Big changes for big rigs

December 2018/January 2019

John Bendel

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Future trucks are being manufactured and put to work on the highways.

Let’s be honest. The evolution of trucks has been slow and boring. Not anymore. Suddenly, big changes are popping up month by month.

I’m not talking about the fancy trucks-of-tomorrow that turn up each year at Mid-America and other truck shows, or the sleek trucks developed by Daimler, Volvo, and International for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Super Truck program. Those are one-of-a-kind trucks.

Now we’re seeing future trucks designed to be manufactured and put to work on the highways with real truck drivers at the wheel – at least most of the time. Here’s what’s been happening.

 

Daimler’s Future Truck 2025

Daimler kicked off the serious truck-of-the-future derby on July 3, 2014, with the demonstration of an autonomous Mercedes-Benz Actros 1845 tractor, a cabover model often seen in Europe. They called it Future Truck 2025.

In the demo, Future Truck 2025 drove itself down an autobahn in Germany to lots of oohs and aahs from international media. On May 5, 2015, a second autonomous Daimler model drove itself across the Hoover Dam in a spectacular nighttime event with floodlights and music. This autonomous truck was a Freightliner Cascadia. Daimler refers to that model as the Freightliner Inspiration.

In both cases, the driver’s seat was swiveled away from the wheel as the driver pretended to be reading something. In both cases, the power was still diesel. Though engineers were working on it, electric truck power was still on the fringes of public awareness at the time. Now, of course, truck builders are falling over one another introducing electric models.

Aside from its Future Truck 2025, Daimler Trucks North America introduced an electric Class 8 Freightliner eCascadia (note the small “e”) in June of this year. At 550 kwh, batteries will take the eCascadia up to 250 miles. Daimler says those batteries can be recharged to 80 percent within 90 minutes to cover 200 miles more. A 550-mile range might conceivably work in the long-haul market, but not with a 90-minute recharge requirement.

Daimler said electric-powered Freightliners should be available on the market by 2021 – four years ahead of Daimler’s autonomous trucks.

Even as it revolutionizes the way its trucks work, Daimler is keeping those changes within familiar truck bodies.

 

Nikola One

Nikola One is going for an entirely new look. With the colors and logo of US Xpress, the Nikola One debuted in December 2016 looking vaguely like a streamlined, swept back COE (cab over engine) with fenders. US Xpress Co-founder and Executive Chairman Max Fuller looked on from the front row. It was an exceptional debut in more ways than one.

First, as noted, was that new look. Nikola One could have been a real COE if there were an engine for the cab to be over. Instead, the truck was powered by individual electric motors, one for each wheel.

But the actual Nikola One was very different from concept Nikola One that had been presented earlier that year. In May, Nikola talked about an electric truck powered by batteries. By August the company had changed plans. Instead of batteries, Nikola One would rely on hydrogen fuel cells to power the truck’s electric motors.

The Nikola One would fuel up at hydrogen filling stations rather than plugging in to battery chargers. According to Nikola CEO Trevor Martin, it will take approximately 20 minutes to refill a hydrogen tank, a selling point against battery recharging, which can take much longer.

Of course there are no hydrogen filling stations yet, but Martin asserts Nikola will have more than 700 across the U.S. and Canada by 2028.

The company says it will offer leasing plans that will include fuel, warranty work, and scheduled maintenance.

“This will allow owner-operators and fleets to get into a new Nikola One … and know their total cost of ownership every single month, regardless of fluctuating fuel costs and miles driven,” Nikola says.

That cost could run from $5,000 to $7,000 per month.

Nikola Tesla was the electrical genius who invented, among many other things, alternating current that allowed electricity to be transmitted over wires for long distances. So if there was going to be a Nikola truck, there also would have to be a Tesla.

 

Tesla Semi

Elon Musk, billionaire media star and CEO of Tesla Motors, unveiled his Tesla Semi in November 2017, roughly one year after the Nikola One debuted. The concept had been announced earlier. The Nikola One and Tesla Semi look vaguely alike (Page 75). They promise similar performance as well. Both claim unmatched acceleration compared to diesel.

For instance, Tesla claims its Tesla Semi will go from zero to 60 mph in 20 seconds. That won’t win a Grand Prix. It probably won’t send freight sliding out the trailer doors either. But for a fully loaded truck grossing out at 40 tons, that’s pretty quick.

Musk was even more boastful about the Tesla Semi than Martin was about the Nikola One. Tesla Semi will come with a 1-million-mile no-breakdown guarantee, he said, noting that the brake pads will last forever and that the windshield is made of “thermonuclear-proof glass.”

Just as with Tesla cars, auto pilot will be standard equipment.

“If you have a heart attack, Tesla will keep going,” Musk said at the unveiling event. “It will take care of you.”

Musk also claimed “jackknifing is impossible.”

Musk calls Tesla Semi “the most comfortable truck ever.” At least in its promotional materials, the Tesla Semi features an uncluttered field of view from a driver’s seat, which is centered in the cab with a clean-looking electronic display on either side of the steering wheel.

Tesla said production will begin in 2020.

 

Thor & More

Truck innovation continues briskly. Early in 2018, for example, Thor Trucks Inc. introduced the Class 8, battery-powered Thor ET-One. The truck’s style drew mixed reviews. Bloomberg described it as “a matte-black curvaceous truck.” Trucks.com called it the “Frankenstein of trucks.” Thor’s ET-One was designed for regional work and does not include autonomous technology.

Then there’s Volvo’s incredible Vera. This baby includes all the autonomous technology you can pack into a battery-powered truck the relative size and shape of a sports car. Intended for use in enclosed spaces, like ports and large manufacturing campuses, Vera needs no driver and thus no cab.

It’s just five wheels – four on the ground and one for the trailer – that drives itself and a trailer around at low speeds.

The news keeps coming. Toyota and Volkswagen have partnered to create autonomous trucks. Ford recently introduced an electric autonomous concept truck called the F-Vision from its Turkish subsidiary.

And like a cropped plant stem divides and becomes two stems, two founders of the former autonomous truck company called Otto have each launched companies in the same field. One is called Kodiak and the other Kach.ai.

What happens next is anybody’s guess. But at this pace, it’s likely to happen soon. LL

John Bendel

John Bendel is Land Line’s contributing editor-at-large. A former trucker, former editor at National Lampoon, and longtime truck writer, John is an author, photographer, and freelancer for New York Times. There’s more, but in short, his insight and matchless style of writing makes “Gizmos and Gears” a runaway reader favorite.