At last week's Road Transport Expo, Blackburn-based electric truck maker Electra showed a full range of its battery electric vehicles between 12 tonnes and 27 tonnes GVW, and MD Ben Smith said that the company is working on a hydrogen fuel cell for higher weight trucks.
A 12.5 tonner on show was fitted with a food waste tipping body, which created a lot of interest among municipal operators wondering how to comply with the government’s latest requirement to separate food from other waste streams.
“We have already delivered seven into Basildon Council,” Smith said. “This is something nearly every council that has been on our stand has been desperate to see.”
Electra can build its electric driveline onto a variety of truck chassis but mostly uses Iveco gliders it buys in with no engine or gearbox.
Electra then fits the 250kW direct drive motor, battery packs to the customer specification and an active battery cooling system to keep the batteries within a specified temperature range and so improve their performance and life. This also enables fast charging using a 150kW DC supply, a charge rate than can overheat batteries without a cooling system.
The 700V batteries are made by Chinese manufacturer CATL, said to be the world’s biggest EV battery maker.
“Our USP is that the same technology is fitted to every truck you see here,” said Smith. “It may have bigger motors or batteries but we have designed all the power electronics ourselves. You can get into them and change one in 15 minutes.
“We are now on our generation three and are constantly improving how easy it is to build and work on.”
The 12 tonner is typically fitted with a 140kWh battery but Electra is working on a longer wheelbase version that will be able to carry 210kWh to give a range of 140 to 200 miles depending on the vehicle spec. With fast charging the truck would be ready to do another 100 miles in 40 minutes.
Electra built some of the very first electric trucks on UK roads when it supplied seven RCVs based on Dennis chassis to Veolia for its Westminster recycling contract. “Dennis build their own electric truck but we do it slightly different,” said Smith. “Our sister company buys around 25% of their output so there is a relationship there. Factories like to sell trucks.”
The company has converted a Volvo FM to electric and is about to build a 32-tonner based on a Mercedes-Benz Econic chassis cab. Next in line will be a Mercedes-Benz 32-tonne Arocs tipper – Smith said that the “first company in the market with an electric 8x4 tipper is going to do really well”.
He added: “40 tonnes is about the limit because of battery space. We are looking at hydrogen fuel cells, first for refrigerated vehicles. We have built three fridge vehicles and they are performing fantastically. They have a range of 140 miles with a 200kWh battery and we can go up to 315kWh or 420kWh. For bigger trucks that need to go further there is a limit.
“We have a car transporter customer wanting a range of 300 miles and we could put 420kWh on there but that would dramatically reduce payload. So it’s either hydrogen or battery swap.”
With over 100 trucks put on the road in the last five years Electra is quickly gathering data on their real world performance and so is able to advise customers on the ideal spec for their particular operation.
Smith says Electra is “body agnostic” and customers are able to choose whatever make and type of body they prefer, including side loaders.
“We are now talking to fleets about putting more vehicles in and we are often reducing the battery size. We are finding that after five years battery degradation is nowhere what we expected,” said Smith. “One of our engineering team was here yesterday and they saw on another stand what we’ve been looking for – a quick disconnect interlock for the battery cabling and cooling pipes.
“If you have a fleet of vehicles you can quick-swap the batteries and maybe charge them with solar or a waste to energy plant. It is a very exciting journey we are on and I think by the end of this year we will be getting close with the battery swap technology.
“The first person to crack a battery leasing and swap service will do very well.”
An electric refuse collection vehicle is still twice the price of a diesel but over a life span of seven years the total cost of ownership is more comparable. Smith said that Electra is now designing its trucks to last up to twice that long, with all metalwork zinc as well as powder coated and all water traps eliminated to prevent rust.
While most councils prefer to buy the vehicles Electra is partnered with NRG Riverside, a municipal fleet hire and management specialist that is able to offer a range of options for acquiring the vehicles.
“They have 14 workshops and a 24-hour helpdesk,” said Smith. “They buy a lot of our vehicles and lease them to the customer. Some customers want to buy them and get the finance themselves and we have had visits from some of the leading asset finance houses. They are very happy with what we are building and are comfortable putting an RV on them which is the important part.”
Electra has also signed a sales agreement that includes warranty repairs with Iveco dealership Guest & Sherwood which has 14 service centres in the UK.
Electra’s founder and chairman is Sid Sadique, someone with long experience in the commercial vehicle world including 15 years as fleet director at Biffa, and his portfolio of related businesses includes NRG Fleet Services (parent of Direct Tyre Management) and Mercedes-Benz dealers Sparshatts and eStar.
“Sid is very well respected in the industry,” said Smith. “That helped bring in the orders. We didn’t build too many at first and while we have had our niggles we have overcome them. Now we are building six trucks a month and we have a very flexible product that can be built anywhere in the world.”