AUSTRALIA could soon be building cutting-edge electric trucks.
The project is the brainchild of Smith Electric Trucks managing director, Bryan Hansel, who visited Australia this week to check out support for his local assembly plan.
Only one electric Smith truck is on the road in Australia, a medium duty Newton that has been working on the Toll fleet since 2013 as part of a trial.
Smith introduced its electric hauler at the Brisbane Truck Show two years ago, but has not sold any. The US-based company then stopped production last year, because it was losing money on every vehicle made.
It looked like Smith might fold but the company appears to be picking itself off the canvas with some new investment and new lower-cost component supply lines from China and Malaysia.
Production of the Newton electric truck has restarted at Smith’s Kansas City plant in Missouri and the company is due to announce a new production facility in a key international market soon. It will also introduce an all-new electric van.
Hansel says that Smith could assemble trucks in Australia if there was enough interest.
“There is a level of base demand here, you could manage short-term with import, but really the bigger conversation is whether there is sustainable demand that would justify a manufacturing presence, that would be the end game,” Hansel says.
“We are really trying to get a sense of that now, to see if that is the best thing to do,” he says.
Smith sells its trucks to some big fleets in the US including Frito Lay, Coca Cola and Staples and needs a large company to commit to buy its trucks in Australia to make the business case stand up.
Several local companies, including Toll, TNT, Linfox and ToxFree have bought diesel- electric hybrids or trucks with diesel engines that are especially clean in order to cut their carbon footprints, despite there being virtually no financial incentives available from government.
In the US, it is a different story. Smith benefited from a $42 million federal government grant, while many city councils are given federal funds to spend on whatever they wish in order to improve air quality. Several choose to offer incentives for zero emission trucks.
No such support is available in Australia and Hansel says the federal government “isn’t our best friend” when it comes to zero-emission products, but feels the Smith electric truck could still be picked up by progressive companies.
“We feel there is a real opportunity in Australia because there is a culture of corporate responsibility here,” he says.
As for the price premium, Hansel says the electric Newton truck would be no more expensive than a diesel truck under a new payment program.
The idea is the company pays an upfront amount for the truck, which would not be dissimilar to regular diesel medium duty truck. Smith would still own the battery, the most expensive part of the truck, but would lease it to the truck owner.
Hansel says the lease and electricity cost would be similar to the cost of diesel fuel.