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Is Range Energy’s electrification push the future of trailers?

Startup sees full trailer electrification as an undiscovered country

Former Tesla and Zoox prototype design leader Ali Javidan wants to bring full electrification to 53-foot trailers. (Photo: Range Energy)

Making the cooling units on refrigerated trucks run on electricity instead of diesel saves fuel and reduces emissions. Startup Range Energy is betting investor money that trailer electrification can do more than just prevent liquified ice cream from arriving at the grocery store.

“What we’re doing is bringing all of the electrification that you see happening in vehicles and in power units to the trailer,” said Ali Javidan, Range Energy founder and CEO and former head of vehicle prototyping at Tesla and later director of prototyping and research and development at Zoox, Amazon’s autonomous vehicles subsidiary. 

The Mountain View, California-based company completed an $8 million seed financing round which had participation from Up Partners, R7 Partners and Yamaha Motor Ventures. That provided enough money to test concepts. Range is seeking more in a Series A raise in process.

Range claims an electrified trailer — adding 4,000 pounds from an electric axle, control system, additional charging kingpin and 200-kilowatt hour battery pack affixed to the trailer frame — could cut emissions by 40% and save lots of fuel without sacrificing cargo capacity. 

“We’re stringing the battery pack under the Z-rails and we’re leveraging the exact same suspension model that everybody knows how to use today,” Javidan told FreightWaves. “Part of the reason I’m doing it this way is because we want to help the industry move into electrification with no tech headache and no tech hangover.”

Smart vs. dumb trailers

In Javidan’s world, a dry van trailer — typically a container for point-to-point goods movement — becomes a smart device capable of contributing to transportation efficiency and safety. Regenerative braking, a key energy-saving benefit from an electric tractor, would operate in a similar fashion in a trailer.  

The premise of adding an e-axle, which has a traditional axle housing and differential incorporating an electric motor, an inverter and a thermal management system, makes the trailer do its own work. Once the battery pack has absorbed as much regenerated energy as it can hold, the trailer switches to traditional friction brakes.

“This is not just about carrying a battery backpack,” Javidan said. “We’re building a step-function increase, not an incremental increase. Our customers value partners that can provide complete solutions.”

A dry van trailer with an electric axle could help return energy from braking into a battery pack, similar to a battery-powered truck. (Image: Range Energy)

Range is starting work on its third prototype. A bumper-pull prototype is collecting road miles and generating data and correlating the company’s efficiency claims. A gooseneck trailer approximates a 53-foot trailer in a smaller form factor. It runs on public roads without a commercial driver’s license.

Range Energy uses a bumper pull trailer to gather data it correlates with physics and energy models. (Photo: Range Energy)

A second e-axle might seem to be overkill. Some electric Class 8 trucks, like the Volvo VNR Electric, don’t have even one yet. Volvo showed its own e-axle design in September at the IAA Transport show in Hanover, Germany.

“If you don’t have an e-axle in the trailer, you’re still wasting thermal energy [from braking],” Javidan said.

Technology decisions pending for Range Energy

Taking advantage of a trailer’s dwell time — loading and unloading — for recharging is on Javidan’s list of goals. A vertical inductive charger, in which the trailer would connect face to face with the charger, could replace a charging plug. Battery chemistry is undecided. But he mentioned lithium iron phosphate, which is gaining popularity against lithium-ion. 

“Without knowing more details, I think it’s something that could be very appealing,” said Jim Sharkey, president of Pressure Systems International. P.S.I. provides onboard tire inflation and tire pressure monitoring systems for trailers. “I definitely plan on learning more about it.”

Said Mike Ramsey, Gartner Inc. vice president and smart mobility analyst: “It’s always been a question of payoff in the past. But as companies are trying to reduce their carbon footprint, solutions like these become more interesting because they hit both fuel costs and carbon footprint.”

Trailer electrification today

While Range Energy is exploring an expansive version of trailer electrification, limited approaches are well under way.

“We’ve integrated electric motors inside the wheels,” said Marc Trahand, vice president and general manager of the eMobility business unit at Consolidated Metco (ConMet). “Once you’ve got an electric motor inside the wheel, you can generate electricity as the wheel spins. Just like a generator, you’ve got magnets rotating on coils.”

ConMet focuses on creating electric energy to run transport refrigeration units (TRUs) from 45 kWh batteries. The Vancouver, Washington-based ConMet is partnering with Carrier Transicold and foodservice distributor Sysco Corp. to replace diesel with electricity as a fuel source for Sysco refrigerated trucks.

Applied solely to propulsion, ConMet’s Preset Plus eHub could save 35% of the energy compared to diesel depending on the truck’s speed, Trahand said. Keeping the reefer running reduces the propulsion boost for the tractor to about 5%.

A Sysco 53-foot trailer with ConMet’s eHub providing electric power to a Transicold transport refrigeration unit. (Photo: ConMet).

“If I’m also doing refrigeration, I’ve got to be very careful . Mission one is to get the goods cold to the supermarket,” he said. “You don’t want liquid ice cream.”

Reefers are low-hanging fruit for trailer electrification. Fairly small batteries, like ConMet uses, preserve fleet flexibility. 

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) already regulates TRU emissions. Based on actions in February, that will continue through the middle of the next decade. 

Regulations and incentives

The CARB offers billions of incentive dollars to help fleets offset the higher up-front cost of electric tractors. Trailers get practically nothing because they are classified as off-highway vehicles.

“There is no way today that CARB looks at the combination of the tractor and trailer together,” Trahand said. “So when you bring a trailer to market with propulsion [gains], CARB doesn’t look at that as ‘Oh, that’s a smart idea.’”

That makes him skeptical of Range’s proposition. Electrifying dry vans requires careful control and power electronics.

“I’ve done startups for the past 15 years of my life. And I wish everybody doing a startup a healthy and long ride,” Trahand said. “I’ve worked in electric mobility for about six or seven years. It’s really difficult sometimes to bring products to market.”

Javidan said he has spoken with regulators to describe Range’s work. 

“Given the urgent need to decarbonize heavy transport, it is not enough to offer incremental solutions,” he said. “We view the trailer as a key platform in driving towards zero-emission trucking.”

The zero-emissions trailer solves challenges of the electric TRU

25 years strong, P.S.I. is adding tire pressure monitoring toi successful tire inflation system

Overcoming today’s challenges in fleet telematics

Click for more FreightWaves articles by Alan Adler.


  1. John Carston

    I love that you talked that the coldness of your refrigerated transportation being provided by electricity from batteries. My brother told me the other day that he and his business associate were hoping to find a reliable refrigeration trailer solution to provide safe transportation for their frozen meat business products. He asked if I had thoughts on the best option. I appreciate this enlightening article, I’ll tell him we can consult a refrigerated trailer service as they can provide more information about the process.

  2. Ali Javidan

    PV arrays are on the feature list and will be an option in the future, Up to ~8kW with todays technology. There is a payload mass penalty as well as cost and complexity involved and it requires the operator to wash the trailer roof on a regular basis. Once you add all of the benefits and compare it to the burden, it doesn’t make as much of a value proposition as it seems. However there are applications where it makes sense and we will have the feature available as an option.

  3. Robert Cooper

    Electric generators on the wheelsets? That was how some of the earliest electric lighting was powered on passenger trains over 100 years ago. What is old becomes new again. Why doesn’t anybody look into solar panels on the roof? Especially with trailers that aren’t 13′ 6″ tall, this could be a huge spot to exploit. After all, how much electricity can be generated from 450 sq ft of solar array?

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Alan Adler

Alan Adler is an award-winning journalist who worked for The Associated Press and the Detroit Free Press. He also spent two decades in domestic and international media relations and executive communications with General Motors.