The country’s first commercial application of a range-extended electric trucks launched in Northern California’s wine country Tuesday, featuring a unique range-extended, turbine-electric powertrain developed by Wrightspeed Inc.

The heavy-duty Class 8 Freightliner delivered to The Ratto Group, a Sonoma County solid waste collection and recycling business, is the first of at least 15 that will be integrated into the trash company’s fleet over the next year, said Tim Dummer, Wrightspeed’s chief business officer.

The contract could lead to an ongoing relationship that sees all 130 of Ratto’s residential trash and recycling trucks retrofitted with the turbine-electric powertrain, said Lou Ratto, chief operating officer of the privately held company.

Neither company would disclose the exact value of the multimillion dollar contract, which is thought to be in the range of $3 million to $5 million. Ratto is funding the program internally.

Using electric power for a garbage truck is difficult because the vehicle’s demanding duty cycle — with frequent stops and starts and heavy loads — drains the electric powertrain’s batteries quickly.

But “The Route” powertrain developed by Wrightspeed, an Alameda, Calif.-based green transport company, uses a micro-turbine generator to provide electricity to the traction motors when the truck’s grid-charged battery pack is depleted, Dummer said. The turbine is “fuel agnostic, but most customers use either diesel or gasoline,” he said.

Optimized for the refuse industry, the Wrightspeed system can power a 66,000-pound GVW truck, delivering up to 24 miles on battery power before the range extender kicks in. After that, range is unlimited as long as there is fuel for the turbine.

With fuel efficiency the equivalent of up to 7 mpg in combined electricity-liquid fuel operation, the powertrain can slash annual fuel consumption by 70 percent or more compared with the average diesel garbage truck. Ratto said he expects a fuel savings of at least 50 percent in hilly Sonoma County.

wrightspeed electric truck factory

Workers securing the loader onto the cab on a Wrightspeed electric truck. (Photo: Wrightspeed)

Wrightspeed’s range extender system is an important tool for “making electric drive work in some heavy-truck applications and is unique in the refuse industry” said Bill Van Amburg, senior vice president and head of truck programs for CalStart, the Pasadena-based clean transportation technologies consortium.

Wrightspeed is headed by Ian Wright, Tesla Motors’ co-founder and vice president of vehicle development. He left the Palo Alto, Calif., electric car company in late 2004.

At a June waste management and recycling conference in Las Vegas, Mack Trucks unveiled an electric garbage truck that has a powertrain developed by Wrightspeed. The truck is based on Mack’s LR model and features a range-extended electric powertrain. The system uses electric motors to drive the front wheels and allows the truck to benefit from more load-hauling low-end torque than conventional diesel engines.

Hybrid and electric trucks make sense for garbage collection because their braking systems recapture energy as the vehicles make hundreds of stops in neighborhoods, according to industry analysts.

Wrightspeed is retrofitting its range-extended electric powertrain into existing trucks from the Ratto fleet, effectively recycling the trash collection trucks.

Retrofitting existing trucks to become electric trucks, rather than working from new vehicles, makes the system more cost-effective, Van Amburg said. A new garbage truck that meets all California air quality standards costs more than $500,000.

Sonoma County officials like the trash fleet electrification program because they see it as a means of improving local air quality, said Efren Carrillo, chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. The Wrightspeed powertrain, said Dummer, can reduce tailpipe emissions by up to 60 percent.

The program is all about improving the environment while boosting the bottom line, Lou Ratto said.

“I have a garbage background, but the business has evolved into being mainly recycling,” he said in an interview with Trucks.com. “Here in Sonoma County there is a lot of environmental consciousness and we are always looking for ways to be cleaner, environmentally friendly and help the bottom line.”

The company has a hybrid refuse truck in its fleet and has tried other alternative fuel systems but hasn’t been satisfied with the results, Ratto said. The Wrightspeed system enables the company to meet its environmental and financial goals “while letting us use the vehicles the way we want to, with no limits of fueling or range.”

Ratto said he decided to use the company’s existing Freightliner Condor diesel trucks for the conversions because they previously had been retrofitted with diesel particulate filters to meet California’s 2006 heavy-truck emissions rules, “and the filters caused a lot of problems” that increased maintenance costs and led to some early engine failures.

“To recycle the recycling truck is huge from an environmental perspective,” Ratto said. “And the idea that [by electrifying the trucks] we can do this and get off the air quality rollercoaster and stop battling to meet California emissions requirements, that makes it all worthwhile.”

2 Responses

  1. Matt Mazza

    I have been following Wrightspeed’s story for some time and it’s extremely impressive. Not a “sexy” story for the media but replacing all ICE-powered garbage (and other) trucks will have a significant impact on the environment and fuel savings. Not to mention quieter operation, lower maintenance and other benefits. This is a great success story that’s just getting started.

    Reply
  2. Keith Kuenzel

    For those interested, Wrightspeed happens to be a portfolio company of Firsthand Technology Value Fund (ticker:SVVC). Preliminary net asset value at 9/30 was reported at $20.94 per share while the stock currently trades at $7.75. The market seems to be applying a discount to the shares given that most of the Fund’s investments are in private venture backed companies such as Wrightspeed.

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