June 2, 2023

Electrifying medium-duty trucks is a class act


Most of the buzz around commercial truck electrification seems to focus on Class 8 models. Who’s ordering them? Where is the infrastructure to charge them? Other than a few lesser-known players like BYD and Nikola, the field belongs to the legacy players like Daimler Truck, Volvo and Paccar.

That leaves a clearer field for startups and electric chassis companies in the Class 3-5 range. Of those, Class 5 model step vans weighing between 16,001 and 19,500 pounds are attracting a lot of new entrants. These trucks can carry up to 10,000 pounds of cargo, move easily in traffic and — despite their boxy appearance — maneuver reasonably well. 

That will get even better when Ree Automotive begins building its four-wheel steering model with a Proxima body from EAVX, the newest division of J.B. Poindexter, also the parent of Morgan Olson.

Legacy chassis come from the likes of Ford Motor Co. and Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp., a Daimler Truck North America subsidiary. Most of the van bodies carry the Morgan Olson or Utilimaster name.  

Room for other electrification players

“We stepped back and looked at the market,” Workhorse Group CEO Rick Dauch told me at the Advanced Clean Transportation Expo in May. “You look at Class 3 and below, that’s where the big boys play. You go to Class 7-8, that’s where the big boys play up there. The Class 4-5-6 niche is perfect for us. That’s the work truck.”

Workhorse is selling a Class 4 chassis cab modified from Canada’s GreenPower Motor Co. while it prepares a ground-up Class 5 for production later this year and its own Class 4 entry a few years from now.

Dauch isn’t alone in seeing the middle classes — especially Class 5 — as fertile ground. It doesn’t hurt that those products need to account for 1 in 10 new truck purchases in California in 2025 with a complete transition to battery-electric or hydrogen fuel cell power by 2035.

“Almost every city has got to convert almost all of their work trucks,” he said. “Almost every city has 30 or 40 work trucks depending how big they are. They’re going to become electrified.”

Repowering existing chassis

Motiv Power Systems doesn’t offer a ground-up electric chassis. It electrifies three chassis it gets from Ford and one from FCCC. Motiv continues to improve its product, transitioning from batteries used in the BMW i3 to packs made of lithium-iron phosphate (LFP) batteries from startup Our Next Energy.

“We’re getting 78 kilowatt-hours per pack where we had 42 before. It should be able to support more charging cycles and reliability should be the same or better,” Motiv CEO Tim Krauskopf told me at the ACT Expo.

Co-development of a motor and controller with Japan’s Nidec Corp. provides torque equivalent to a Detroit DD15 diesel with boosting driving range by 20% or more.

Motiv also occupies the Class 3-5 space. Class 3 electric conversions provide the best bang for the electric buck, but their lack of payload capacity limits their value, Krauskopf said.

“There are some Class 4s that can barely move 2 tons because their batteries are so heavy,” he said. “And so you trade off between range and what class you end up being in. So we just say 2 to 6 tons payload.”

Motiv Power Systems CEO Tim Krauskopf with the company’s advanced Class 5 electrified chassis. (Photo: Alan Adler/FreightWaves)

Not ‘much of a stretch’

At the Work Truck Show in Indianapolis in March, the Shyft Group followed the 2021 reveal of its Blue Arc Class 3-5 electric step van with a prototype of a Class 5 crew cab model. Think room for a commercial landscaping crew of six with power ports to charge tools like Weedwackers.

The Shyft Group is considering a Class 5 crew cab from its electric step van that goes into production in 2024. (Photo: Shyft Group)

“It wasn’t much of a stretch to go from our Class 5 walk-in van to a Class 5 cab only,” CEO Daryl Adams told me. Shyft will decide whether to take the crew cab from concept to production later. The Class 5 version of the Blue Arc step van is planned for the first half of 2024. It will also use LFP batteries from ONE.

Adams said Shyft developed its own electric chassis because it couldn’t find one to buy that it felt was robust enough to last the typical 15-year life of a step van. 

Shyft’s nine consumer-facing brands include Utilimaster. 

What about the mojo of Rizon?

Even as some companies see potential in electrifying trucking’s middle classes, a few startups have already come and gone.

“With the interest rates being as high as they are [and] the cost of just running a business, I think next year you’re going to see a significant drop-off,” Adams said.

XL Fleet, one of the startups that focused on repowering vehicles to run on electricity, is now part of Adams’ Shyft Group. Bollinger Motors is now 60% owned by Mullen Automotive, itself in precarious financial condition. Mullen executed a 1-for-25 reverse stock split in May to get its shares safely above Nasdaq’s listing requirements.

Then there is the coming return of Daimler Truck to the Class 4-5 medium duty space with its Rizon-branded versions of the Mitsubishi Fuso eCanter. DTNA leads the market in Class 6 and 8.

Krauskopf doesn’t sound concerned.

““The customer base is saying they don’t know how they’re going to get enough trucks to meet rules like the Clean Fleet Rule,” he said. “We will flat out be manufacturing as many as we can.”  

Daimler Truck is returning to the Class 4-5 medium-duty truck segment with its Rizon product line. (Photo: Daimler Truck)

Briefly noted …

Add the medium-duty MD Electric from Mack Trucks to those eligible for California’s Hybrid and Zero-Emission Truck and Bus Voucher Incentive Project (HVIP). The MD voucher is worth up to $85,000 per truck.

Einride has signed a memorandum of understanding with the United Arab Emirates to provide digital, electric and autonomous technology across a 342-mile freight mobility grid that could  deploy 2,000 electric vehicles, 200 autonomous vehicles and eight charging stations.

Nikola’s big shareholder vote on doubling the number of outstanding shares is next Wednesday. But the company is pressing ahead with sustainable trucking efforts like one with flatbed hauler PGT Trucking and steelmaker Nucor.

Nikola is hauling low-carbon Nucor steel for PGT Trucking. (Photo: Nikola)

Schneider will cut the ribbon next Wednesday on its new truck charging depot in El Monte, California, with 32 direct-current fast-charging ports to support more than 50 battery-electric Freightliner eCascadia trucks.

Autonomous trucking software maker Kodiak Robotics has hired 40-year automotive safety veteran Steve Kenner as vice president of safety.

Isuzu Commercial Truck of America has named Matthew Mesick as the company’s first director of electric vehicle strategies.

That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading. Click here to get Truck Tech via email on Fridays. And tune into Truck Tech on FreightWavesTV on Wednesdays at 4 p.m. EDT. Next week’s scheduled guest is Andrew Smith, founder and CEO of Outrider, the startup that is automating distribution yards and, unlike many newer companies, attracting investment.

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