Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Could Elon Musk Concept Possibly Drive Traditional Freight Truck Marques out of Business?

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US – WORLDWIDE – An enigmatic tweet by entrepreneur Elon Musk has thrown the US semi-truck market into some confusion. On 13 April the CEO of both Space-X and Tesla announced that ‘Tesla Semi Truck unveil set for September. Team has done an amazing job. Seriously next level.’ Other than that details are basically non-existent and Tesla is being tight lipped about the project.

The announcement caused share prices of US truck and engine manufacturers to take a hit and they have continued to slide. When Musk says something it normally means that things are going to occur; he isn’t one known for making statements and then not following them up. But is a heavy electric freight truck actually viable, especially for a market such as the US where truckers generally travel great distances? This has not been, so far, an area where all-electric driven vehicles have proven very successful.

The problem, in essence, is range. Electric vehicles have always struggled in terms of competing with fossil fuelled vehicles in this regard, and though Tesla has well and truly led the charge in developing ever more efficient storage batteries the fact remains that to date ranges remain inferior in all electric vehicles.

A greater issue might be the length of time that these vehicles can take to charge their batteries. Again, although giant strides have occurred in reducing charging times it still takes at least an hour, often much longer, for any method currently on the market to charge a small car. With freight drivers getting paid to get a job done as quickly and efficiently as possible, waiting for a truck to recharge is quite simply often not going to be a viable option, leaving trucks in the same position as fork lifts, charging restricted to out of hours of service shifts.

A number of existing manufacturers have had long term projects investigating the issues and are working on getting production vehicles onto the market; Volvo are developing a semi-truck that aims to solve the issue by using a hybrid drive system whilst Mercedes are trialling an all-electric 25 tonne truck (noticeably not a semi-truck) which is intended for short range city operators.

The road to success however can be a rocky one. In past years we have often promoted companies who looked to fill a gap in the market by supplying a cost effective, green solution by way of a variety of vans, trucks etc. Just last November came plaudits for a new, British built truck to be released in March from Smiths Electric Vehicles, a company which produced models up to a seemingly viable 7.5 tonne, all electric HGV which we publicised regularly until lack of interest prompted the move to relocate in the US. Now we understand that the returning UK subsidiary was actually placed in liquidation following an investigation by HMRC causing staff redundancies and a trail of unpaid creditors.

Although Tesla has made a name for itself as an amazing innovator in electric cars, jumping to producing a much larger vehicle with a very different design brief and clientele requirements is a huge step. However, the fact remains that this is Elon Musk we are talking about, the man who decided that space rockets needed to be reusable, something the established industry said not only couldn’t be done, but was utterly ridiculous. And yet he did it. If there is anyone capable of tearing apart the status quo and forcing the pace of technological development the South African born entrepreneur fits the bill.

So, could the new electric truck spell the end for fossil fuelled conventional freight vehicles and send them the same way as the extinct flora and fauna which powers them? Unless existing manufacturers can adapt rapidly to the changing demand for zero emission vehicles, and if those new designs can offer viable competition to the existing fleets in terms of range and cost capacity, then certainly, and we might soon see the demise of historic brands such as Paccar and Cummins. We wait to see what Elon Musk is going to pull from his very capable sleeves in September.

Photo: Nothing so new about electric trucks! The Orwell range was built in Ipswich, England from 1914 by the Ransomes, Sims and Jefferies Company, producers of agricultural machinery since 1789.