When Tesla co-founder Ian Wright bolted from the company over a decade ago, he thought his new venture would build a high-performance electric sports car. It turns out, he’s powering electrified garbage trucks and city buses.
Wrightspeed builds a range-extended electric vehicle powertrain that goes into heavy-duty trucks. Wright said that’s where electric vehicle technology makes the most economic sense.
His view of the electric battery market spans the period from the launch of Tesla to the roll out of both passenger and commercial electric vehicles. He sat down with Trucks.com to explain where he sees the industry going. Here is an edited version of that conversation.
In what industry will the first high-volume application of commercial heavy-duty electric vehicles be?
The standout applications for electric drive — and they both require range-extended electric drive — are city transit buses and garbage trucks. You can do city transit buses without a range extender, but it’s much cheaper to use one, and you get much better performance. Air conditioning in a bus can use the entire battery pack, so the range extender makes both applications feasible.
They’re the most compelling economically because you have the shortest payback time and the most savings on fuel and maintenance.
Is it clear what vehicles will follow?
There’s a long list of other things that also make sense. There are yard tractors, drayage vehicles, cement delivery trucks, beverage delivery trucks, pretty much anything that’s doing an urban drive cycle with a heavy-duty diesel engine works. Big rigs that go from distribution centers to stores do not have quite a perfect drive cycle, but they are good enough.
It doesn’t work. It’s not going to happen.
A straight battery adds 10,000 pounds to the weight of the vehicle, so that takes 10,000 pounds off of the payload. It’s not so much the amount of energy used per mile as it is per pound per mile, and cutting the payload by 25 percent makes it too expensive. If you add $200,000 to the capital cost of the vehicle, it doesn’t pencil out. And then there’s the requirement for fast-charge infrastructure which is a $1-billion problem.
There is a solution for long-haul trucks that we are working on and haven’t announced yet, but I will tell you it still has a diesel engine in it. I don’t think you’re going to get away from the heavy-duty diesel engine in long-haul trucking. They will be augmented with an electric drive, but you can’t just go to straight battery electric.
What is your assessment of hydrogen fuel cell technology for the trucking industry?
There’s nothing wrong with fuel cells per se, but they’re not very useful in vehicles. The problem is there is no hydrogen. It’s not a natural fuel; you can’t go and mine hydrogen anywhere. You have to make it.
Unfortunately, the entire process is very inefficient. Given that hydrogen is just an energy carrier, you start with electricity and water. You electrolyze the water, and you get hydrogen and oxygen. You throw the oxygen into the atmosphere, compress the hydrogen, put it in a tank, put it on a vehicle, put it back through a fuel cell, get it back to electricity. You’re back where you started, but you’ve lost 75 percent of the energy in the process. If you were to just take the electricity and charge your battery with it, you’ve only lost about 2 percent.
Remember all that hype when we started Tesla about the hydrogen superhighway and how soon everybody is going to be driving fuel cell cars? Where are they? It’s because it doesn’t make sense.
In the beginning of Tesla, was there ever talk of electric heavy-duty trucks?
No. As far as we were thinking was maybe we could do an SUV someday.
Are there any big misconceptions you often hear about the heavy-duty EV industry?
I remember back in 2003 when we started Tesla we had some ideas about how battery technology would develop, and it’s 2018 and it hasn’t happened. It’s gotten a little bit cheaper, a little bit better energy density. There are some good, high-powered batteries, but by and large, batteries do not follow Moore’s law.
In fact, it’s possible that if there really was a big expansion in the demand for batteries, the cost of batteries will go up because some of the raw materials are relatively rare, and if you increase the demand by a factor of 10, the commodity prices will go up. That’s something I find people just don’t get.
Another thing that’s a little frustrating is when people say a garbage truck uses 2 kWh per mile and it goes 100 miles in a day, so you just need 200 kWh capacity. That’s not true. You’ve got to keep something in reserves. If you’ve ever been in an EV when you’ve run out of charge, you’re stuck and there’s nothing you can do about it. We avoid that by having a range extender, so if you have fuel you can keep going.
The batteries will last longer if you don’t use 100 percent of the state of charge range every cycle. And batteries age, so the defined end-of-life for a battery is 80 percent capacity. Also, you won’t get the same energy out of the battery if it’s really cold. And then the one that really makes me cringe is people say, ‘Oh we’ve got a city transit bus and we can do 100 miles on a 140-kWh battery pack.' But if it’s in Phoenix and you’re running the air conditioning for the bus, it’s going to use more than that, about 190 kWh just to run the air conditioner.
How did you think battery technology would evolve during your Tesla early days?
We thought back then we could build a car with maybe a 200-mile range and by now it would be easy and cheap to do 500 miles. And that hasn’t really happened. We were thinking there would be more than a 2x increase in energy density and the price would decline by a factor of two or three.
Why hasn’t it happened like that?
Batteries are electrochemical devices. We’ve known everything on the Periodic Table for a very long time now and the chemical combinations you can use to make batteries. There are different ways of manufacturing [batteries] and there have certainly been some breakthroughs, but it’s not like electronics where you can keep shrinking the scale to cram more onto a device and make them go faster. There are hard chemistry and physical limits to what you can and can’t do with batteries.