Self-charg­ing trucks the Wright way

One of the world’s lead­ing elec­tric ve­hi­cle in­no­va­tors, Tesla co-founder Ian Wright, has de­vel­oped a cleaner elec­tric so­lu­tion ready for Aus­tralia’s trucks

Owner Driver - - The Goods - – Cobey Bar­tels

IAN WRIGHT left Tesla more than a decade ago to de­velop the world’s fastest street-le­gal elec­tric car, the X1, and after tick­ing off that mile­stone, turned his at­ten­tion to heavy ve­hi­cles.

Now head­ing up elec­tric pow­er­train com­pany Wright­speed in the US, his sights are set on a cleaner, more ef­fi­cient fu­ture for heavy ve­hi­cles.

A key stick­ing point in the ve­hi­cle elec­tri­fi­ca­tion space, Wright points out, is emis­sions based on the av­er­age mix of power gen­er­a­tion across na­tions.

If 37 per cent of the world’s elec­tric­ity comes from burn­ing coal, and ‘dirt­ier’ coun­tries like Aus­tralia rely on coal for 63 per cent of en­ergy needs, a plug-in EV isn’t all that clean after all.

Wright’s so­lu­tion lies in jet en­gine tech­nol­ogy, specif­i­cally the use of small tur­bines as ‘range ex­ten­ders’ or on-board gen­er­a­tors with a clean burn and lower emis­sions than the av­er­age mix of power gen­er­a­tion in coun­tries burn­ing coal.

The com­pany has de­signed its own

elec­tric mo­tors, multi-fuel tur­bine gen­er­a­tor, clutch­less trans­mis­sion and soft­ware, known as the Wright­speed Ful­crum kit.

While it works like a tra­di­tional elec­tric ve­hi­cle with the mo­tors de­liv­er­ing drive to the wheels, when the bat­ter­ies run low a small tur­bine kicks in, pro­vid­ing an 80kW gen­er­a­tor.

The low-emis­sion tur­bine gen­er­a­tor is also quiet, run­ning only when it’s re­quired to charge the on-board bat­ter­ies. This equals a cleaner net so­lu­tion than plug-in elec­tric ve­hi­cles of­fered by Tesla, while also im­prov­ing work­ing range, weight and charg­ing sta­tion in­fra­struc­ture con­cerns.

On top of en­ergy mix is­sues, Wright points out that elec­tric ve­hi­cles from man­u­fac­tur­ers like Tesla are not only miss­ing range ex­ten­ders, but also heavy-duty multi-speed trans­mis­sions, both of which Wright­speed has man­aged to de­velop. In terms of heavy ve­hi­cle ap­pli­ca­tions, Wright ex­plains that while sys­tems like his range ex­ten­der elec­tric pow­er­train are suit­able for metro ap­pli­ca­tions, diesel en­gines will reign supreme for long haul well into the fu­ture.

“I think in 10 years for long haul, you’re still go­ing to have 15-litre diesels at the prime mover – that won’t change,” says Wright, ahead of last month’s ComVec in Mel­bourne. “There will be elec­tri­fi­ca­tion and there will be elec­tric drive axles, there will be all kinds of in­ter­est­ing stuff, but that prime mover is still go­ing to be diesel.

“I think in 10 years you’re go­ing to see in ur­ban cen­tres pretty much all the garbage trucks will have gone to elec­tric range-ex­ten­der pow­er­trains.

“In that ap­pli­ca­tion it’s just so eco­nom­i­cally com­pelling, and when peo­ple re­alise it’s also so much qui­eter and there’s no brake dust and the emis­sions are so much lower … I think it will take over there within 10 years.”

Shortly after found­ing Wright­speed, Wright dis­cov­ered that, for heavy ve­hi­cle ap­pli­ca­tions, a range ex­ten­der brings a pay­back time that plug-in elec­tric trucks aren’t able to of­fer.

“One of the things I did early in the piece is build a pay­back cal­cu­la­tor that lets you vary all kinds of num­bers so you can say, ‘What if I put in a big­ger bat­tery pack and I can drive more of the day on elec­tric­ity I get from the grid and burn less fuel?’

“The cap­i­tal cost goes up and you find pretty quickly that at cur­rent bat­tery and fuel prices you’re bet­ter off and you get a shorter pay­back time, if you min­imise the bat­tery pack size and add range ex­ten­der.

“Above a cer­tain point pay­load fea­tures into the pay­back as well; I mean the Tesla Semi truck is go­ing to take at least 10,000lbs off the pay­load. If you run the pay­back cal­cu­la­tor you’re forced to the con­clu­sion that a range ex­ten­der is the only eco­nomic way to do.”

Wright says we’ll see range-ex­tended elec­tric driv­e­trains both retro­fit­ted to ex­ist­ing trucks, as well as the na­tional fleet up­dated with new ded­i­cated elec­tric trucks, a trend he’s al­ready see­ing at Wright­speed.

“I think we’ll see both and we have cus­tomers do­ing both,” he says.

“We started out mak­ing it avail­able as a retro­fit and the rea­son for that is we were a start-up com­pany … that way we could go straight to fleet op­er­a­tors and of­fer to retro­fit some of their ex­ist­ing fleet.

“When they liked it, then of course they said, ‘Well we’re buy­ing 5,000 new trucks a year, why can’t we get this is as part of a new truck?’

As cus­tomers be­gan ask­ing if the Wright­speed sys­tem could be fit­ted to new ve­hi­cles, the com­pany be­gan talk­ing with man­u­fac­tur­ers.

“We started talk­ing to the truck man­u­fac­tur­ers and of course with low vol­ume they don’t want to peter their pro­duc­tion line, but in the US at least there’s a pretty well-de­vel­oped in­dus­try for trucks and buses to do mod­i­fi­ca­tions after they leave the fac­tory.”

When talk­ing specif­i­cally about Aus­tralian ap­pli­ca­tions, Wright is con­fi­dent the sys­tem is suit­able for Aus­tralian con­di­tions and can be fit­ted in new or ex­ist­ing trucks.

“Of course I think they can be in­stalled in Aus­tralia – ei­ther into new ve­hi­cles or as a retro­fit.

“We do a lot of en­gi­neer­ing work on the sys­tem to cus­tomise it for a par­tic­u­lar chas­sis, so we ship it as a pow­er­train kit that’s tar­geted to a par­tic­u­lar chas­sis and the kit in­cludes ev­ery­thing you need to in­stall it.

“Once we’ve done the de­vel­op­ment work for a par­tic­u­lar ve­hi­cle, what we ship is some­thing that can be in­stalled quite eas­ily in Aus­tralia.”

After more than four years since de­liv­ery, Wright con­firms the cur­rent ve­hi­cles be­ing used on-road have proven re­li­able as in­ter­est in the tech­nol­ogy con­tin­ues to grow.

“We de­liv­ered the first two to FedEx about four-and-a-half years ago, then there’s one bus in Welling­ton, New Zealand, that’s on the road be­ing tested and we’ve got one garbage truck here in the US,” he says.

“The only ones that have done a lot of time are the FedEx trucks and they’ve been re­li­able.”

The sys­tems avail­able from Wright­speed cur­rently range from 150hp through to 400hp, de­liv­er­ing a re­duc­tion in fuel con­sump­tion of up to 67 per cent and emis­sions re­duc­tion of up to 63 per cent.

“There will be elec­tri­fi­ca­tion and there will be elec­tric drive axles ... but that prime mover is still go­ing to be diesel”

Elec­tric ve­hi­cle vi­sion­ary Ian Wright, founder of Wright­speed

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