Mercedes-Benz eActros trucks

JOEL HELMES  recently flew to Melbourne to drive the latest battery electric offerings from truck giant Daimler  and posed the question: where are we at with the still most likely only partial electrification of the heavy commercial vehicle fleet in Australia?

Well, that word partial is key – electrified powertrains are unlikely to be doing all the heavy lifting on long-distance trucking applications for at least a few decades.

Electric-powered city buses though are becoming more of a common sight and inner-city and suburban delivery trucks are also becoming almost the standard.

The key to all this is that questions will keep getting asked, but then answered by the industry as electrification likely becomes a greater choice for a wider selection of applications.

And, as long as the major manufacturers are investing the money, the answers will most likely keep being found.

Daimler is one of the major manufacturers that has opened the purse strings to develop electrified heavy commercial vehicles and I got the chance to sample a few of the new offerings the Australian operation now has available to local operators.

I got a drive of the new Mercedes-Benz eActros in both rigid and prime mover configurations, as well as the baby of the range – the new-generation Fuso eCanter.

All three tell a very different story.

My money is on you being most interested in what the eActros prime mover delivered. And why not, electrified semi-trailer combos up to this point are certainly not something Aussie operators are used to considering.

The trailer had a significant load – 35 tonnes to be exact, so while this wasn’t a long test drive, it was at least realistic in terms of lugging a decent payload.

The test vehicle was a Narrow Cab variant, classified as the ‘300’ model, that number doesn’t denote power or torque (which does take some getting used to), it simply denotes the battery capacity of the vehicle, in this case, 300 kw/h.

This configuration promises a range of somewhere around 200 kilometers.

I hear some scoffing at that figure, but remember we’re talking horses for courses and that means this truck is aimed not at everyone, but for the types of operations that want a whisper-quiet electric powertrain and don’t need to cover vast distances.

So, inner-city grocery deliveries for sure, or container trucks moving from the port to nearby warehouses, etc.

Higher capacity versions, with extra range, are currently offered in Europe and elsewhere, but remember that bigger batteries start adding additional weight which could somewhat put the handbrake on those here in Australia for the moment.

So, what was it like to drive? Mostly, very good…but also very different!

The new Mercedes-Benz eActros is based on the new-generation Actros and that means you get all the same bells and whistles that the diesel variants offer.

There is a feel all around the truck of quality and thoughtful design, with fit and finish being top notch.

To get going, all you do is flick the controller on the right stalk into ‘D’ (the parking brake automatically disengages when you touch the accelerator), and with essentially no sound at all you are moving off.

I can’t help but think just how less exhausting (no pun intended) it would be to not hear the drone of a big diesel powerplant all day.

It gets off the line well, even with the hefty load behind, but most likely acceleration to say 60km/h would be about equivalent to what you would expect from a comparative diesel.

There are only two speeds (or ratios) 1 & 2, and this also takes a bit of driver mind and driving style retraining.

I drove the big battery-powered truck across Melbourne’s West Gate Bridge and if you’re familiar with this landmark of the Southern Capital you would know the approaches are a bit of a challenge for a fully loaded truck.

Here I was perhaps just a little disappointed in the truck’s enthusiasm. It felt like it needed a bit more low-down assistance to turn the electric drive torque into forward progress (so, counterintuitively I was wanting to look for a way to downshift to a lower ratio to help it along).

As was proven centuries ago, what goes up must come down and on the way down the other side of the bridge the e-axle under the eActros recaptured almost all the energy consumed on the climb up using the impressive five-stage e-brake (or retarder).

We got back to the base a little while later and as I climbed down from the cab I couldn’t help but feel more like I’d just driven an electric car (albeit a very big one) than a well-loaded semi-trailer!

As I said earlier, it takes a lot of getting used to! I would happily drive this truck each day, it’s just so easy to pilot.

Next up I stepped up into the cab of the rigid variant with the same powertrain, but about half the load, the result was super impressive.

A 15-tonne truck just shouldn’t be this simple and easy to drive.

The way it gets up and goes, the quietness, the big monitor-style mirrors, you’re just in a whole new trucking world here.

And, of course, with a much lower payload you get a much longer range.

Lastly, probably the star of the show – the new-generation Fuso eCanter. Naturally, these little trucks, which do more than their fair share of work in our industry, aren’t usually that interesting.

But this one is.

We’ve had battery-electric versions of the Fuso workhorse on Aussie roads for a while, but there was a significant difference between the first-eCanter and this new-gen model.

The earlier ones were essentially the diesel model but with an electric motor and battery pack that worked with the traditional driveline.

Now the offering has an e-Axle and that means things are vastly different underneath. It feels like this was a truck designed from the ground up to be electrically propelled.

We had a couple of tonnes loaded into the back of the tray of the test vehicle and despite this, it accelerated like a sporty little car!

Having the ability to plant your right foot and have the light-duty truck respond with enthusiasm makes it just so much easier to drive, especially in situations like trying to jump into a gap in the traffic.

The old diesel versions used to struggle to keep up with traffic, not so with an EV version.

There’s a three-stage e-brake fitted in the new eCanter and that means a healthy spread of deceleration choices.

Even in stage two you can just about drive this truck with just one pedal. And, by using this technology to the full, all you are doing is saving your brakes and recharging your batteries!

With whisper-quiet operation and independent front suspension, as well as the easy-to-use controls, the eCanter is a galaxy removed from light-duty trucks of the past.

I mentioned questions and answers at the outset, well, what did these test drives answer for me?

The primary thought that comes to mind is that, at this stage at least, there isn’t an EV option for every application.

If there is a vehicle that might suit your needs you will have to pay extra for it, and you will need the charging infrastructure too.

Questions around repairs, eventual battery replacements, etc. over the long run, and used truck values too, will and can only be answered at a later date.

But, with ease of use and the ability to be able to drive straight past those ever more expensive diesel bowsers, an electric truck, perhaps even one from the Daimler stable, might well be worth a close look for your operation.

In terms of the Daimler models tested, I don’t think you could feel more reassured that a manufacturer has put in the time and resources to offer you higher quality or better-developed electric truck options.

See your local dealer for your own test drive and to get all the important facts and figures to weigh up whether now is the time to start making the big change over.