We've seen a lot of interest in electric trucks this past three years, especially package vans -- the Ford Transit Connect Electric, Internationals' e-Star, the Smith Newton, Freightliner Custom Chassis' MT45-EV. But did you know there were electric delivery trucks 100 years ago? We’ve had a recent Facebook group post on picture from 1917 displaying some of the M.R.C. fleet in London of Walker Electric trucks charging our discussion page HERE . This sparked some attention and discussion so let’s dive a little deeper.
Daimler, Tesla, Cummins and many other companies are all creating new electric trucks. Some of them will hit the market very soon and, as experts predict, the truck industry will be changed forever. However, none of these companies invented a battery-powered truck – they were already delivering milk and baked goods more than a hundred years ago.
Nothing new under the Sun…….
We now consider electric trucks to be transportation of the future, but in reality, the world has already seen electric trucks in the past. For example, Walker Electric Truck company in US in 1907-1942 was manufacturing rather popular little electric trucks. They were regarded as extremely reliable and tough, although quite slow. Modern electric trucks will be at least as quick as diesel-powered ones. But Walker trucks were not that fast at all. A Walker truck was powered by a 3.5 HP motor, drawing energy from 66-80-volt batteries, delivering a maximum of 40 amps. You don’t have to know anything about engineering to know that this is not a lot of power even for a small truck.
Walker trucks obviously could not reach a very high-top speeds – they maxed out at around 16-19 km/h. However, no one really complained about that sort of disadvantage back in 1910’s, especially since the truck had steel wheels with solid rubber tyres. The controls were simple: a large steering wheel, with the driver positioned high over the front wheels; two brake pedals either side of the steering wheel; and a lever speed control. Reverse is engaged by another foot lever. The bank of batteries sat in the middle of the truck halfway between the front and rear axles. The motor was located in the differential and the drive gears were in the wheels. By the way, batteries provided 80 km of range, this would have varied depending on load and road conditions. This range of operation was pretty much enough for daily operations at that period, they were charged every night anyway.
Walker Electric Truck company did not make semis – all of their models were conventional wagon-type transporters. The cargo compartment was customized to match client’s needs. It was not an aerodynamic masterpiece either – it was pretty much a wooden box on wheels and batteries between the axles. Not that it matters when you are driving that slow.
You may laugh at these specifications, but at the time they were pretty good. Don’t forget that these trucks were replacing horses and carriages. They were quicker, easier to maintain and could carry significantly heavier loads. Walker exported some of these electric trucks to Great Britain, Norway and New Zealand. In fact, it is said that electrical company Orion New Zealand Limited is using one Walker truck till this day, although it is more of a symbol than a tool.
With no gears, no clutch and simple stop-go operation but also supremely economical as the motor stops when the truck stops. Half the life of a gas truck is spent 'idling, ‘one reason they wear out more quickly, and at the time and in comparison, cost 50% to 100% more than Walkers per delivery, per mile or per day. These factors made electric vehicles popular with companies like Rail companies, US Postal Service, delivery, diary companies as well as bakeries and other small businesses. It is said that the famous chain Marshall Field & Company had 276 Walker trucks in 1925. However, eventually it all came to an end.
Without lithium Ion and modern semi-conductors’ electric cars were never viable and at this time it was nickel-iron batteries that Edison used had a specific energy of around 22 Wh/kg. Gasoline has a specific energy of 12778 Wh/kg. If we assume the combustion engine was only 5% efficient, which is wildly generous if we're trying to argue against gasoline, Even accounting for the added weight of the engine over an electric motor, gasoline, by weight, was 20-30 times more efficient than the battery technology of the time
One might say we’ve come full circle now that the technology has caught up with this invention. Tesla Motors paved the way by capturing the attention of consumers in North America and Europe. In June of 2016 it was the fourth anniversary of the first S Sedans rolling off the Fremont, CA production line and the S is now the best-selling EV in the world today. In the same month Nikola (pronounced Neek-oh-la) Motor Company Founder and CEO Trevor Milton announced that $2.3 billion in reservations have been generated in the first month, totaling more than 7,000 truck reservations with deposits. The company in the prior month that it will launch an electric class 8 semi-truck, dubbed “Nikola One.”. Since then Nikola Motor Company has been absorbed by Tesla Motors however the truck which has translated into the Tesla “Semi” is due for production at the end of this year. The initial production has been pushed back multiple times due to battery sourcing issues, however as the company ramped up high-volume production of its tabless 4680 batteries we’re promised that 2021 is the year. The “Semi” would have a 500 miles (805 km) range on a full charge and with its new batteries it would be able to run for 400 miles (640 km) after an 80% charge in 30 minutes using a solar-powered "Tesla Mega charger"
Many large companies aren’t waiting for Tesla and going with other electric truck test beds, one example is that Coca Cola has been testing their Refrigerated Electric Powered delivery vans: Green goes better with Coke, as seen through the Company’s ongoing advertising efforts to deliver their products via six all-electric, zero-emissions trucks built by eStar. These electric vehicles will join Coca-Cola’s growing fleet of 750 heavy-duty, alternative fuel vehicles, taking the “Lead” and “Not Looking Back”
The six electric Coca-Cola trucks are on the roads since 2017 in San Francisco; New York City; Washington, D.C.; and Hartford, Conn.; with two trucks in Los Angeles. These eStar vehicles have zero tailpipe emissions and can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 10 tons annually. The windshield design offers nearly 180-degree visibility, improving safety. The vehicle is almost completely quiet.
Another notable mention is UPS with Workhorse Group are currently in testing phases of their own electric package truck, A project on going since 2018-2019 and it should be important to note that UPS’s first electric vehicle was in 1935 and you may have guessed that it was a Walker Electric Truck.
We look to the future with optimism and for business the promise substantially lower operational and maintenance costs over time, all-electric trucks so far haven't been able to beat their diesel or gasoline counterparts in their initial price tag. Seems like our world driven on the whim of big business and hopefully with the current romantics of Tesla Motors and other large and tenured business organizations getting more involved with energy sustainability we’ll see much more traction on the issue.
- S.M. Jenkins