While Tesla develops an electric semi-truck–which may be in production by 2019 or 2020–a startup has designed another type of electric delivery truck for city use, and it’s ready now. By this fall, you might see one of its sleek white trucks sitting silently in front of your apartment building to make a delivery, and instead of belching diesel exhaust, it will have no emissions at all.
“Where we see the problem is in the city, where people live,” says Bryan Hansel, CEO of Chanje, the California-based startup making the new medium-duty trucks (commercial trucks are classified as “medium-duty” when they weigh more than 14,000 pounds and less than 26,000 pounds; the Chanje vehicle could also be called a delivery van, and could potentially be used for anything from delivering Amazon orders to local groceries). “That’s where the pollution is, and so if you put a vehicle in that market where there’s no tailpipe–so there’s zero contribution to noise or air pollution at the point of distribution where people are–we think that’s the unlocking move that’s been overlooked.”
Large delivery companies are interested in fully electric vehicles–recognizing that medium-duty diesel trucks are responsible for 18% of the greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, along with other air pollution–and already have some on roads, though the numbers are relatively small. “For these fleets that are tens of thousands of vehicles, one hundred doesn’t matter,” says Hansel. “It just doesn’t make a difference. What they’ve been saying for a very long time is ‘We need thousands, and nobody can produce them.'”
Until now, medium-duty electric trucks haven’t been available at a mass scale. For large manufacturers, Hansel says, these trucks haven’t been seen as an important market segment. When some smaller companies have made electric trucks, they’ve done so by retrofitting existing internal-combustion trucks to add electric motors. Chanje designed its new trucks from the ground up.
“If you think about an electric vehicle, it is fundamentally different,” says Hansel. “If you take an [internal combustion] engine out of a vehicle, you don’t have brakes, you don’t have steering, you don’t have heat. All of the elements are reliant on that energy source. If you remove it, you’ve got to reengineer everything. So taking an existing vehicle that was leveraging that technology and trying to put an electric drive system in just is inefficient.”
The trucks were developed in partnership with the Hong Kong-based FDG Electric Vehicles Limited, which owns 50% of the company, over the last five years; Chanje launched a company in May 2015. The first trucks are being manufactured in China, and the company plans to quickly open an assembly plant in the U.S. to reduce freight cost and import duties and create local jobs. When it sells or leases the product to large companies with depots that have hundreds of vehicles, it will also offer an on-site renewable energy system for charging the vehicles. “If we can generate the energy in a clean way, we know we’ve got a completely clean solution,” he says. The vehicles can go about 100 miles on a charge, well within the range of a typical daily delivery route.
The vehicles are economical to produce and operate. “If you’re generating your own energy, you’ve got no fuel costs,” says Hansel. “Because of the design, you’re basically got no maintenance costs. If you start moving to autonomous, you are going to have no labor cost.”
Inside, the trucks use technology such as route optimization to also reduce the number of miles each truck has to drive (and reduce congestion on roads). While the company is launching a delivery truck first, it plans to use the same platform to make vans that could be used for commuters or in place of school buses.
“We think we can fundamentally reduce the number of miles driven, whether it be in the package or product delivery market or in how people get to work,” he says. “If we can put some intelligence on the ground, which is what this is built on, I think it enables a fundamental shift in not only the efficiency of each mile, but that reduces the number of miles total.”