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Truck Talk: Making the case edition

The value of being first; sleepers large and squat, and a BADASS dump truck

This week, we’re looking at the meaning of electric trucks delivering groceries, autonomous trucks delivering watermelons and other “firsts” trying to make the case for advanced transportation technologies. And a sort of contrarian view on both.

Proving their mettle

Individually, claims of being first don’t always add up to being newsworthy. But taking a step back to consider the “points on the board” being scored by startup autonomous and electric truck companies may tell a different story.

Consider watermelons. A few weeks ago, TuSimple (NASDAQ: TSP) gobbled up 900 miles — most of the distance between Nogales, Arizona, and Oklahoma City using its Level 4 high autonomy software. Safety drivers were behind the wheel to make sure everything went OK. And it did. The summer fruit arrived safely at its destination and showed that produce could be a terrific use case for autonomous trucking. 

Fresher fruit. Faster deliveries. And even though safety drivers need to sleep and follow hours-of-service guidelines, the autonomous trucks they monitor don’t. Swap out the safety driver and you’re back on the road.

Part of the load of watermelons TuSimple moved mostly by autonomy to Oklahoma City from Nogales, Arizona, in May.
(Photo: TuSimple)

The Silk Road

Plus, the fifth and latest SPAC undertaking of Hennessy Capital, completed a 4,000-mile supervised autonomous drive along China’s Silk Road last month. Safety and performance validation testing was the point of the round trip between Suzhou, the silk capital of the world, and Dunhuang, a historical city on the ancient Silk Road at the edge of the Gobi Desert.  

Plus has to be sure its Level 4 software can handle the rigors of extreme conditions like S-curve turns, undivided highways, a 6-mile-long tunnel, heavy rain, sandstorms and haze. 

So far, PlusDrive has been tested in 29 of 34 provincial-level administrative units in China. The goal is to cover all 150,000 kilometers of China’s national highways. Plus expects to begin factory installation of its software in First Auto Works (FAW) J7L3 trucks later this year. 

Retrofits of the PlusDrive system are planned this year in the U.S. So far, Plus isn’t saying who is buying here.

A Plus autonomous software-equipped truck takes a 4,000-mile Silk Road journey. (Photo: Plus)

New York, New York

Though not a startup, Volvo Trucks North America claims a first in electric trucks — a commercial sale outside of climate-conscious California. The subsidiary of Sweden’s Volvo AB (OTC: VLVLY) said Thursday that New York City-based Manhattan Beer Distributors ordered five Class 8 VNR Electric trucks.

The zero tailpipe emission, battery-electric trucks will be part of Manhattan’s fleet of more than 400 trucks, including more than 150 Volvo VNR and VNL low-emission compressed natural gas (CNG) Class 8 trucks. Read more here.

A Volvo VNR Electric truck on the production line in Dublin, Virginia. (Photo: Volvo Trucks North America)

Cold delivery

Volvo also claims a first in refrigerated grocery delivery. Albertsons Cos. took delivery of two VNR Electric trucks as part of the Volvo LIGHTS, an acronym for Low Impact Green Heavy Transport Solutions. 

Albertsons added electric-powered transport refrigeration units from Advanced Energy Machines to make the first commercial 100% zero-emission grocery delivery with a Class 8 truck in the U.S. For good measure, the May 28 delivery went to a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-certified store. Read more.

A zero tailpipe emission VNR Electric and reefer unit. (Photo: Volvo Trucks)

A ‘sort-of’ contrarian view

In an interview this week, newly named Daimler Trucks North America CEO John O’Leary offered his take on when electric and autonomous trucks could be expected. DTNA is a leader in both. Its demonstration fleet of Class 8 and Class 6 trucks in Southern California is nearing 1 million real-world miles. And it has two partnerships in autonomous trucking, one internally with its majority stake in Torc Robotics and externally with Level 4 software maker Waymo Via.

Electric trucks, O’Leary told me, are drawing more interest than expected when it partnered 2 1/2 years ago with NFI Industries and Penske Truck Leasing to conduct long-term evaluations on eCascadia and eM2 models. DTNA recently received an order for 50 eCascadias from Legend Transportation Inc.

“We’re going to continue to push a lot of resources at it, but it certainly is not our be all and end all at this point,” O’Leary said.

On autonomous trucks, he is more skeptical, even as DTNA learns from having Torc’s expertise in house.

“It’s not something that’s going to happen today or tomorrow,” O’Leary told me. “I do see some announcements from time to time about companies saying we’re only a year or two away. I would say the science projects are a year or two away. But actual, in-use hard-core trucking with autonomous is still a ways off. I couldn’t speculate when but certainly not in the next two to three years. That’s for sure.”

We might get a different answer from Navistar and TuSimple, which plan a Level 4-enabled Class 8 truck for production in 2024.

Just go to sleep

It can be difficult sometimes to differentiate products and features from truck manufacturers like Volvo and Mack or Peterbilt and Kenworth. That’s not the case when it comes to sleeper cabs from PACCAR Inc. (NASDAQ: PCAR) U.S.-based brands.

Kenworth last month revealed a W990 version of its 52-inch flat roof sleeper for Class 8 crane, pump, car hauler and other low-roof applications. The set forward front axle Kenworth W990 and T880S models have a 5-inch drop front axle option that lowers the front of the truck by 1.5 inches over the standard 3.5-inch drop. Read more here.

At the other end of the sleeper spectrum, Peterbilt is showing a Model 567 version of its UltraLoft integrated sleeper cab. By making the most of the available space, the UltraLoft includes 8 feet of headroom and 70 cubic feet of overall storage. 

The UltraLoft also features large upper and lower bunk mattresses, more headroom in both bunks and space for a large microwave and a 32-inch flat screen TV. More details.

The Kenworth W990 52-inch sleeper. (Photo: Kenworth Truck Co.)
The Peterbilt Model 567 Ultraloft integrated sleeper (Photo: Peterbilt Motors)

What’s in a name?

Autocar LLC, the 120-year-old maker of Class 8 severe-duty trucks, thinks its fourth-generation DC-64D dump truck is so BADASS that it trademarked the name. Autocar Truck President Eric Schwartz says the seamless body integration of the truck requires no significant structural modifications. The soundness contributes to a longer life span and lower total cost of ownership. 

Or, as Schwartz says: “This dump truck is truly BADASS.” Read more.

One trademarked BADASS dump truck. (Photo: Autocar Trucks)

That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading. Got a subject that you think should be in Truck Talk? Email me at aadler@freightwaves.com. Want Truck Talk delivered to your email every Friday? Subscribe here.

Alan

Alan Adler

Alan Adler is a Detroit-based award-winning journalist who worked for The Associated Press, the Detroit Free Press and most recently as Detroit Bureau Chief for Trucks.com. He also spent two decades in domestic and international media relations and executive communications with General Motors.

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