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Daimler CEO draws (electric) line in the sand, Portland facility to convert to EV manufacturing

Move over Nikola Motor Company. Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) is taking the power back. Electric power to be precise. In a keynote speech delivered this morning at ACT Expo, CEO Roger Nielsen declared battery-electric vehicles as the solution to achieve emissions-free commercial transportation in North America.

“The road to emissions-free transportation is going to be driven with battery-electric vehicles. I believe the future is electric.”

Although the world’s largest truck maker’s commitment to electric vehicles is well-documented, it was impossible not to put Nielsen’s speech in context of the hydrogen-centric conversation that has dominated trucking news these past few weeks.

Last week, Nikola Motor Company made a big splash unveiling its hydrogen-electric tractors, and CEO Trevor Milton championed hydrogen as one of the most abundant and renewable fuels on the planet.

And just two days ago,  in an ACT Expo preview event, the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles proudly unveiled several Kenworth Toyota hydrogen fuel cell-electric big rigs. “These trucks produce absolutely zero emissions,” Toyota vice president of sales Bob Carter said during the event. “Let that sink in. Zero emissions on a fully loaded, heavy-duty over the road truck.”

That may be true, but Nielsen wants to direct your attention elsewhere.

Daimler sees potential for hydrogen fuel cells to extend battery-electric truck range, said Nielsen, but does not see it as viable in the near-term.

The company’s vision of electric vehicles does not exclude fuel cells – “I can see a glimpse of it over the horizon, but it will not be this generation of engineers who will be delivering it,” he said.

DTNA’s electric vision does not include plug-in hybrids. Near-zero-emissions natural gas medium- and heavy-duty vehicles are currently available and will continue from Freightliner as an interim solution until full commercialization of the battery-electric Freightliner eM2 and eCascadia.

Nielsen outlined three action items in pursuit of a zero emissions electric future: development of a common, industry-wide battery electric charging infrastructure; cheaper, lighter batteries; and support from the public sector.

Another key to ensuring electric vehicles are ready for commercialization is testing. With its first electric truck already in customer hands, DTNA plans to put nearly 50 on the road by the end of the year. “For our engineers, these early customer partners are our test drivers,” said Nielsen. “We want them to test these vehicles to their extremes. We want to see the failures so we can engineer solutions.”

Nikola Motor wasn’t the only “disruptive” specter hovering over Nielsen’s speech. In what appeared to be a swipe at Elon Musk and his SpaceX venture, Nielsen said DTNA is “not compromising and launching prototypes into space here.  We will continue with our real customers in North America.”

DTNA also announced today that it will begin converting its Portland, Oregon, manufacturing facility to produce electric Freightliners. Renovations to the facility will begin next year with series production scheduled to begin in 2021.

The company’s decision to bring electric vehicle production to Portland was based on multiple factors, including Portland’s proximity to the huge demand for electric vehicles in California.

In addition to production, the Portland manufacturing facility will also host a battery storage facility and an electric vehicle co-creation center, where the e-consulting team will collaborate with customers.

Here they will integrate electric trucks into their fleets from order intake through the second life of the truck.

Linda Baker, Senior Environment and Technology Reporter

Linda Baker is a FreightWaves senior reporter based in Portland, Oregon. Her beat includes autonomous vehicles, the startup scene, clean trucking, and emissions regulations. Please send tips and story ideas to [email protected]