Autos

Behind the Wheel of a Superfast Electric Delivery Truck


Ian Wright, founder of Wrightspeed Inc., speeds along the highway in his electric sports car in Woodside, Calif

Photograph by Paul Sakuma/AP Photo

Ian Wright, founder of Wrightspeed Inc., speeds along the highway in his electric sports car in Woodside, Calif

Driving an electric delivery truck is weird and awesome—and eerily silent.

This beast of a vehicle, the kind you might see hauling crates or machinery around town, makes no noise. You turn it on, and there’s total silence. It takes a dashboard outfitted with a computer screen to confirm that, yes, this truck is ready for action. Then you hit the accelerator, and it gives an instant, massive kick, as if a giant has just shoved the truck from behind.

Like other electric vehicles, this truck has regenerative breaking to capture the kinetic energy of the machine as it slows down and to convert it to electricity. Pull your foot off the accelerator, and you can feel a consistent kind of tension bringing the truck to a halt. This regenerative mechanism works well enough to bring the truck to a complete stop at a red light without the driver ever actually touching the brake pedal, which takes some getting used to. But after about five minutes, you can basically drive the truck through just the give and take of the accelerator pedal.

This truck comes from Wrightspeed, a startup in Silicon Valley founded by Ian Wright. The New Zealander worked at Tesla Motors—our cover story subject this week—during its early days and then left to pursue his own electric adventure. Rather than making sports cars and luxury sedans, Wright decided to tackle big, gnarly machines such as delivery trucks and other commercial vehicles that move goods or people.

Wright thinks he can save such companies as United Parcel Service (UPS) and FedEx (FDX) tons of money by cutting their fuel costs. But rather than selling them fleets of new vehicles, Wrightspeed sells power-train kits these companies can use to rip the combustion engines out of their trucks and replace them with electric motors and batteries. The shipping companies’ trucks can then go from getting 8 to 10 miles per gallon to the equivalent of 25 to 35 miles per gallon. “There’s a three to five-year payback,” Wright says. “If the price of fuel goes up, the payback gets shorter.”

Oh, and there’s another twist. The kits Wrightspeed sells include more than electric motors and battery packs. They also come with a turbine that can be fueled by natural gas and diesel. This turbine kicks in after the batteries have chewed through about 30 miles of range and starts recharging the batteries. Through software, Wrightspeed runs the turbine at the ideal speed to keep the batteries in their happy state. Wright says it’s much more efficient to operate a vehicle this way rather than burning fuel with a combustion engine during constant starting and stopping.

This may sound like a lot of effort, and it is. A delivery company wanting to use this technology will need to get one of its trucks on a lift to remove the engine, transmission, rear axle, and parts of the fuel system before installing a new rear axle with 250-horsepower electric motors on each wheel and new gear boxes. A couple of inverters are needed to drive the motors, plus a battery pack installed where the transmission used to be. That hole where the engine sat? Fill it with the gas turbine and then—to top it all off—go ahead and rip out the antiquated dashboard and replace it with an LCD screen.

“There are a couple other black boxes that handle some controls,” Wright says. “Then you’re done.” Wrightspeed thinks it can whittle this install process down to about two days.

Madness, right? Well, Wright points out that the delivery companies will run their trucks for 10 to 20 years and need to replace their engines two or three times during the life of a single chassis. A new engine and transmission for these types of vehicles cost about $35,000. So if you’re already going to that trouble, have the people on hand, and foresee years of fuel cost savings ahead, why not upgrade to a turbine-powered, electric dynamo?

Look at the size of the potential market, and the motivations behind Wright’s quest become clear. In the U.S. alone, about 2.2 million vehicles on the road fit into Wrightspeed’s ideal weight class of 11,000 to 26,000 pounds. Fuel costs dominate the balance sheets of delivery companies, which have proven to be some of the most aggressive adopters of any technology that can trump the woeful miles-per-gallon of combustion engines. And while sworn to secrecy around the exact details, I can say that a couple of trucks with a very familiar logo were in the process of getting the Wrightspeed treatment during my recent visit to the company’s office. They’ll hit the road in August for a trial run.

Away from the economics, Wright thinks shipping companies will embrace this technology in part because it just gives the drivers a better ride. As mentioned, they’ll have to do less foot flipping between the accelerator and break and less shifting, and they get that instant, powerful response when hitting the accelerators. My experience as a delivery man is limited to a very brief stint moving flavored milk around Sydney, but I can see Wright’s point. From a novelty standpoint alone, the Wrightspeed vehicles are awfully fun to drive.

Wrightspeed has spent almost three years in its current factory perfecting this technology. The site abounds with electronic vehicle gear, including Wright’s X1, a street legal sports car he built that can go zero to 60 in 2.9 seconds. “There’s something exciting here with all this technology,” he says. “It’s about being part of something different and that looks to change how people deliver things.”

Vance_190
Vance is a technology writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in Palo Alto, Calif. He is the author of Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future (HarperCollins, May 2015). Follow him on Twitter @valleyhack.

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Companies Mentioned

  • UPS
    (United Parcel Service Inc)
    • $110.96 USD
    • 0.03
    • 0.03%
  • FDX
    (FedEx Corp)
    • $174.22 USD
    • -0.16
    • -0.09%
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