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Truck Tech: Hypertruck first drive edition

Behind the wheel of the Hyliion hybrid electric truck; Great Dane's makeover

Editor’s note: Corrects 6th paragraph to show that competitor vehicles are pure battery-electric trucks

The story of Hyliion’s extended-range Class 8 truck is more complex than just battery-electric power. We took the first media ride and drive in Austin, Texas, this week. Another makeover of a trailer maker as Great Dane freshens up its brand. And the best of the rest.

Checking out Hyliion’s Hypertruck

Hyliion Holdings hosted me for a quick visit to its Austin, Texas, headquarters for a ride and drive of its Hypertruck ERX. The Peterbilt Model 579-based natural gas and battery-powered hybrid Class 8 truck is trying to find a place in the transformation from diesel to electric trucks.

If first impressions count, the ERX has a good chance.

The ERX addresses the two words — range anxiety — that cause angst among would-be electric vehicle adopters. It is not an issue for the ERX, because the launch model in 2023 will be capable of 75 miles of pure electric driving.

As a serial hybrid, the ERX uses a natural gas-powered generator that creates electricity for the four side-mounted battery packs. The batteries are smaller than those used in a pure battery-electric truck because they are only intended for use in urban areas where CO2 emissions are a big problem. 


The rest of the time the truck runs on natural gas, preferably renewable natural gas made from farm waste and other nonpetroleum sources capable of negative net-zero carbon emissions. The ERX can travel up  to 1,000 miles between fill-ups. The generator, fueled by either natural gas or RNG, converts enough energy to keep the batteries at a consistent but moderate state of charge while the truck does its long-haul business. 

Early BETs attracting single- and low double-digit orders couple the engine and the electric motor to the wheels to move the vehicle. Freightliner, Volvo, Kenworth, BYD and the Peterbilt 579 are pure electrics. They all max on driving range out somewhere around 200 miles or less before needing to be plugged in.  

The ERX has two fully electric Meritor 14Xe axles driven by an axle-mounted electric motor powered by four side-mounted battery packs, similar to pure BETs. But the generator, which could eventually use any number of fuels, avoids the need for a grid-tapping power plug.  

Walkaround of the Hyliion Hypertruck ERX with CEO Thomas Healy at company headquarters in Austin. (Photo courtesy of Hyliion)

Ride and drive

For my visit on Wednesday, Hyliion focused on showing the 6X4-configured tractor running on stored electricity. Whisper-quiet operation, a hallmark of electric trucks versus diesel engines, allowed normal conversation tones in the cab as we rode for a few miles on Texas 183. Maybe because I wasn’t paying attention, I was unaware when the generator kicked on to recharge the batteries. 

Back in the late 2000s, I briefly supported the Chevrolet Volt hybrid electric team at General Motors. You always knew when the Volt’s generator kicked on. As hybrid passenger cars today show, seamless switchovers have come a long way in 15 years.

On a screen above the driver, the ERX displays how much horsepower the system is generating, whether the generator is running and the batteries’ state of charge. It can set the system to turn on the generator when the SOC falls below a specific point. On our drive, it kicked in at 49% and shut off at 65%. 

The ERX was as smooth as any battery-powered truck I have experienced. Acceleration was  impressive, especially going up an on-ramp to the 183 and merging into traffic. The giddyup was noticeable with no trailer attached — not exactly Tesla Ludicrous mode but plenty of power. 

As a generator fuel, natural gas does fine. As a fuel itself, it boasts much lower emissions than diesel but less combustive power, which means less torque. 

Behind the wheel in the parking lot surrounding Hyliion’s two buildings, I found operating the big rig as effortless as driving my Nissan Kicks rental car. Because of regenerative braking that returns energy back to the batteries, I only tapped the brakes during wide turns.

Test driving Hyliion’s Hypertruck ERX in Austin. 

Rebranding a classic

First it was Wabash National — oops, just Wabash now — that decided a makeover was needed to better reflect its first-to-last-mile trailer and body building business. Now Great Dane, the Savannah, Georgia-based 120-year-old trailer maker, has decided a refresh is in order.

The brand evolution, a year in the making, represents Great Dane’s focus on “end-to-end solutions for the transportation industry” with digital connectivity a part of the formula, the company said in a press release

The future is about trailer and truck body innovations, telematics and enhanced aftermarket services. Emblems on the back of Great Dane trailers and truck bodies are not changing, but the rest of the brand identity gets a refresh.

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In a get-acquainted visit to headquarters last May, Chris Hammond, the executive vice president of sales whose family has long ties to the company, showed me the original workup of the company logo.

 Chris Hammond with the original art for Great Dane. (Photo: Alan Adler/FreightWaves)

Best of the rest

Other than saying customer response is “overwhelmingly positive” to its MD Series medium-duty trucks, Mack Trucks hasn’t talked numbers. This week, the company said it hit the 5,000 vehicle production milestone at a former comic book publishing plant that now makes up its Roanoke Valley Operations in Virginia. Production began in September 2020.

No word on when or whether the MD will get an electric version, which is an increasingly popular option for medium-duty trucks that operate on the same routes and return to base at night, where they can be charged when electricity is cheaper. 

Mack is building its LR Electric refuse hauler in Pennsylvania and recently sold one to Boulder, Colorado-based Eco-Cycle, one of the largest nonprofit recyclers and zero-waste organizations in the U.S. It is Eco-Cycle’s first battery-electric vehicle.

Rival Navistar has said the first vehicle off the line next month at its new assembly plant in San Antonio will be its battery-powered Class 6 MV electric model currently built in Escobedo, Mexico.


On the electric scene, Mack’s Volvo Group sibling Volvo Trucks claims 2021 market leadership for heavy all-electric trucks in Europe with a 42% share. 

According to a Volvo press release, IHS Markit data shows that during 2021 a total of 346 electric trucks greater than 25,000 pounds were registered in Europe — an increase of 193% from 2020. 

Between orders and letters of intent, Volvo has bookings for more than 1,100 electric trucks worldwide.


Readers of Truck Tech know that the California Air Resources Board has boosted the amount of money available to help fleets cover the upfront cost of electric trucks, like the Kenworth T680E, through the Hybrid and Zero-Emission Truck and Bus Voucher Incentive Project (HVIP). 

The top voucher amount is $120,000 for a Class 8 tractor. But the nonprofit Calstart, which administers the program for CARB, is offering up to a $150,000 spiff if that truck is used in drayage operations. The program also offers a 15% bonus voucher if the qualifying vehicle is domiciled in a disadvantaged community.

Clearing the air around the neighborhoods near California’s ports brings the biggest carrots and was the focus of earlier grant programs to jump-start the transition to electric trucks. 


That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading. Click here to subscribe and have Truck Tech delivered via email on Fridays.

Alan

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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.