EV and the Bandit

Sorry Elon, the electric semi of the future is already here

Freightliner is cruising past Tesla on the electric truck superhighway

Tesla and Technoking Elon Musk might get all the attention for the all-electric Tesla Semi, but they're far from the only manufacturer looking to make big rigs go electric.

Freightliner, the leading heavy-duty truck manufacturer in America, is hard at work testing trucks with actual customers — with Tesla still stuck on the test track.

What’s new — Freightliner recently announced that its test fleet of electric semi-trucks have traveled 700,000 miles, Daimler spokesperson Fred Ligouri says. That’s the equivalent of roughly 233 cross-country trips between Boston and San Diego.

“These are real trucks hauling real freight in the real world and racking up zero emissions mile after mile — in excess of 700,000 thus far,” Ligouri tells Inverse. “Through this process of co-creation with our customers, we are ensuring durability and reliability for series-built trucks, incorporating purposeful innovations, and furnishing the opportunity for more and more fleets to experience eMobility.”


Freightliner has two types of trucks in this “customer experience” development fleet. The first is the eM2 box truck, a Class 6/7 truck used for local distribution of things like furniture, food, and other goods — the type commonly seen with a ramp on the back, double-parked all over Manhattan.

Then there's the eCascadia, a Class 8 tractor that is likely what you imagine when you think of a Smokey and the Bandit-style big rig. Those are being used for what's called local- and regional-distribution and "drayage" — a term for the movement of cargo containers by trucks between different types of shipping, like from a sea port to a rail yard, or to a warehouse in the same city.

Both of these are perfect for big electric trucks because they have a more limited need for range. Local box trucks and local shipping rarely exceed 200 miles in a day round trip, and the eM2 and eCascadia sport 230- and 250-mile ranges, respectively.

Here’s the background — The company has a fleet of 38 preproduction electric trucks running around Southern California in the hands of regular customers as part of the company's Electric Innovation and Customer Experience fleet.


Unlike regular automobiles where carmakers can test them in secret and then put them on the market, fleet customers like trucking companies are years-long clients of truckmakers. They have to deal with long-term maintenance, training of mechanics, drivers, and much more. As a result, customers are tied very closely with the manufacturer during the development process for new trucks. It's a bit like the focus groups that carmakers run when trying to design a new minivan, only on a much larger scale.

The trucks, which have been in operation for well over a year, are part of Freightliner's Electric Innovation Fleet operated by NFI and Penske Truck Leasing, two of the country's biggest truck operators. Among others, Penske's electric trucks are moving goods for clients including Costco, UPS, and Fastenal.

Other big firms including JB Hunt, Schneider National, and Sysco are also involved in something called the Freightliner Electric Vehicle Council, which Freightliner says is a group of customers helping to identify and fix problems before a larger roll out of trucks is attempted. They're also being supported by a pair of regional environmental agencies: the South Coast Air Quality Management District in Los Angeles and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District in San Francisco, both of which handle truck emissions as part of their regulatory mandate.


When will electric semis hit the road?

What’s next — Daimler is investing $20 million in its Detroit Diesel Company manufacturing facility to be the North American producer of the ePowertrain that will go into the eCascadia and eM2. Globally, Daimler plans to use the same basic electric truck architecture to drive cost reductions, and Detroit’s ePowertrain will be the American variant.

Detroit's eAxle design will operate at 400 volts across two variants, one with a single motor rated at 180 horsepower and a mind-boggling 11,500 lb-ft of torque — torque being considerably more important than horsepower for towing applications — and a dual-motor design for 360 horsepower and 23,000 lb-ft of torque.

The DD16, which is the largest truck engine Detroit makes, generates a (comparatively) paltry 2,050 lb-ft — that makes this a greater than 11x increase in torque for the dual-motor version, which should make for significant quality of life improvements for truck drivers struggling to merge in traffic.

Those motors will be combined with 210 kWh, 315 kWh, and 475 kWh versions, depending on customer need for range. Production of the Detroit ePowertrain is expected late this year, with series production of the Freightliner eCascadia Class 8 and eM2 Class 6/7 trucks beginning next year.

Though Tesla continues to develop the Tesla Semi, it appears that none are in the hands of customers at this point. So, for now, chalk this one up as a win for the old school Freightliner.

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