 will move into production in late 2018 in its Union City, Ohio, factory and has already secured orders for the first year of production. Workhorse has the capacity to ramp up to 60,000 vehicles per year depending on demand. At launch, the vehicle will have a base set of options that the team believes will satisfy the needs of most fleets, and it has plans to add more options in the future based on input from customers.
Watch the Reveal
The big reveal of the W-15 was on May 2nd, 2017, at 5:00 pm Pacific Time, but you can replay it on Workhorse Group’s Facebook Page to take in all the action firsthand.