Six years ago, Chace Barber was a truck driver hauling logs from B.C.’s remote forests, spending $15,000 a month on fuel.
Searching for a way to cut fuel costs, Mr. Barber pooled his savings and put down a deposit on a Tesla semi. Five years later, he still hadn’t received the truck. But the supply chain delays gave him cause to pause. The Tesla TSLA-Q semi prioritized aerodynamics to maximize the batteries. This meant the truck was light, but not durable or rugged enough for Mr. Barber and the British Columbia backcountry.
“You need something really heavy and really tough if you wanna move heavy loads in crappy conditions,” he said.
It wasn’t just Tesla that came up short. No other electric-vehicle manufacturer was building heavy-duty trucks – the kind that could survive dense forests, haul gravel or carry cement mixers. The major trucking companies on the market – Peterbilt and Kenworth – are electrifying only last-mile trucking, the vehicles that deliver food through city streets and on highways.
Electrifying trucking, especially heavy-duty trucking, is plagued by fundamental problems. Batteries are not big enough, and they are too weighty for long distance and heavy loads.
But Mr. Barber believed that heavy-duty trucking could not be left behind. Trucking is responsible for 10.5 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, the majority from heavy-duty trucks. And the business costs of gasoline are substantial. In forestry, transportation is the most fuel-consuming element of the wood supply chain, eating up around 50 per cent of total fuel usage (compared to extraction and harvesting) and accounting for more than 25 per cent of forestry business costs.
Driven by a grassroots knowledge of the challenges facing their industry, in 2019 Mr. Barber and his business partner, Eric Little, launched Edison Motors out of a tiny town two hours inland from Vancouver in Merritt, B.C.
“We said, if we’re gonna do this, if we want our truck, we’re gonna have to build our own. And that’s what we did.”
Edison Motors, named after Thomas Edison (the rival of Nikola Tesla during the “Battle of the Currents”), is a team of six engineers, mechanics, loggers and heavy-hauling experts, plus one canine shop supervisor, Cedar.
To secure funding they appealed to other loggers, mechanics and truckers. They launched TikTok videos where Mr. Barber, wearing red plaid and a truckers hat, runs through the challenges of trucking, the building of the electric logging truck and signs off with the hashtag #nomoreuglytrucks, a jab at the electric trucks on the market from Tesla and other EV giants.
They received $1.5-million from more than 5,000 people, 90 per cent of whom were truckers or small to mid-sized trucking companies. They used the funding to build North America’s first semi-electric logging truck, in a tent warehouse on a dirt floor.
The truck is not, however, fully electric. It is a hybrid.
When designing the truck, Edison Motors quickly realized that fully electric was not an option. The heavy-duty trucks, and the distances they travel, would require batteries of 2,000 kilowatt-hours. The biggest batteries on the market right now are 400 kilowatt-hours.
Xianguo Li, a mechanical and mechatronics engineering professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, also thinks that electrified trucks are not practical. The challenge is bigger than batteries, he said.
A vehicle needs four components to move: fuel, air, a power-producing unit (an engine) and an acting product (the byproduct of the combustion, for example CO2 and water vapour). A gas-powered vehicle only needs to carry two of these components: fuel and the power-producing unit. The battery of an electric car must carry all four. This means that a gas vehicle will always be lighter, and better suited to long distances and heavy loads.
“Electric is good for compact, small vehicles but not really for large-truck, long-distance driving,” said Dr. Li.
North America’s electricity grids are also not designed to power fleets of electric trucks, added Dr. Li, especially if all these trucks need to be charged quickly at the same time. He said continuous strain on the system would lead to collapse, akin to what happened in 2003 when 55 million people across Toronto, New York and the rest of the U.S. Northeast and Midwest lost power.
But that didn’t mean the Edison Motors truck couldn’t be part electric. The first prototype truck, a 1962 Kenworth named Carl, has a CAT generator that charges two large battery banks, which then runs the drive motor.
The trucks can run two to three hours off the batteries, while the generator recharges the batteries in 20 minutes, while driving. This means truckers don’t have to wait or return to a battery station to recharge.
The batteries mean that the truck can drive 1,000 kilometres on 120 litres of fuel, working out to around 12 litres for 100 kilometres. A family-sized SUV is around 10 litres for 100 kilometres. Before the batteries, the truck was 40 litres for 100 kilometres, 70-per-cent less efficient.
“The main goal is fuel reduction,” said Mr. Barber. “That’s what we’re trying to say. Let’s take a sensible approach over the next 10 years, instead of trying to do it all at once where it doesn’t meet a lot of applications.”
At an electric-energy convention in Vancouver on Sept. 9 they unveiled a second hybrid truck. They called it Topsy after the elephant Thomas Edison allegedly electrocuted at Coney Island in 1903 (the truth of Topsy’s death is more complicated).
The hybrid heavy-duty vehicles are around 30-per-cent more expensive than the traditional models, but they promise to save truckers 50 to 70 per cent of fuel costs.
Now Edison Motors has the demo, they’re courting bigger investment through partnership deals with bigger trucking companies. Trucking companies can invest in Edison Motors, receive equity and get a truck.
Mr. Barber won’t give details on which companies are interested, but he said two large logging trucking companies have come to the table, alongside a concrete company, snowplow company and a low-bed trucking company.
Over the next year and a half, they plan to expand to build logging, concrete, snowplow and tow trucks. They need around $5-million in funding. Mr. Barber is confident he will raise the money.
Edison Motors won’t have to scale their operations to compete with large mechanics. While last-mile delivery trucks are built on mass, heavy-duty vocational trucks, like logging trucks, are “bay-built” – that is, custom built to the customer specifications. This means Edison Motors won’t need to create a massive production facility.
However, roadblocks remain, said Martin Ordonez, a researcher of power conversion and sustainability at the University of British Columbia, and also the chief executive officer of Futuri Power Inc., a company that works to promote the transition to electric.
He said one of the most significant costs in the electric-vehicle sector is safety certification. The vehicles will need to go through layers of testing before they will be commercially viable, and this will cost a lot in fees and take time.
However, Prof. Ordonez believes that the switch to electric must happen, and that those on the ground and using the technology are often the best-suited to handle the challenge.
“Nobody can specify what they need from equipment better than those who use the equipment,” he said.
Mr. Barber believes that this will be the key to their success. He plans to stay focused on the needs of customers. In heavy-duty trucking, this means coming at it from a trucking perspective first, and an electric-vehicle perspective second. He said this grassroots approach is what allowed them to think of a solution to fuel costs in heavy-duty logging before the big trucking companies. Although, he’s still surprised Edison Motors is the first.
“Can we just agree that this is dumb that a bunch of loggers in Merritt did this? That we had the first hybrid electric truck,” said Mr. Barber. “It’s kind of ridiculous at this point. I mean, great for us. But kind of dumb.”
Editor’s note: (Oct. 2, 2023): A previous version of this article incorrectly expressed the unit of measurement used for vehicle batteries. The correct unit is kilowatt-hours, which expresses energy used over time. As well, the previous version misstated how far the Edison Motors truck can travel on 120 litres of fuel. It can travel 1,000 kilometres on 120 litres of fuel.