Daimler unveiled the world’s first series production, all-electric truck at a gala launch in New York City yesterday.
The Fuso eCanter, a blocky, medium-duty truck made by Daimler’s Mitsubishi Fuso, was driven across town to emerge from behind a barrier amid a stream of bubbles and a crescendo of music. That made it impossible to take note of the truck’s most salient feature: its silence.
“How quiet is it?” I asked Marc Llistosella, the chief executive of Mitsubishi Fuso.
“Too quiet,” he responded. “We need a beep tone in early mornings and late evenings” to alert pedestrians to the truck’s presence.
Daimler has reason for the bubbles and ballyhoo—competition. Elon Musktweeted yesterday, Tesla will unveil an e-truck of its own next month. He calls it “a beast,” and Tesla is known for eye-catching fripperies, notably acceleration times worthy of a fighter interceptor.
The eCanter charges to 80 percent within an hour using an 850-volt DC charger.Photo: Daimler
The eCanter, by contrast, has a set maximum speed set of some 90 kilometers (55 miles) per hour. It can carry a payload of from 1,800 to 4,000 kilograms (4,000 to 9,000 lbs.), depending on the distance traveled and other conditions. That’s less than a diesel-powered equivalent can lug because the batteries weigh so much.
It can drive for 100 to 130 kilometers (80 to 90 miles), again depending on conditions, which is enough for city work. And it can recharge to 80 percent within an hour using a 850-volt DC charger. But that’ll take a few hours longer if you’re using plain old AC wall service.
A fleet operator might mix a relatively small number of such short-range trucks together with longer-range diesels or hybrids (something Mitsubishi Fuso already makes). UPS, one of the partners named at today’s launch, will use three trucks at unnamed locations. Four New York City nonprofits—the Bronx Zoo, the New York Botanical Gardens, Big ReUse Brooklyn, and Habitat for Humanity—will each take up to 10 trucks. All four care about buffing their green credentials, and the zoo and the garden also have good reason to keep the noise level down.
A total of 500 trucks will be leased over the next two years, at which point Mitsubishi Fuso expects to have a more advanced successor. You can’t buy the trucks outright, but the company allows that the upfront cost would be perhaps 15 to 20 percent greater than the diesel equivalent. But less expensive energy and maintenance should pay that investment back quickly enough.
Oliver Klug, who handles life-cycle management at Mitsubishi Fuso, says that eCanter’s total energy efficiency as measured from “well to wheel” comes to 40 percent, versus 15 percent for diesel. That’s using European figures. In the United States, he says, the prices of electricity and fuel imply that five years’ regular driving ought to save US $20,000 as compared to diesel. Europeans should save $13,000 and Japanese, around $7,600.
There are six battery packs—two visible on either side of the truck, and another two inside the frame. All contain the same kind of lithium-ion batteries found in the Mercedes-Benz S class and come from the same factory, at Daimler’s Accumotive battery subsidiary in eastern Germany.
Later this year the company will reveal other electric truck models, perhaps including a large semi to rival Tesla’s. The 2019 successor to the eCanter will bring the two battery packs, which are now visible on either side of the truck, inside the frame. It’s a move that would exploit the coming generation of smaller, more energy-dense batteries.
All vehicles are built around their power trains, and when a new power train comes in, it takes time to get it right, says Benoit Tallec, Mitsubishi Fasu’s design chief. “The first steam boats had the engine in the middle and the paddlewheels at the side—not at all elegant,” he says. “It was a transition model.”
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.