SEA Electric, who have been at the leading edge of the transition across to battery electric, and have created a great deal of interest across the Pacific in the USA, where the whole subject of electric powertrains is much more advanced than here in Australia.
Glen Walker is the Vice President Asia Pacific at Sea Electric, coming from a long experience working in a number of different aspects of the truck and trucking industry.
Local government is one of those sectors keen to be seen to be green, and electric trucks are one of those visible ways of demonstrating green credibility for a local authority. On the other hand, these local authorities also have to be run like a business and the economic argument for using electric is also important to them.
“There are some applications where it is difficult to find an economic justification for our trucks,” says Glen. “The question we ask is how much diesel did you not use? If you are traveling more than 200 km per day, irrespective of the vehicle, you are likely to reach a break even point around year five.
“The upfront price is two to three times that of the equivalent diesel vehicle, but the savings on fuel are significant and the savings on maintenance are also significant. If you go below 200 km a day the mathematics get less and less effective, but it does depend upon the application for which you are using the truck.
“A work platform or a service vehicle which can use the power from the batteries are examples of where it can be useful. Another good example is the vehicle that you see sitting by the side of the highway with an illuminated lane closed sign. A diesel truck will have to sit there idling in order to provide power for the signage, an electric truck simply simply uses its battery power.
“Often refuse vehicles don’t travel very far, but the EV experience in those vehicles is a very good one, because of its stop/start nature. They are quieter which makes the residents happier and the stop/start nature of the work makes it good for regenerative charging of the battery.”
Waste trucks are also quite hard on brakes in current trucks, but the regenerative braking available means that there is considerably reduced brake wear, as well as a longer range being achievable due to the high level of regenerative braking.
“I’ve got a fair degree of confidence in the way the market will develop,” says Glen. “Our product is maturing and for someone like me, who grew up around diesels, they can be quite confronting when they do well in comparison to a diesel.
“I think we are at one of those turning points, so that, in five years’ time, with the banning of certain products in Europe without a low emission supply chain, and with large OEMs investing more and more into electric, we may find that the use of diesel trucks, especially in an urban environment, will be severely challenged. It could be a sudden change.”
One of the factors which will help electric trucks is further development in batteries. At the moment, there is continual improvement in battery performance and also many millions of investment dollars going in to making further improvements.
Once battery development brings the technology to the point where there is enough energy stored in a small enough package to suit truck operations, then the price of the batteries will start to decrease. This is the point at which potential truck buyers will be able to start doing their sums and the electric truck becomes a better investment.
“The challenge for SEA Electric in the future, is that the vehicles that the large truck manufacturers are developing will begin to arrive in three- or four-years’ time,” says Glenn. “Our challenge will then be to ensure that, at that point we are introducing technology which is three or four years ahead of theirs.”
The current SEA Electric manufacturing facility, based in Dandenong, has been re-powering existing trucks for some time. However, the production facility is now set up to assemble semi knocked down kits coming in from Hino in Japan. These kits are minus an engine and transmission and are assembled on site, and then powered with the SEA Electric power system. These are the trucks which will be sold, branded as SEA, in the dealerships with which the company has made a distribution agreement.
The current facility can handle of around one truck per day, and this capacity is likely to keep the flow of trucks going for the next year. However, if there is an uptick in demand for electric trucks, then a new facility will be needed. Increased demand for the company’s product in the US does mean that the investment dollars needed to increase production capacity should be available to SEA in Australia when required.