It will perhaps come as a surprise, but in Australia, where you can walk into several brands of car dealerships and order a brand-new electric vehicle, truck buyers do not have the same choices.
Despite the advantages of electrified trucks – and there are many in an urban environment – it seems odd that, with a couple of exceptions – Fuso and Volvo – no electric-truck manufacturer from anywhere in the world has set up shop in this country.
And even in the case of those two exceptions, both makers offer just one or two models respectively, limiting market penetration and consumer choice even further.
Certainly, globally, there are plenty of manufacturers of such things, but at this stage, no mainstream brand has really targeted the Australian truck market.
However, that’s not to say truck-fleet operators can’t get hold of a fully electric rigid truck up to 22.5 tonnes, and that’s all down to an innovative Australian company that has taken a novel approach to the issue.
SEA Electric Australia is the company, and what started as a business modifying conventional trucks to take them from diesel to electric power has since grown into a company employing 60 people, with a strategic alliance with Japanese giant Hino Trucks, and is producing about 50 trucks a year with plans to take that to 400 this calendar year.
SEA is also opening two plants in the USA and is about to list on the US Stock Exchange. Plans are also being drawn up for a manufacturing plant in Thailand and there’s been plenty of interest from Vietnam. There are also offices in London, prototypes testing for the Japanese market and operations across five continents.
Based in South Dandenong in outer-eastern Melbourne, and founded in Australia in 2012, the company started modifying donor trucks to a fully-electric driveline back in 2014. By 2016 things were starting to happen, and the last 18 months have been a whirlwind with the alliance formed with Hino Trucks (part of the Toyota empire).
The deal sees Hino ship semi-knocked down (SKD) trucks to SEA’s Dandenong plant, in the form of `gliders’ (trucks that are complete – but disassembled in this case – apart from the engine and driveline).
From there, the kits are assembled into bare chassis before being fitted with the SEA-developed electric driveline and, eventually a cabin and all the trimmings. Interestingly, the finished vehicles carry a SEA Electric VIN, not a Hino number.
The electric motors and batteries are sourced from China, but are built to SEA’s own specifications from prototypes engineered and built in Melbourne. And, crucially, all the development of the software that makes a modern EV possible was done in-house at SEA Electric Australia.
The SEA Electric product looks really no different from a conventional truck apart from elements such as not needing an air intake or exhaust pipe. Even the interior is pretty familiar, with just a couple of differences including a lack of a gear-shifter (there’s no transmission, after all, so three simple buttons suffice). But it’s clever beyond that with what was the lever for the exhaust brake being repurposed to operate the variable regenerative braking.
SEA Electric’s engineering team has also been praised globally (including by some competitors) for the way the vehicle is laid out. While many E-truck makers mount the battery-packs either side of the main ladder chassis (saddle-bag style), SEA uses that ladder structure to effect by mounting the battery packs within those main girders.
That gives the batteries much better protection from a side impact as well as sticking with the engineering principle of mass-centralisation. The battery-packs are split, with the second unit being placed over the front cross-member, exactly where the conventional engine and transmission would live. That has not only helped with the centre of gravity, but the mass of the batteries is close enough to that of the original driveline to mitigate the need to change suspension rates in the kit as it arrives from Hino.
WHICH TRUCKS AND WHY?
SEA Electric builds trucks ranging from a 4.5-tonne to 22.5 tonne rigid chassis. These are the trucks you’ll typically see delivering parcels, and pretty much anything else in an urban area. And it is this urban environment where an electric truck works the best.
That’s mainly for two reasons. The first is that while range is improving all the time, a battery-powered EV still has limitations. In the case of the SEA trucks, that range will depend on payload and fit-out, but will mostly fall between 200 and 350km. While that’s more than a typical urban truck will cover in a day, it doesn’t work logistically for long-range freight haulage.
Secondly, an electric driveline, with its ability to harvest the energy lost in braking in a conventional truck, is most efficient in stop-start and urban traffic flows.
Along with those factors, tailpipe pollution (of which an eTruck has none) is at its worst in a built-up area, so the advantages of a zero-emissions vehicle in that environment are impossible to ignore.
As far as performance goes, truck drivers all talk about torque, not horsepower. And that’s where the SEA product also excels. The instant torque of the electric motor means the EV doesn’t need a transmission, keeping cost, complexity and servicing costs down.
And after a quick ride-along in the SEA product with some experienced truck drivers, the broad consensus was that performance of the electric trucks is bang on the money. Typical power and torque figures are 108kW and 1000Nm to 125kW and 1500Nm. And that’s before we get to the reduced risk of hearing loss and lower stress levels thanks to the relative silence of the eTruck experience.
The elephant in the room, of course is the purchase price. Although payload and tare weights are not radically different, the SEA trucks are about 2.5 times more expensive to buy. So, for a conventional four-tonne truck costing $50,000, the SEA equivalent will be closer to $125,000.
But with that higher purchase price comes plenty of cost-saving potential, too.
Maintenance on an electric truck is much lower than for a conventional unit. The electric motor has no gearbox and is a simple, one-moving-part deal. Crucially, the maintenance that is required involves no oil apart form a differential oil-change about every 100,000km. Even the eTruck’s ability to regenerate power when slowing means that the vehicle’s brake rotors, drums and linings last a lot longer. In fact, at least twice as long according to SEA’s test drivers.
Battery packs are designed to last at least a decade and SEA Electric offers a three-year/150,000km warranty as well as a five-year battery warranty and three years of roadside assistance. The company even has a training program for first responders who need to be able to effectively deal with an eTruck that’s been involved in a crash.
According to SEA Electric president of Asia Pacific Bill Gillespie, there will be big growth in the electric-truck market in Australia across the rest of 2022 and into 2023.
“But at the moment, there’s no Federal or State Government support for zero-emission trucks,” he told Carsguide.
SEA Electric is one company that is lobbying for better support for this growing market segment, and Mr Gillespie is certain that “If the government gets behind electric trucks, finance companies will get behind it too”.
“Companies and government bodies now need to – and want to – go electric. Shareholders want it, management wants it and customers want it…”
It’s pretty easy to see that the move to electric medium and light trucks isn’t something that can be avoided. But it’s also great to see manufacturing returning to Australia in the transport industry. Of course, sentimentality has nothing to do with the success of a brand like SEA Electric, but based on the hard numbers, you can expect to see more eTrucks emptying garbage bins, delivering online shopping and maintaining parks and gardens. Even if you won’t hear them.
Continue reading the full article at CarsGuide by David Morely published on April 12, 2022.