Meet the Thor ET-One semi-tractor, a Frankenstein of trucks.
The chassis comes from a Navistar. It uses heavy-duty Dana axles and an off-the-shelf motor from supplier TM4.
It’s the vision of two 25-year-old entrepreneurs who are tapping family wealth to launch development of an electric heavy-duty truck.
“Conditions are coming together that we think make this the right timing for the industry,” said Dakota Semler, Thor Trucks co-founder and chief executive.
Semler has been thinking about green transportation since he converted his mother’s SUV to run on vegetable oil as a teenager.
“I am from a multi-generational family of fleet operators and we actually ran [diesel] trucks,” Semler said at a November conference hosted by the Milken Institute, an economic think tank. “We’re part of the problem.”
When he started to organize Thor trucks last year In Los Angeles, Semler found a willing partner in Giordano Sordoni. The two met as undergraduates at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
“Electric truck technology is not just a way to make money — it’s good for the environment and good for people,” Sordoni said.
They picked the name to make a statement. Other sustainable trucking companies sounded “green and bubbly,” Semler said. Thor sounded tough. It also underscored their commitment to tackle serious trucking problems.
The duo set out to recruit their team in early 2016.
“We got lucky,” Semler said. “L.A. is a hotbed for EV talent.”
Well-capitalized giants such as Tesla Inc., Cummins Inc., Daimler Trucks and Toyota Motor Corp. are all building green semi-tractors. Meanwhile, Thor has a tiny 18-employee team. But what the truck company lacks in manpower it makes up for with experience. Its engineers and vehicle designers are industry veterans.
Thor hired Jarod Doran away from green vehicle developer US Hybrid as lead electromechanical engineer. Priyankar Balekai became chief product officer after more than a decade at Navistar and electric bus manufacturer BYD. John Henry Harris was named senior mechanical engineer after stints at Boeing and electric car company Faraday Future.
Thor’s ET-One Truck
Thor built the ET-One in an industrial warehouse in North Hollywood. The space has a small prototyping shop where engineers build custom parts on demand.
The result is a steep, matte-gray cab that resembles the helmet of a medieval knight.
The prototype has aerodynamic fenders, a gulping front grille and a one-piece wraparound windshield.
In-house battery packs — using cells from LG Chem — are mounted to both sides of the chassis under side skirts.
Semler said the truck has up to 300 miles of electric range with a full 80,000-pound load, measured by “a real-world duty cycle.” A 100-mile version also is planned for production.
Thor’s strategy is to use established trucking components suppliers to scale up. That provides confidence for customers. Large fleets don’t want to hear that 90 percent of parts were developed in a company’s first year of existence, Sordoni said
“This is a truck that needs to work day in and day out and have 99.9 percent uptime,” Semler said.
On a recent demonstration drive, Semler piloted the truck around suburban Los Angeles. With an estimated 4,700 pound-feet of torque, the ET-One easily powered up to speed and maneuvered around tight residential turns. A one-speed transmission simplifies the driving process. The truck has hauled up to 60,000 pounds and will soon be tested at the Class 8 load limit of 80,000 pounds.
A similar diesel truck sells for $100,000 to $125,000 depending on the model and the number of vehicles purchased.
Thor Trucks has attracted the interest of green trucking technology veterans.
“Thor Trucks is a very dedicated group of folks that are serious about being a player in this market,” said John Boesel, chief executive of the clean transportation nonprofit Calstart. “They’ve worked hard to develop a product that meets the needs of the fleets.”
Clean technology companies must enter the market ready to prove their technology rather than make bold claims, Boesel said. The industry has seen “green” companies fall short of promises many times.
Thor wants its technology to speak for itself, Semler said. Though Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk bragged about the Tesla Semi’s 5 second zero to 60 mph acceleration time when driving without a load, Semler hasn’t yet measured his truck on that score. It’s meaningless for truck drivers, he said
“There’s too much to get distracted by,” he said. “The only way to survive is to hyper-focus.”
Thor Trucks could operate at its current size “indefinitely,” Semler said. But the plan is to grow quickly. Thor is seeking dozens of engineers, technicians and designers, according to online listings.
“To be a player in this space, a company needs to be well capitalized,” Boesel said. “It’s impressive that Thor has been able to get to this point without government funding.”
Revenue generated by Semler’s personal businesses fund the truck company, a Thor spokesperson told Trucks.com. Semler founded Malibu Wine Safaris and multiple real estate companies.
In part, those companies are an outgrowth of the family’s property and wineries at Saddlerock Ranch, 360 acres in the Malibu hills.
Semler’s father, Ronald, inherited a machinery export company called Associated Industries and oversaw its rapid growth.
Though the company made him wealthy, he also landed in hot water.
In 1987, authorities charged Ronald Semler and his brother, Monte Barry Semler, with using Associated Industries to illegally export helicopters to North Korea. Both brothers pleaded guilty in 1988 to reduced charges of conspiracy and tax law violations but under a plea bargain denied knowing that the aircraft were bound for North Korea. They were sentenced to prison and fined $40,000 each.
Ronald Semler was released in 1990, according to Bureau of Prisons records. Prohibited from working at Associated Industries again, he diversified. He started the winery, a mining business, an aviation business and trucking fleets.
Associated Industries is still in operation. It is housed in the same building as Thor Trucks, and signs outside the property bear Associated Industries branding. The two companies have separate leases and Ronald Semler is not associated with Thor Trucks, the spokesperson said.
As Thor Trucks continues to grow, the company will look to attract outside investment — probably sometime in 2018, Semler said.
Tapping Green Dollars
Thor needs to move quickly to take advantage of the market for green trucks that California environmental regulators are fostering.
“It’s inevitable the state mandates zero-emission technology,” said Mike Britt, a consultant and the former chief of alternative fuels for UPS.
“Being close to that legislative activity will give Thor an opportunity to collect data on the street,” Britt said. “If it goes to zero-tailpipe emissions in 2021 or 2022, folks are going to need solutions way before then.”
As fleets are forced to adapt to tightening emissions rules, Thor believes its truck will gain the attention of fleet customers.
“They don’t want science projects,” Sordoni said. “Electric addresses the cost of fuel, maintenance and compliance all in one fell swoop.”
Inside the Thor Truck offices, a team of engineers works at computer monitors in an open floor plan. Semler and Sordoni have offices but leave the doors open. They call the corporate structure “non-hierarchichal.”
“Everyone is everything,” Sordoni said.
On the warehouse floor, past the ping-pong table and an electric 1917 Walker Electric Truck that Semler bought at auction, the ET-One sits alone on the concrete floor. Its roof fairing is removable and will be optional. The batteries are mounted under side skirts that open to allow for easy replacing. Wide “super single” tires, wheel covers and other aerodynamic features improve efficiency.
Doran, the electromechanical engineer, and his team prepare the truck for a test drive. He left a career at US Hybrid to join Thor Trucks after one meeting.
“I know people were doubting,” Doran said. “But we’re doing it in an affordable way that doesn’t rely on government subsidies.”
Semler drove the ET-One just north of the office to a trucking depot yard to shoot photographs. A security guard checked the truck for proper permits, then pulled out his phone to snap pictures.
Soon, other truck drivers arrived on the scene. They bombarded Semler and Sordoni with questions:
- “How long to charge?” 90 minutes.
- “How much range?” Between 100 and 300 miles, fully loaded.
- “How much horsepower?” Thor won’t say.
Semler hopped onto the chassis to point out components. Sordoni answered some of the questions in Spanish. The guard shooed people away when their parked cars formed a traffic jam.
As the group turned to leave, one driver flagged Sordoni down and handed him a business card. “If you ever need any drivers, you can call me,” he said.
Sordoni accepted the card and thanked the man. “Who says truck drivers won’t go electric?”