With all eyes are focused on self-driving car technologies, and Mobileye recording the largest autonomous driving tech deal ever through its sale to Intel Corp. last month, an under-the-radar and mostly overlooked industry is also heating up: that of electric trucks.
Earlier this month Tesla Inc., the Palo Alto, California-based automaker, put out a timeline for the launch of an electric semi-truck that sees it happening as early as September this year. And just last week Toyota rolled out its own exhaust-free truck powered by hydrogen. For now, though, Toyota has not committed to the idea of turning the truck power system into a commercial program, Toyota senior executive engineer Takehito Yokoo told Forbes, while Telsa’s Elon Musk has provided no real details of his truck strategy.
Meanwhile, one UK company — Tevva Motors — has already got its first orders for repowering the trucks of delivery giants UPS, DHL and Switzerland’s Kuehne+Nagel with its components, including the batteries and motor, according to Tevva’s 48-year-old Israeli founder Asher Bennett. Bennett is the older brother of former entrepreneur turned right-wing politician Naftali Bennett, who is Israel’s education minister.
“The industry is starting to warm up, but we are most advanced,” he said.
The company is gearing up for production of its trucks, including its motors and battery systems, and seeking to raise some $10 million to $15 million to help finance its growth. Delivery of its first commercial orders are scheduled for the fourth quarter of the year.
Using submarine technology for trucks
Bennett, a former submarine officer in the Israeli Navy, has brought to trucks the same technologies used in the underwater craft. Just as submarines do, Tevva’s trucks use a large lithium-ion battery and an electric motor for propulsion, and have a generator to recharge the battery while the truck is in motion. Also like the submarines, they have a detailed plan for energy use and management.
“We developed a large iron lithium battery and an electric motor, but we also have a range extender that kicks in when needed,” he said in a phone interview from Tevva’s offices in Chelmsford, outside London. The battery, when fitted on a 7.5-ton truck, can last for 160 kilometers – about 100 miles – or 600 kilometers with the range extender. The range extender, which currently runs on diesel fuel, will use a completely new and “groundbreaking” technology by the summer, Bennett said, that will allow it to be completely emission free.
“At the moment you have electric cars and electric buses, but there is no production of electric trucks,” Bennett said. That is because cars drive at most 1.5 hours a day on average and buses run on repetitive pre-planned routes so it is easy to plan the size of the battery in advance.
Trucks, on the other hand, “are workhorses. They drive 10-12 hours a day, and so pure electric never caught on with trucks, for fear that the battery would run out,” Bennett said.
Tevva’s solution was tried out in a 1.5-year pilot project with UPS, which used it in a repowered truck in its London fleet every da, Bennett said. “They loved it,” he said. And the company reported a 95 percent saving in fuel, he said.
Tevva’s technology “will allow us to take zero tailpipe emission electric vehicle operations into cities that are out of reach using normal pure electric vehicles,” said Peter Harris, director of Sustainability, Europe at UPS. “This technology will form an important part of our future.”
The trucks Tevva repowers as well as those the company is planning to build from scratch next year at its new facility in Chelmsford are fully digital. “Every piece of information on our trucks is on the cloud,” Bennett said. The software and algorithms developed by the company automatically calculate the most efficient use of the battery and instruct the range extender when to kick in, without any input from the driver.
This complete digitalization will help trucks take part in the autonomous vehicle revolution as well, Bennett said. “In the future, trucks can also be autonomous. But while many others are focusing on the autonomous driving part of the technology, we are focusing on autonomous energy management.”
The sale of Mobileye to Intel Corp. has raised the stakes in the race to autonomous driving and has put a spotlight on Israel as a center for the development of the brains of these vehicles. Why, then, would an Israeli go to London to set up his vehicle-focused startup?
“Israel is actually one of the best places in the world for tech,” Bennett, who set up Tevva in 2013, said. “It is strong on automotive software, but unfortunately not strong in automotive hardware. There are no automotive engineering studies in Israel and there are no test tracks in Israel to test out vehicles before they hit busy public roads. So there is no ecosystem in Israel for developing electric trucks.”
Brexit, the UK’s planned withdrawal from the European Union, is certainly a concern, he said. “It may complicate our exporting abilities and some investors may be concerned about it,” he said. “But It is not a day-to-day issue we deal with.”
The sons of immigrants to Israel from the United States, Bennett sees his relocating to the UK as “temporary.” He often consults with his brother Naftali, who before becoming a politician sold Cyota, a company he co-founded operating in the anti-fraud space, to RSA Security in 2005 for $145 million. Naftali, however, is not an investor in Tevva, which to date has been funded by “high net worth individuals from Israel, the UK and Australia,” Bennett said.
Tevva, which has also offices in Israel, is in discussion to deploy its electric trucks as part of a major project in Israel, Bennett said.
There are challenges ahead for the UK-based company, however, including regulation and having a big enough volume of sales to keep costs low.
The company has already struck a partnership in China with the nation’s second-largest manufacturer of diesel trucks and is in talks with potential partners in Israel, the US, and Europe, Bennett said.
“The market is huge,” he said. “We believe every truck should be electric. Our priority is to make sure our electric trucks always get the job done. Then the industry won’t be afraid of actually using them.”