Electric heavy goods vehicles? No problem!

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Text: Juliane Gringer
Photos: Daimler AG

For a long time, it was impossible to imagine heavy goods vehicles and alternative drives going hand in hand. With the eActros, the first Daimler 25-tonner with an electric engine, Mercedes-Benz Trucks has made this combination possible: robust, reliable and with a range of around 200 kilometres – when it comes to customer use, does this electric truck live up to the hype? Baden-Württemberg company Logistik Schmitt is putting the vehicle through its paces.

The 25-tonner rolls through the entrance to the Mercedes-Benz plant in Gaggenau, Baden-Württemberg, virtually unnoticed – and not just because an Actros isn’t a rare sight around here, but most of all, because it’s incredibly quiet. As soon as the Logistik Schmitt driver parks at the loading ramp and skips his tarpaulin to plug a charging cable into his vehicle, it becomes clear: this truck runs on electricity! It’s an eActros: Mercedes-Benz Trucks presented this electric heavy goods vehicle at the 2016 IAA as the world’s first manufacturer to do so. Bietigheim bei Rastatt-based company Logistik Schmitt got the chance to test it: in the initial phase, the company used the vehicle in three-shift operation around the clock between a warehouse in Ötigheim and part of the Mercedes-Benz plant in Gaggenau. ‘We’re involved in assembly line supply for a vehicle manufacturer here,’ explains Rainer Schmitt, managing director of Logistik Schmitt, who is running the family business in its third generation. ‘The deliveries need to be fulfilled completely to schedule.’

eActros planned for production in 2021

Europe should be carbon-neutral by 2050 – that’s the aim of the European Commission. It’s planning legislation to that effect, but electric drive suppliers and vehicle manufacturers are ambitious. ‘We’re taking this target very seriously,’ explains Christian Lazik, Mercedes-Benz eActros Product Manager at Daimler Trucks. ‘If we count backwards from this deadline and presume it takes a good ten years to replace all the vehicles in the fleet, it’s clear: if we want to become completely CO2-neutral in the haulage industry, we have to offer the right vehicles. And that’s what we’re going to do. We’re pursuing a sustainable business strategy and our target is to exclusively supply new vehicles which are CO2-neutral ‘tank-to-wheel’ in the triad markets of Europe, Japan and North America by 2039. The development of the eActros and the fleet test were supported by the German government: as part of the ‘Concept ELV2’ project, the Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) and the former Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMUB) backed the integration of an innovative electric drive in heavy goods vehicles in distribution transport and the practical testing thereof.

»From 2039, we will exclusively supply CO2-neutral vehicles in the triad markets of Europe, Japan and North America.«

Christian Lazik, Mercedes-Benz eActros Product Manager at Daimler Trucks

Daimler started this practical test, known as ‘innovation fleet’, in 2018. Around 20 customers across various industries are taking part: partners such as Dachser, Edeka and Hermes transport goods ranging from groceries and general deliveries to construction and factory materials. This means a variety of different truck bodies are involved, from dry and cold storage to silo and tarpaulin vehicles. One area Logistik Schmitt specialises in is contract logistics for vehicle manufacturers – the company handles 2.3 million carriers each year. ‘Two thirds of the 72 trucks in our fleet are used in shuttle transport and handle around 300 deliveries in a radius of 25 to 30 kilometres – so using an electric vehicle is a very practical, sensible choice,’ says Rainer Schmitt.

Charging required only once per shift

The test vehicle currently covers around 168 kilometres for the company each day and is driven around the clock. As it can only charge up on electricity between loading and unloading, that takes place right in the loading area: ‘When the driver gets out, he sticks the plug in the socket right away – before he even opens the tarpaulin,’ explains Schmitt. While the freight is being unloaded or loaded, the batteries are charged for around 40 minutes, and then it’s time: plug out, delivery note in hand and off on the next trip. ‘We’ve now learned that you don’t have to charge up between every stop, and we’re reducing it gradually. This means we charge even just once a shift, as the battery only loses around five per cent per stop. So, as you can see, the range is perfectly sufficient for what we do.’ In the eActros, which is in use in two models – as an 18- and a 25-tonner – the range is around 200 kilometres. ‘Testing has shown that we can also achieve this distance with ease in practical use,’ confirms Christian Lazik.
The eActros is the world’s first electric truck from Mercedes-Benz Trucks and is robust and reliable with a range of 200 kilometres.

Batteries secured in a crash cage

A 240-kilowatt-hour battery was built to achieve this – consisting of eleven modules, including three inside the frame and eight below the vehicle. ‘The latter are stored and protected in a crash cage in case of an accident,’ says Lazik. The battery charges fully in less than two hours using a standard charging cable at maximum charging performance. ‘We’ve given test customers two chargers to choose from. The eActros also recuperates while driving. The driving style has a major impact: the more forward-thinking you are when you drive and the less you need to use the brakes, the more brake energy is fed back into the system, increasing the amount of range available. That means driver training is an important factor for success.’ To ensure the vehicles’ longevity, the temperature needs to be regulated: ‘We have equipped the batteries with a full thermomanagement system, so that temperatures in the battery system are ideal all year round.’ The eActros is powered by an electric rear axle with an output of 252 kilowatts. ‘Of course, all consumers of energy in the vehicle run on electricity, whether that’s the power steering pump, the compressor for the air conditioning in the driver cab or the pressurised air compressor for the brake system,’ adds Lazik.

Less stress for drivers

In practical use, Rainer Schmitt notes one particular positive: ‘The eActros is very powerful in acceleration – so powerful that we had to adapt how the loads are secured.’ Drivers don’t just like the engine’s power: they also like how it runs much more quietly, too. ‘You start off almost silently, and it’s much quieter inside, too – which means less stress for drivers in their day-to-day lives.’ At the same time, additional safety equipment is required in the loading tunnel for precisely this reason: ‘At low speeds, you can’t hear the vehicles, and only then can you tell the roll resistance of the tyres,’ says the logistics specialist. ‘We’ve already had serious situations where forklift drivers have seen the electric truck but couldn’t tell it was moving.’

»If you don’t try out new technologies, you won’t find out whether they’ll work in practice.«

Rainer Schmitt, managing director of Logistik Schmitt

When it comes to electromobility, there are still a few challenges to overcome. However, for Rainer Schmitt, the positives far outweigh the negatives: ‘It can’t carry on like this with diesel. So we just have to try out different ways. But I want to try new things, too. Of course, not everything works right away, but the right technology will show the way forward.’ He is often asked by colleagues why his company is taking part in the test and whether there’s any point in it. His response: ‘If you don’t try, you won’t find out. We’re proud to help shape the future of commercial vehicles as a partner in development.’

Conclusions for series production

As far as costs are concerned, Christian Lazik predicts that ‘They are sure to sink further soon. First and foremost, if the battery technology gets cheaper, that will have an impact on the price of the vehicles.’ The focus is currently on developing the technology further: ‘We’ve connected all the vehicles up and are collecting data to help our developers draw conclusions for series production. The test is being performed as part of a development partnership: the conversations we’re having with drivers, planners and fleet managers are therefore helping make the production vehicle more ready and reliable.’ This also includes suppliers providing the right parts and adapting them to the vehicle’s design. ‘Many of the components used are not available in series production, so they still need to be optimised from a technical perspective and expanded to series production standard,’ says Lazik. ‘We need to create a supplier ecosystem that allows us to build vehicles which are reliable in the long term.’

The eActros continues to be driven and tested in customer use. ‘We’re seeing that it’s very robust, particularly in terms of the new electric components – there are hardly any problems. It’s practical and marks our entry into CO2-neutral haulage.’ According to Lazik, a huge traction unit with 40 tonnes of traction isn’t inconceivable, either: ‘We’re mainly focusing on heavy goods haulage, but we’re keeping all industries and uses in mind.’

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