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Truck Tech: Wish you were here edition

A muted CES; Nikola's momentum and increasing pressure for electric trucks

Welcome back to Truck Tech for 2022.

This week: A COVID-impacted CES still managed to draw tens of thousands of attendees to Las Vegas; Nikola reaches a truce with Tesla and continues putting battery-electric truck orders on the board; and a couple of electric truck startups show that exclusivity is awfully rare in the startup business.

A CES like no other

The omicron variant of COVID knocked CES for a loop with dozens of companies bailing on live exhibits. Some even left partially constructed displays in place while moving to virtual reveals. But not everyone stayed home. Autonomous trucking leader TuSimple and a raft of lidar developers maintained their presence.

The West Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center featured mostly typical trade show displays, complete with out-of-sight conference areas for dealmaking, also stunted by canceled meetings. But it was the gaps between exhibits — where major players like General Motors and Ford had turned CES into a sort of auto show in recent years — that were most remarkable.

The West Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center, a shadow of previous CES events. (Photo: Alan Adler/FreightWaves)

Of the Detroit 3 automakers, only Stellantis occupied its planned display. Korean automaker Hyundai showed up, as well as a raft of lidar companies, including China’s Hesai, which has business with autonomous trucking leader TuSimple and more recent startup Kodiak Robotics. 

Luminar, with its mechanical lidar used by several autonomous trucking companies, showed a lightly disguised Kenworth T680 with its Blade design that incorporates cameras and lidar in a smoother, more eye-appealing package. Ouster brought several partners demonstrating nonautomotive applications. Lidar point clouds seemed to be everywhere.

But the story of CES really was one of forced hybridization. Organizers proved in 2020 they  could pull off a digital trade show. It was the first of the majors to require proof of COVID vaccinations to attend, all the way back in August 2021. 

With the show dates coinciding with the rise of the omicron variant, companies began to vanish from the event that attracted about 170,000 people the last time it was held live in 2020. 

During a typical CES, there would be no room for this replica of the famous Las Vegas sign, which served as a cool backdrop for many wish-you-were-here selfies and photographs by attendees. (Photo: Alan Adler/FreightWaves)

One Lyft driver told me he had about eight times fewer fares than two years ago. Another said he looked forward to brisk activity when the Las Vegas Raiders host the Los Angeles Chargers for the final AFC playoff spot on Sunday evening. Both, however, appreciated the relative ease of driving on the usually traffic-choked Las Vegas Strip. 

The relative quiet of the casinos that would be crowded with recreational gamblers caused some lament. One longtime blackjack dealer at the Aria professed to not even know it was CES week. He remarked that New Year’s Eve business was so slow that what in earlier years would have required a $300 bet per hand at his table was priced at $25.

Nikola’s big week

Electric truck startup Nikola Corp. scraped another barnacle from its hull this week, dropping a $2 billion patent infringement lawsuit against rival Tesla. It may be the last vestige of indicted founder Trevor Milton’s stewardship of the company. While Nikola confirmed the action in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, it offered no other comment. 

It saved its words for two potentially substantial deals for its Class 8 battery-electric Tre daycab. Nikola (NASDAQ: NKLA) announced two letters of intent, each for a best case of up to 100 orders with dedicated and less-than-truckload hauler USA Truck Inc. and LTL carrier Saia Inc., which is also testing Freightliner eM2 battery-electric box trucks from Daimler Truck.

Photo: Nikola Corp.

Like its earlier letter of intent with drayage hauler Total Transportation Services Inc., these are try-then-buy (or lease) arrangements. That is not unique to Nikola. Established OEMs are subject to the same prove-it-to-me hurdle before inking bigger deals.

Nikola is responsible only for building and delivering the trucks to Thompson Truck Centers, one of its sales and service dealership partners. Thompson provides a “fleet-as-a-service” model including maintenance and energy infrastructure.

And then there were 6

The number of states adopting California’s Advanced Clean Truck rule, essentially a sales quota for electric heavy-duty trucks that begins in 2024, now totals six including the Golden State.

New York and Massachusetts are the latest to sign on, joining New Jersey, Washington and Oregon. This puts serious pressure on truck manufacturers to have products to meet the quotas that start at 9% of new truck sales and rise to 75% in 2035. Kenworth and Navistar are both moving orders for electric trucks through the system markedly faster than diesel trucks. 

At 2 ½ to three times the acquisition price of a diesel, and potential added revenue from selling a charger like Paccar Parts offers, it makes sense to assign scarce microchips to trucks that regulations will require anyway.

There is even greater pressure on charging infrastructure, as I explored earlier this week.

Paccar Parts is happy to sell chargers for electric trucks along with the Kenworth and Peterbilt battery-electric models. (Photo: Alan Adler/FreightWaves)

Manufacturing monogamy? Not so much

Lightning eMotors (NYSE: ZEV) has a new partnership that is a reminder that exclusivity is a rarity in the world of business startups. The Colorado-based maker of electric vehicles, mostly built on Ford Motor Co. chassis, is working with global chassis maker Metalsa to make a beefier version for Class 4 and 5 trucks capable of supporting an additional 1,500 pounds.

The greater payload is a nice option for top hats like shuttle buses, delivery or refrigerated trucks, or ambulances. They will be available as soon as the second quarter this year.

Joe El-Behairy, president of Monterrey, Mexico-based Metalsa’s e-mobility division, called Lightning eMotors “the perfect customer” to introduce his group’s new product. 

Metalsa was an early investor in Xos Trucks, another SPAC-backed startup, focusing on Class 5-8 electric chassis. Metalsa provided at least a portion of $20 million to Xos (NASDAQ: XOS) that made up the publicly announced sum of its capital until its reverse merger with NextGen Acquisition Corp. last August. 

Best of the rest

The upcoming Volta Zero commercial electric truck will use an integrated navigation system from Here Technologies Inc. that divides the world into tiny squares. The 3-meter squares give each square a unique three-word name, or what3words address, which Here claims is more precise than a street address.

TuSimple is deepening its partnership with Nvidia Corp. to use the company’s vehicle chips to design and build an advanced autonomous domain computer for its self-driving trucks. 

The ADC will be specifically engineered for TuSimple’s (NASDAQ: TSP) Level 4 high-autonomy trucks and will power sensor perception and vehicle operation. Controllers processing hundreds of trillions of bits of data per second allow centralized compute-intensive instruments such as cameras, radars and lidar sensors.

Nvidia’s (NASDAQ: NVDA) artificial intelligence expertise and Drive Orin hardware chip is specifically designed for autonomous driving and will be installed in ground-up driverless trucks TuSimple is developing with Traton SE’s Navistar Inc. targeting 2024 production.

Mack Trucks is playing coy about whether it has a role in “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” due in theaters this June. But non-transforming Mack trucks made the credits in the blockbuster “Spider-Man: No Way Home” film that brought in the kind of billion-dollar box office bonanza unseen during the pandemic.

The trucks were on screen for mere seconds of the nearly 2 ½-hour film, more of a cameo than a starring role like the third movie in the cinematic franchise “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.” But a credit is a credit.

A lot fewer people got to see the lidar-equipped autonomous version of the Mack Anthem on display in the Robotic Research (RR.AI) booth at CES. 

A Mack Anthem equipped by Robotic Research (RR.AI) for autonomous driving appears in military drab olive green at the 2022 CES in Las Vegas. (Photo: Alan Adler/FreightWaves)

That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading. Subscribe here for delivery of Truck Tech to your email on Fridays.


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.