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Thor’s DIY approach can help disrupt an industry

Thor’s small team is setting up to make a big splash based on an in-house, collaborative approach.

After our first report on Thor Trucks earlier this week in response to their announcement to possibly beat Tesla to market in 2019, Freightwaves reached out to Thor. We wanted to learn a little more about their company’s goals, the power of the ET-One, and perhaps most importantly, their battery.

Thor describes themselves as a “transportation lab with a goal of tackling fleet management problems.” Their first product happens to be an electric semi truck, but Thor considers themselves an OEM in the traditional sense; a company whose goods are used as components in the products of another company, which then sells the finished item to users.

Their intent is to brand and market their own products. Thor built the ET-One on a donor chassis to get a product on the road that demonstrates their innovative powertrain and battery technology. Thor has since brought on the engineering talent to develop a chassis on our own, and will be building trucks from the ground up beyond this prototype.

In this sense, they are an OEM building a whole product, at least to get out of the gate.

In order to do this, they’ve recently brought on the expertise of other senior team members John Henry Harris (Senior Battery Mechanical Engineer) and Priyankar Balekai (Chief Product Officer), who between them have years of experience in automotive engineering and automotive product development, respectively.

Thor’s ultimate goal, however, is not vertical integration within the automotive industry so much as it is to partner with other players in the space. This kind of symbiotic collaboration will enable parties at all points on the supply chain to best maximize the potential of EVs to penetrate the market in a meaningful way. Whether it’s working with OEMs and suppliers to help create the ideal batteries and bodies for each truck or working alongside fleet operators to assure efficient use of resources, Thor’s long-term project, beginning with the ET-One, is to be the go-to resource for the future of the electric trucking industry.

The electric semi is considered exceptionally challenging to create because of the sheer battery power required to haul freight up to 80,000 pounds. ATRI’s 2016 analysis of the operational costs of trucking demonstrates that fuel—even with the price of diesel having dipped again since 2015—continues to be carrier’s largest average marginal cost.

Due to the increasing pressure of the stubborn driver shortage issue, in combination with current lower fuel prices, driver’s wages are competing as the largest cost to carriers in measurements at both Costs per Mile (CPM) and Costs per Hour (CPH). Regardless, for many years, solving fuel costs has been considered, in many ways, the Holy Grail of transportation engineering. Many major companies in the tech world are trying, with varying measures of success, to tackle this problem.

Thor’s team chose to tackle this engineering problem to show that, at every level of the supply chain, but especially at the battery level, it is feasible to competitively create a cost-effective, reasonable solution to a space that many have dismissed as being too cost-prohibitive in an industry too entrenched by major players.

Thor sees itself as being a valuable potential partner to many companies in this space, not a competitor. To the automotive manufacturers, they’re exhibiting a proven concept: a reliable, cost-effective, environmentally-friendly electric truck that can ultimately replace the unsustainable diesel trucks that make up most fleets.

By taking a DIY approach to researching and designing the entire ET-One in-house, Thor’s goal is to prove that eco-friendly vehicles don’t have to be simply vanity plays, occupying a few spaces in a huge fleet. Thor’s model wants to show that EVs can make up the whole fleet, by creating an ultimately cheaper and more sustainable model than the current one.

Thor sees themselves as collaborators more than competitors. They respect the strategies and efforts of the likes of Tesla and Nikola, who are both pursuing goals for a future of transportation marked completely by electric and autonomous vehicles. What Thor is doing differently is going after a solution that is easily implementable now.

It begins with the battery design. Their battery design is different in its layout and cooling process to most electric batteries. Thor claims to have a “the most energy-dense battery on the market, so much so that it is competitive on a short-haul basis with diesel engines in terms of energy efficiency and cost.”

While the secret sauce of the engineering process is not completely clear, we do know this much: the battery is a lithium-ion cylindrical battery in a 2170 format (400-800 kWh, modular battery packs). Thor’s battery favors what they call “a practical approach.”

They aim to identify the major engineering sticking points for electric trucks and tackle them with reasonable solutions. The goal is to develop symbiotic relationships with OEMs and fleet management firms to develop a kind of co-production relationship.

There are still some considerable hurdles to cross for the 2018 year. The power of the truck at full capacity may only reach a maximum speed of 70 miles per hour. Also, with an estimated 250k price tag for the most powerful ET-One—the one that has a range of 300 miles between charges—they will have to prove long-term value.

Ultimately, Thor hopes to be involved at every level of the automotive manufacturing and management process, from co-production with OEMs to fleet management solutions for shipping companies. The proven concept of a cost-effective, reliable electric truck is only the beginning. At each step of the process, Thor wants to prove a DIY approach can help disrupt an industry and make it more efficient in the process.

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Chad Prevost

Chad is radio host and broadcast media specialist for FreightWaves.