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Navistar boss says battery-electric trucking is long-term decarbonization answer

Carlbaum sees future for other Traton brands to fill niches in US market

Navistar CEO Mathias Carlbaum

Navistar International is continuing work on fuel cell projects that began before it was acquired by Volkswagen’s Traton Group, but CEO Mathias Carlbaum follows parent Traton Group’s mantra that batteries are the long-term solution for decarbonizing commercial trucking.

“There is a window there, but over time because of the better energy efficiency, batteries will prevail,” Carlbaum told a virtual roundtable of reporters Friday in his first public remarks since becoming CEO Sept. 1, 2021. 

Navistar has two fuel cell projects — one with Cummins Inc. to create a Class 8 fuel cell truck for Werner Enterprises — and another with General Motors Co. to equip Navistar LT tractors with fuel cells for J.B. Hunt Transport to test on certain routes. No completion date for either project has been revealed.

“We do believe there is a user case for hydrogen … for certain very long distances,” Carlbaum said. “We are working our partnerships to have our solutions in the market to cover that period of time that [hydrogen] is going to be a part of the long-haul market.”

Major competitors Daimler Truck and AB Volvo formed a fuel cell joint venture to build hydrogen-powered trucks and for stationary uses like data centers. VW — and Traton by extension — are invested in startup battery maker QuantumScape, which is developing solid state batteries that promise greater range than existing technology.

Class 8 electric will wait

Navistar is building electric school buses through its IC brand and has begun production of its first electric truck, a medium-duty battery-powered eMV Series Class 6 truck, which will be the first vehicle to come off the line at a new assembly plant in San Antonio scheduled to go online this quarter. The MV electric is currently being assembled in Escobedo, Mexico.

Navistar’s first electric truck, the Class 6 eMV Series, is in production in Escobedo, Mexico. It will move to a new plant in San Antonio this quarter. (Photo: Navistar)

A Class 8 LT tractor could join the lineup, but it would be aimed at regional haul like electric trucks offered by Daimler, Volvo and Paccar Inc. A long-haul electric is not in the immediate plan.

“We won’t be late when it’s the moment for it,” Carlbaum said. “But we don’t really see the need for trying that tech before there’s a user case for it.” 

A long-haul Class 8 electric would need to run 400 to 450 miles on a single charge with megawatt charging capable of providing sufficient juice in 40-45 minutes, he said.

Kicking in on charging infrastructure

Navistar has a role to play in building out the electric truck infrastructure in the U.S. Traton, Volvo and Daimler are spending $593 million to create an electric charging network across Europe. 

Daimler Truck North America, BlackRock Renewable Power and NextEra Energy Resources said on Monday they plan a $650 million joint venture to build U.S. charging infrastructure for electric and hydrogen fuel cell medium- and heavy-duty trucks.

“We are well aware of what some of our other competitors are doing here, so this is not a question of one or the other,” Carlbaum said. “We all need to chip in to enable the expansion and pave the way for the products coming.”

Traton Group products for the US

When former Traton CEO Andreas Rentscher was running Volkswagen Truck & Bus, he spoke of a goal for Traton, spun out of VW as a separate truck holding company in 2018, to become a “global champion” — if it could gain access to the U.S. market. Carlbaum estimated the U.S. accounts for a third of the global market.

Traton made an unsolicited $2.9 billion bid in January 2020 for the 83% of Navistar it did not already own. VW purchased 16.6% of Navistar shares for $256 million in September 2016 and created an alliance covering powertrains and purchasing.

After delays created by the COVID pandemic and some squabbling over price, Traton ultimately paid $3.7 billion. It wasted no time in installing practically all-new leadership, starting with Carlbaum, a former Scania executive who led the post-merger management of Navistar on Traton’s behalf.

The term “global champion” has fallen into disuse, but the idea of filling gaps in Navistar’s lineup with products from Germany’s MAN or Sweden’s Scania is in the mid-to-long-range plan, Carlbaum said. 

The first product, Scania-made mining trucks for Canada, was announced in October 2019 at the North American Commercial Vehicles show. Three years later, issues around homologation for the Canadian market and other issues are nearly solved, clearing the way for the trucks to soon debut.

Scania mining trucks may soon be on their way to Canada. (Photo: Scania)

“There are segments that products outside of the U.S. would suit very well,” Carlbaum said. “We   will get there. There are some that we can bring in that have been successful outside [the U.S.] Just look at the MAN and Scania homepages and you’ll see some segments where Navistar isn’t really represented today. 

“Some segments you can go [to] electric directly. That could be a spearhead. I’m tempted to say what that could be, but then I would be hanged.” 

The FreightWaves Top 500 For-Hire Carriers list includes J.B. Hunt (No. 4) and Werner Enterprises (No. 10).

Daimler Truck, BlackRock and NextEra Energy’s $650M bet on electric infrastructure 

Traton shakes up Navistar C-suite 

Navistar, GM and J.B. Hunt collaborate on fuel cell trucks

Click for more FreightWaves articles by Alan Adler.

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.