Driverless trucks drift away from the ICE age

Numerous companies have been hard at work for years developing and testing autonomous trucks using powertrains other than internal combustion engine (ICE) technology. These efforts got a sudden burst of publicity this summer. A Reuters article revealed that Tesla was aiming to test a pair of self-driving rigs in Nevada and was planning to meet with California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) officials regarding the vehicles. Several weeks later, Tesla’s high-profile CEO Elon Musk said they would unveil a truck – although he avoided any mention of autonomy – at an event this year in the Los Angeles area.

These news items were a literal jolt, as Tesla is (not surprisingly) planning to power its big vehicle on electricity. With characteristic overstatement, after the Reuters article was published Musk Tweeted of the craft that it was “worth seeing this beast in person. It’s unreal”. In a previous Tweet, he claimed that it was “seriously next level”. Perhaps to build anticipation for the launch, Tesla and Musk are keeping silent about the vehicle’s details – a company official responded to this reporter’s query with the laughably anal response that they did not “have the bandwidth for interviews at the moment”.

Away from the autonomy question, doubts loom about the power and range of the company’s big new craft. After all, it’s an electric vehicle and electrics have limitations. Among others, for long-haul purposes, they would require prohibitively large and heavy batteries to carry enough charge for the power and range they need.

Other manufacturers believe that hydrogen fuel-cell technology is the future for big rigs. Early stage truck maker Nikola Motor Company, based in Utah, has developed the prototype of such a vehicle, which will start to undergo testing late in 2018. According to the company’s CEO Trevor Milton, the key difference between Nikola’s artic and a comparable electric “is, we can store over 2 megawatt hours of energy in 75 kg of hydrogen at a fraction of the weight of batteries. This gives you range extension over three times that of an electric truck with a third of the weight if that were battery only”.

As for range, Nikola’s truck would be able to stay on the road for 500 to 1,000 miles at a stretch, compared to what Moore says is 300 miles “on a good day”, for electrics. Moore claims the vehicle will roll out of the factory sometime in 2021 and be equipped with Level 5 software and hardware. “This means it will be the only truck with full autonomy that is compliant with the redundant systems required by law,” he stated.

Fuel cells are not only the province of scrappy young start-up companies. Toyota, noted for its efforts in the consumer car sphere with the hydrogen-powered Mirai, is also betting big on the technology for trucks. The Japanese manufacturer has devoted resources to what it calls Project Portal, in which it’s testing a fuel cell-equipped prototype that has the capability to haul up to 80,000 lbs for up to 200 miles. The proving ground is the Port of Los Angeles, the busiest port by volume in the US; Project Portal is part of a broader feasibility study aimed at determining ways to cut emissions there. Although that 200-mile range is fairly limited given the capabilities fuel cell technology, it’s appropriate for the limited geographic area of the study. Plus, the craft has been outfitted with only a pair of Mirai fuel stacks; Toyota can simply add more capacity to extend the range of the prototype.

Besides, range isn’t the point of the vehicle, at least not yet – the aim is to prove the utility, durability, and the eco-friendliness of Toyota’s hydrogen solution. “This is a proof of concept, and we really want to show that the powertrain works,” Toyota engineer Tak Yokoo told Wired magazine. “It should be capable for all truck operations.”

Still, there are numerous manufacturers sharing Tesla’s belief that the future of trucking is electric. Veteran US engine maker Cummins this summer unveiled its own electric tractor-trailer model, the AEOS, which apparently has enough strength to haul a 22-ton trailer. The AEOS’s range is limited at 100 miles, however; it’s classified as an ‘urban hauler’ for local or regional work.

Meanwhile, Daimler is developing the somewhat dully-named Mercedes-Benz Electric Truck. This is an electric artic that runs on three lithium-ion batteries, which collectively provide enough power to haul over 57,000 lbs of cargo. Its range peaks early at 124 miles, although an optional extra battery pack can extend that a bit. This big electric beast, according to Daimler “produces zero local emissions and runs silently, yet it is equal to a truck with an internal combustion engine in terms of load and performance”.

We shouldn’t expect to see ETs on the road anytime soon, though; Daimler isn’t planning on rolling them out for at least several years. That’s a long time to wait, especially considering that Nikola, Tesla, Toyota, Cummins and at least a few other competitors are quickly rolling out their versions of trucking’s future. It’s too soon to tell which model, or even which technology, will become the standard.


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