Ian Wright is cleaning up the trash collection industry.
And he’s doing it by targeting one of the most wasteful aspects of rubbish removal: the copious use of dirty fossil fuel by heavy-duty garbage trucks.
His company, Wrightspeed Inc., builds electric powertrains for large commercial vehicles. Customers include a major Sonoma County trash collection and recycling company and the key transit agency in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital.
But this was not Wright’s original plan, as he bounced from a childhood on a New Zealand farm to a Silicon Valley engineering career to electric car builder Tesla Inc.
Growing up rural, Wright learned to drive when he was 8.
“There was lots of open space and not much else to do,” he said.
He went to Australia in 1980 to pursue an electrical engineering degree but never completed his studies. In 1993, he was recruited to the U.S. by a Silicon Valley networking company and eventually worked for Cisco Systems and optical switching equipment developer Altamar Networks.
He was adopted into the electric vehicle community by a neighbor, entrepreneur Martin Eberhard, who liked to polish his investor presentations by testing them on friends.
Eberhard hoped to start an electric car company with his business partner Marc Tarpenning — an aspiration Wright initially thought was “nuts.”
But Wright had built and driven race cars as a hobby and knew how to put cars together. After some hectoring from Eberhard, Wright capitulated and helped co-found the electric sedan and SUV maker they named Tesla Motors.
He didn’t stay long, leaving after about a year. The 180,000 shares he sold after the company went public in 2010 — then worth about $3 million — would be worth more than $45 million today, according to public records. Tesla, which has since branched into energy, battery and solar power systems, changed its name earlier this year, dropping “Motors” and becoming Tesla Inc.
Wright was and remains skeptical about the longevity of the electric passenger car industry, especially if government subsidies disappear.
“I love the technology,” he said, but electric cars don’t save enough in fuel costs “to let you get your money back, and I couldn’t see an economic future” in doing a mass-market car.
Wright launched Wrightspeed in San Jose in 2005. Instead of building battery-powered consumer vehicles, he focused on high-end electric cars for performance enthusiasts, building the blazingly fast Wrightspeed X1 sports car.
But Wright struggled to raise funding for the concept.
“The venture capitalists didn’t see a market, and they were right,” he said.
So Wright pivoted. He’d developed a turbine-assisted electric drive system and decided that its best use was in commercial vehicles, which burn through massive amounts of fuel and are subject to increasingly stringent emissions regulations.
The Wrightspeed system can be scaled up for heavier equipment, such as off-road construction vehicles, or down for medium-duty machines, he said.
Wrightspeed’s current contract in New Zealand — initially valued at $30 million when announced last year — has the company converting Wellington’s iconic trolley buses for Infratil Ltd.
Wright now sets the deal’s value at $35 million.
Separately, a $5-million agreement with the Ratto Group in the Santa Rosa, Calif., wine country will involve converting 20 trash trucks. Ratto was recently acquired by San Francisco waste disposal giant Recology Inc.
Wright said that Mack Trucks is also looking into using Wrightspeed’s range-extended powertrain for when its Mack LR model is configured as a refuse truck. Mack and Wrightspeed co-developed a prototype truck, which they exhibited last year at the WasteExpo conference in Las Vegas.
Wrightspeed is also negotiating several other supply deals, Wright told Trucks.com.
While an electric car saves 400 gallons of fuel a year compared with a 30-mpg car that travels 12,000 miles annually, a garbage truck chugs through 14,000 gallons in the same period, he said. Wrightspeed’s range-extended electric powertrain can cut that in half, at least.
On average, an electric powertrain saves trash truck operators $35,000 a year in reduced fuel and maintenance costs, Wright estimates. The technology doesn’t require expensive exhaust treatment systems and, unlike diesel powertrains, doesn’t break down as often because it has fewer moving parts.
Wrightspeed’s system, dubbed The Route, is technically a plug-in hybrid system.
The “plug-in” portion refers to the 60 kilowatt-hour lithium battery pack that charges through an outlet and powers the electric motor. On the go, the battery is recharged through regenerative braking, as well as from an on-board generator propelled by a fuel-burning micro-turbine.
The pint-sized turbine — “basically a blowtorch in a can,” Wright said — burns liquids such as gasoline and diesel and gaseous fuels such as natural gas and propane. The process creates some emissions, but is substantially cleaner than a diesel engine and doesn’t require emissions treatment systems to meet California’s tough air quality rules, he said.
Without the turbine assist, an electric truck would need $500,000 worth of batteries to achieve the same kind of range and would have to occasionally drop out of service to recharge, he said. The turbine is lighter and more powerful than a gasoline generator.
The Wrightspeed Route relies on a 4-speed electronic transmission sans clutches and with far fewer parts than a standard heavy-truck transmission. The regenerative braking system can slow the truck to almost a complete stop without tapping the mechanical brakes, which can save thousands of dollars a year in brake replacement costs, Wright said.
Converting a $500,000 California emissions-legal diesel trash truck into an electric vehicle — with the companion power electronics and computerized control system — costs about $150,000, he said.
“But that cost can be recovered in four to five years,” he said.
Low fuel costs have dampened demand before. Wrightspeed’s first customer, FedEx, ordered 25 systems for its delivery vans in 2014 but put the order on hold as diesel prices tanked.
Wright, however, said that fuel consumption consumes such a large portion of operating costs for heavy-duty trucks that electrification makes sense despite cheap diesel.
And many experts agree. As long as alternative powertrain manufacturers can demonstrate savings over the total life of the vehicle, major fleet buyers “will be on board,” said Michael Held, powertrain analyst with global consulting firm AlixPartners.
“There’s a big opportunity for these types of power systems” for vehicles such as buses and garbage trucks, that consume lots of fuel but don’t travel hundreds of miles between refills, Held said.
Wright sees huge potential. There’s $2-billion worth of U.S. business just in the trash-truck segment, he said, and the global market for bus and trash truck retrofitting is upward of $10 billion.
Wrightspeed, which has few direct competitors – fuel-cell truck developer Nikola Motors comes closest – plans to increase its staff from the core group of 30 to about 250 by 2020, and intends to be selling globally by then.
“We’ve shown the technology isn’t a risk and can save money,” Wright said. “We’re not a prototype builder anymore.”