Electric utes: pick up where petrol left off
Given the rise in popularity of electric cars, it’s only a matter of time until we have electric utes. Terry Martin reports.
It’s simply wrong to think of Australia as a large and isolated continent far removed from what’s happening in the rest of the world, where electric vehicle sales are taking off and auto companies are committing massive funds to building battery-powered cars, vans, trucks and, yes, even utes.
True, there’s a lot of scepticism around these parts, plenty of doubt and, perhaps not surprisingly, hardly any meaningful demand from consumers right now for electric vehicles of any description, let alone the ute which is ingrained in our culture as a big, bold, brawny member of the working class – albeit one that in recent years has moved up into more polite society.
But just as solar panels are fast becoming standard fixtures on the average Aussie home, due in no small part to pain inflicted by higher energy bills, vehicle electrification has a relevance about it and has reached the point where the trends are undeniable and action is well and truly underway.
North America is leading the charge with electric pickup trucks but major programs are occurring in Australia, which gives us reason to investigate who’s doing what, and why.
TESLA TWITTER FEED
Tech billionaire Elon Musk has already built the world’s biggest lithium-ion battery in South Australia, storing energy for the State, and as head of Tesla Motors in California he is driving the development of an all-electric pickup that could reach production as early as this year.
Hard facts are thin on the ground, with Musk revealing the plan late in 2017 using a comical design sketch that showed an oversized pickup with a more conventional model (such as Ford’s F-150) in its load bed.
He has since followed the lead of US president Donald Trump in taking to Twitter to discuss the program and divulge a few details, such as its use of a dual motor layout, “crazy torque” levels, dynamically adjustable suspension (in accordance to the load) and the biggest battery that Tesla has built for its vehicles to date, enabling a driving range of around 500 miles (805km) before recharging is needed – enough to eliminate any sense of ‘range anxiety’ for most owners.
Expect the still-secret Tesla pickup to therefore offer excellent acceleration – overseas reports point to 0-60mph (0-97km/h) achieved in around five seconds flat – as well as strong pulling power and a high towing capacity, the latter tipped to be 4,500kg and could extend much further than that, if the tweets from Musk are credible.
In-wheel batteries should allow for a deep load bed, while an optional auxiliary battery on top of the load floor is expected to push the range out further. There should be plenty of supply here for tradies to use with their power tools, too, while the cabin is being touted as a six-seater and is guaranteed to come with a high level of advanced technology including, as Musk has indicated, 360° cameras and radars for high-level autonomous safety systems and handy features such as automatic parallel parking.
Whichever way you look at it, Tesla is one of the biggest names in the EV business and its pickup will be a game-changer for the automotive world.
We asked Tesla Australia about the impact the ute was expected to have here, but, perhaps not surprisingly, we were simply directed to Musk’s Twitter feed…
BRIDGING THE GAP
All the major motor vehicle manufacturers are moving towards hybrids, combining their traditional internal combustion engines (ICEs) with various forms of electrification.
These include ‘mild’ hybrid systems that integrate a compact electric motor/generator with the ICE for extra power and efficiency, ‘parallel’ hybrid which uses a bigger electric motor that can power the vehicle by itself for short periods, and ‘plug-in’ hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) that typically have a longer electric-only range and can be recharged via mains electricity or fast-charging outlets.
With plug-in hybrids, the ICE kicks in only as required, and in the case of ‘range extender’ versions, the conventional engine is simply used to charge the battery rather than drive the wheels.
Mild hybrid systems are already available in America on pickups such as the Chevrolet Silverado and Fiat Chrysler’s Ram 1500, and will eventually become widespread, attached to virtually every ICE from the mass-market brands during next decade.
PHEV pickups are also in the works. Ford, for example, has committed to a plug-in version of its best-selling F-150 that is scheduled to launch in 2020 – the Blue Oval pitching to tradies that it will not only get you to the jobsite but will power the site as well – while Jeep is preparing to launch not only an all-new Wrangler-based ute, known as the Scrambler, in 2020, but a plug-in hybrid powertrain designed for the same platform.
General Motors has also made it clear that its latest platform underpinning the new Silverado and GMC Sierra will be capable of running any powertrain configuration, including PHEV and full-electric, which is important seeing that Holden Special Vehicles (HSV) is now remanufacturing the Chevy pickup in Australia.
Beating just about everyone to the punch is the Ohio-based Workhorse Group, which at the time of writing was preparing to launch its series production W-15 mid-size pickup in the US – a ‘range extender’ plug-in hybrid capable of up 130km on electric power alone with its 60kWh Panasonic lithium-ion battery, or 500km in total with the three-cylinder petrol engine in action.
Priced from $US52,500 ($A73,500), the W-15 uses two 172kW electric motors, one at each end to allow four-wheel drive, with a total system output of 343kW. It can reach 60mph (97km/h) from standstill in 5.5 seconds, has a 1t payload, 2.5t towing capacity and, for running power tools, a 7.2kW power outlet providing up to 30A directly from battery pack. The ute also has high-level safety gear such as automatic braking and lane departure warning.
While the W-15 is not slated for right-hand drive markets, PHEV powertrains are expected to turn up on global mid-size utes such as the Australian-developed Ford Ranger in the years ahead, in line with development plans announced by their respective parent companies.
Korea’s SsangYong and China’s LDV are also reportedly developing electrified versions based on their one-tonne utes – the Musso and T60 respectively – but for all the positive noises from various brands with global reach, it’s whisper-quiet when it comes to making concrete commitments on full-electric models.
OTHERS STARTING UP
With full-blown battery electric utes, the big players are clearly waiting to see how the market reacts to the Tesla pickup and other new models from smaller manufacturers who are taking a leap of faith – and hoping tradies, as their core audience, come along for the ride.
Among those with positive energy is Havelaar Canada with the Bison, Bollinger Motors with its B2, and other fledgling North American brands such as Via Motors and Rivian Automotive – all of which are working to have full-electric pickups in production by early next decade.
There are a lot of similarities in the basic architecture, typically with truckloads of power and torque, 4×4 drivelines via electric motors stationed at each axle and promises of thorough engineering and heavy-duty components to cope with the demands of travelling off-road.
Preliminary specifications for the Bison point to a driving range of 300km on a single charge, a rugged carbon-fibre reinforced steel space-frame chassis and a body with 1.3m3 of space in the load area as well as 0.51m3 of lockable storage space. Like the W-15, the Bison also has a high-current power socket to run tools.
Bollinger, meanwhile, is taking orders for the B2 pickup ahead of production due to get underway in 2020. This is an all-electric, all-wheel drive, all-aluminium body combination, with dual motors producing a combined 388kW/697Nm that can shift the 2,300kg vehicle from 0-60mph in 6.5s. A 120kWh battery pack can deliver a 320km driving range, with recharging available via 110/220V ports (taking up to 10 hours on 220) and fast-charge outlets (which need just 75 minutes).
The B2 has a healthy 3,400kg towing capacity and a 2,268kg payload, with a useful load area (measuring 1,752mm long x 1,245mm wide) and – in something you simply cannot get with a normal engine crammed in under the bonnet – a full load-through facility from front to rear that allows long pieces of timber to be carried. This includes 24 lengths of 2×4 through the ‘patented passthrough’ or 72 sheets of 4’x8.5’ plywood with the rear seats removed, according to Bollinger.
THE AUSTRALIAN WAY
If this all sounds a bit like ‘only in America’, let us show you how BHP – aka The Big Australian – is currently trialling all-electric versions of Toyota’s tough-as-nails LandCruiser 79 Series ute that have been specially modified by Adelaide firm Voltra.
Voltra has replaced the LandCruiser’s stonking 4.8L turbo-diesel V8 with a full-electric powertrain – including 104kW/256Nm electric motor, custom gearbox and 42.24kWh lithium-ion battery pack – and since about mid-2018 BHP has been running two examples of the vehicle (dubbed eCruiser) at its Olympic Dam mine site in a 12-month trial.
It still operates as a fully-fledged 4×4 ute, but the eCruiser is expected to bring a number of important benefits.
These include: zero tailpipe emissions, which is especially important working in an underground environment where diesel particulate matter is a major health hazard; less maintenance due to fewer moving/wearing powertrain parts and less stress on the driveline; lower servicing costs, with no oil changes, air/oil/fuel filter replacement etc; obvious savings on diesel consumption (and storage); and user-friendly operation, with less heat generation and a quieter, smoother and arguably more comfortable drive.
Recharging only takes around 40 minutes when using a 50kW DC fast-charger, and there’s also the bigger-picture benefit of lowering the company’s carbon footprint and reducing its impact on the environment.
BHP is currently collecting data on the vehicles’ performance, power supply, maintenance requirements, charging times and corrosion resistance. Depending on the results, a decision on wider deployment will be made – and could really build momentum for the conversion market in Australia while the vehicle importers take a ‘let’s wait and see’ approach.
Voltra’s eCruiser project manager Andrew Draffin told us that the company was primarily targeting the mining sector with the electric ute – which has been built to full Australian Design Rule compliance – and that it was really not viable at this stage for light-commercial applications.
But he agreed that “anything is really possible” in terms of potential longer-term opportunities with other sectors such as building and construction, or even exploring partnerships with factory-backed converters such as HSV and its Silverado program.
“The feedback that we’ve already got has been astounding with the amount of people who want to do a trial and take this to underground mines,” he said.
“We’re not really in there to compete with the big car-makers … we’re more niche and heavy duty … but anything is really possible, just depending on where your target really is and where the market lies.
“If there’s a market there for it, most definitely, but at the moment we’re not targeting any other market than mining so there’s really untapped potential there.”
MORE LOCAL PROJECTS
There are other operations getting in on the act in Australia, such as Melbourne-based SEA Electric which has developed fully electric light trucks/cab chassis and vans. The company has backing from the Victorian Government, a pilot fleet contract in place with Kings Transport and a local development project underway with Isuzu Australia Limited.
The Isuzu program at this stage only goes as low as the 8,000-9,000kg GVM class with the NQR series – in this case using a 130kW/1,500Nm electric motor and a 132kWh lithium-ion battery enabling a driving range of up to 250km – but there is obviously lots of potential for broader applications suitable for trade operators, including those driving with a regular car licence.
The beauty of this is the conversions are relatively simple and chassis rails enable battery packs to be packaged securely between them, which is good in terms of design, safety and vehicle dynamics.
Queensland-based ACE Electric Vehicles has also committed to assembling electric vehicles for sale in Australia, including a light-duty ‘Yewt’ small pickup and a ‘Cargo’ compact van with payloads of around 500kg, fully independent suspension and a 45kW/174Nm electric motor and 23.2kWh battery. Driving range is 150-200km with a partial load.
A POSITIVE CHARGE
Utes are big business in Australia, with more than 200,000 new ones sold every year, and the two top-selling vehicles in the nation are from the tray-backed class – Toyota’s HiLux and the Ford Ranger.
As a result, we’ve seen rapid changes in recent years in areas such as infotainment and safety technology – driven by customer demand rather than government regulation – and we think powertrain technology, with electrification at its heart, will be the next frontier to be crossed.
The Aussie Voltra eCruiser is a great example. It’s not a mass-market production model by any stretch, but a sign of times that was built out of real need, with clear benefits and, let’s face it, plenty of question marks in terms of reliability, longevity and so on – all of which are being thoroughly tested and will provide important answers, not just for BHP but for us all.
This is clearly what is also happening in the engineering centres of the major auto-makers. Few want to show their hand just yet – and all of them are waiting, or working, on new battery breakthroughs that will ensure electric utes can cope with Australia’s long distances and tough terrain.
But all understand that positive charge is in the air, and is bound to hit the road before too long.