Fuso’s ‘vision’ splendid: electric trucks and new heavy-duty range

By: Steve Brooks


The Tokyo Motor Show traditionally throws up some of the craziest concepts and wackiest things on wheels you’re likely to see anywhere. 2017 was no exception with its fair share of the weird and wonderful, but in Fuso’s case it also showed that electric trucks are now the cornerstone of a real world revolution

 The message is electric. Daimler Trucks Asia chief Marc Llistosella (right) and sales boss Michael Kamper
The message is electric. Daimler Trucks Asia chief Marc Llistosella (right) and sales boss Michael Kamper

If evolution is simply development doing its thing, and revolution is possibilities made real, where does Fuso’s remarkable ‘Vision One’ electric truck fit?

Personally, and at the distinct risk of acquiring a butt full of splinters from sitting on the fence, I think it straddles both doctrines.

On one hand, as development of electric vehicles continues at an unrelenting pace, evolution is everywhere as designers and engineers around the world pursue more advanced batteries and motorised powertrains to facilitate the seemingly unstoppable march of electrically powered vehicles.

On the other, revolution will only happen when big corporates decide the time and the technology are right for factory production of those vehicles and most critical of all, their acceptance and application by the consumer masses.

 Visionary. On the inside of Fuso’s Vision One. The technology is remarkable, even down to mirror screens mounted on the inside.
Visionary. On the inside of Fuso’s Vision One. The technology is remarkable, even down to mirror screens mounted on the inside.

Until very recently, and in the commercial vehicle world particularly, it has been difficult to determine if revolution – that critical moment when reality outguns potential – is near or far.  

Certainly, over the past few years with urban congestion and environmental issues driving increasingly intense political and social debate, there has been no end of press releases and detailed reports citing a multitude of engineering advances and corporate commitment to electric vehicle development.

Still, and despite several widely publicised attempts with light-duty electric trucks, no big name commercial vehicle brand has actually stood up and given an absolute assurance that electric trucks are a definite part of future production plans.

That is, until this year’s Tokyo Motor Show.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, came the stark realisation that a revolution was unfolding. Right there and then on the Fuso stand.

New dawn

For me, an individual whose tolerance for corporate connivance and executive exaltation has over many decades been whittled wafer-thin, it was a lightbulb moment.

A flicker of realisation that, ‘Yep, I was there when electric trucks stepped into the real world.’

 Fuso eCanter. For the first time, an electric truck is in production.
Fuso eCanter. For the first time, an electric truck is in production.

Sure, Fuso wasn’t alone in the presentation of electric vehicles at Tokyo.

Numerous car makers were showcasing electric vehicles of one sort or another, already available to buyers in many markets around the world.

But Fuso was something else.

This was about trucks.

This was the Japanese affiliate of Daimler Trucks, the world’s biggest commercial vehicle producer, not only showcasing two electric truck models but announcing the birth of a new brand, dedicated entirely to the design, development and production of electric trucks.

The new brand is E-Fuso. And rightly so given Daimler’s numerous statements over the past few years confirming Fuso’s place as core provider of the corporation’s light truck technology.

So make no mistake, in the context of Daimler’s global light truck ambitions, E-Fuso is the future unfurled.

Vitally, Fuso top executives including Daimler Trucks Asia chief Marc Llistosella and sales boss Michael Kamper were also quick to reiterate the announcement made a few weeks earlier in New York that Fuso is the world’s first commercial vehicle manufacturer to start series production of an all-electric light-duty truck.

That truck is the eCanter, the electrically driven version of Fuso’s long-serving light commercial, built in left hand-drive form at Daimler’s Tramagal plant in Portugal and right hand-drive at the Kawasaki factory outside Tokyo.

What’s more, in something of a coup for a small group of Australian truck writers visiting the show, we would be among the first reporters in the world to be given stints behind the wheel of the electric Canter.

Urban focus

Meanwhile, back on the Fuso stand in Tokyo, both the eCanter and a truly revolutionary truck we would soon enough come to know as ‘Vision One’ were secreted under big black sheets, waiting for the moment in front of a big crowd of international journalists when Marc Llistosella would unveil the trucks along with E-Fuso’s bold plans for today and tomorrow.

 True believer. Daimler Trucks Asia supremo Marc Llistosella fronts international media at the launch of E-Fuso and Vision One.
True believer. Daimler Trucks Asia supremo Marc Llistosella fronts international media at the launch of E-Fuso and Vision One.

Fortunately, our little group didn’t have to wait quite that long. In a back room meeting before the official unveiling, a highly motivated Marc Llistosella explained in no uncertain terms that Fuso’s commitment to the development and production of efficient, practical electric trucks is absolute and stems direct from the highest lofts of the Daimler Trucks tree.

Moments earlier, the sight of Linfox chairman Peter Fox and national equipment manager Ray Gamble on the Fuso stand certainly didn’t go unnoticed, with an obviously enthused Fox uttering: "This could be interesting Brooksy." Indeed it could, Foxy!

Likewise, Llistosella willingly confirmed that Peter Fox is one of a quickly growing number of major fleet operators around the world showing immense interest in Fuso’s electric truck developments, due in no small way to Daimler’s public commitment to start production.

For now though, it’s all about demonstrating Fuso’s electric truck technology and, in effect, putting the new E-Fuso brand’s money where its mouth is.

As things stand at the moment, electric trucks certainly aren’t for everyone or everywhere, and our part of the world is perhaps well down the priority list when it comes to targeted high volume markets. Or is it?

According to Llistosella, "Urbanisation is the key driver for electrification in trucks," which basically asserts that any major city where congestion and pollution are choking the lives and livelihoods of millions of people is an ideal environment for electric trucks, notably in local delivery distribution roles.

 Past and present. eCanter test truck at Fuso’s Kitsuregawa proving ground. In the background is a standard diesel Canter. The difference is dramatic.
Past and present. eCanter test truck at Fuso’s Kitsuregawa proving ground. In the background is a standard diesel Canter. The difference is dramatic.

"Emissions, noise and congestion are big issues," he continued, "and we will see many intrusions for trucks regarding access to major cities.

But rather than fight these things, we will deliver solutions."

In obvious co-operation with Daimler’s vast technical resources, Fuso has been working on development of an electrically-driven Canter since 2010.  

Consequently, as Llistosella was keen to explain, the launch of eCanter in New York was the culmination of a project to turn potential into commercial fact, setting the path for local delivery operations far into the future.

"In times when everybody is talking about electric trucks, we are the first to actually commercialise a series produced all-electric truck," he said in a recent press statement.

"It offers an attractive and cost-effective alternative to combustion engines and makes electric trucks key to the future of inner-city distribution."

As a Fuso statement further explains, the all-electric light-duty truck is in answer to the public’s need for a zero-emission, zero-noise truck for inner-city distribution.

Zero emissions and zero noise are "simply not achievable with a combustion engine", Llistosella remarked.

At its current level of development, eCanter has a range of between 100 and 120km and payload capacity up to 3.5 tonnes on a gross vehicle weight rating of 7.5 tonnes.

Power is derived from six high-voltage lithium ion battery packs with 420 volts and 13.8 kWh each.

Critically, Fuso insists that compared to its diesel equivalent, European experience shows eCanter saves up to 1000 Euro (around Aus$1500) in operating costs every 10,000 km.

Still, it’s early days and eCanter’s modest range capability will undoubtedly limit broad sales appeal.

That, of course, will change as advances in both battery and drive systems – motorised wheel ends, for example – continue to move frenetically forward.

In the meantime, Fuso says it intends to deliver a relatively modest 500 eCanters to customers in the US, Europe and Japan over the next two years.

However, larger scale production is intended to start in 2019 but as yet, volume forecasts are unknown, or more to the point, unstated.

Visionary

Important as it was, eCanter’s launch in New York paled in comparison to a press statement made at the Tokyo Motor Show coinciding with the launch of the E-Fuso brand.

"Mitsubishi Fuso Truck and Bus Corporation," the statement exclaimed, "will electrify its complete range of trucks and buses in upcoming years."

That’s right, its complete range of trucks and buses, backed by ‘substantial investments as well as access to the Daimler network of battery and charging technology’ and the unequivocal intention to make E-Fuso the global front-runner in electric trucks.

 Charge! Tokyo already has around 7200 charge points for electric trucks.
Charge! Tokyo already has around 7200 charge points for electric trucks.

The only indication of timing was that Fuso will ‘… bring an electric heavy-duty truck onto the streets within the next four to five years.’

The precursor of that future model was the truck grandly unveiled by Llistosella and named ‘Vision One’.

While the press statement labels it ‘… a concept all-electric heavy-duty truck’, an insistent Llistosella said Vision One has progressed well beyond the concept stage and is now far down the path to becoming a production unit.

"We are going for it," he said earnestly, leaving no doubt of an intention to see this truck, or at least a good portion of it, become a market reality. "With the unveiling of Vision One, our outlook on a feasible all-electric heavy-duty truck, we again demonstrate we are the front-runner in the electrification of commercial vehicles."

Accordingly, the ultimate goal in the years ahead is to offer an electrically powered alternative to all models in the Fuso truck and bus range. Importantly, Fuso isn’t talking about decades ahead but more like four or five years from now, such is the pace of progress on electrification.

Of course, the definition of Japanese heavy-duty is substantially different to Australian heavy-duty yet with a gross vehicle weight rating of 23.26 tonnes, Vision One is at least a significant step up the weight range and according to Fuso, ‘marks the top end of the electrification process the company will move towards in upcoming years.’

At this point in development, the sleek cab-over has a payload capacity of 11.1 tonnes which, says Fuso, is only 1.8 tonnes less than a diesel counterpart.

Most appealing of all, particularly for a truck aimed squarely at regional intra-city distribution work, is a range up to 350 km on a single charge.

And predictably perhaps, advanced safety systems are part and parcel of the total package.

With the covers finally coming off in front of a large media audience, there was certainly much about Vision One to tempt the interest of any truck-nut.

 Quick and quiet. On-road performance of eCanter is amazing but driving range from current battery packs is a limiting factor. That will change, says Fuso.
Quick and quiet. On-road performance of eCanter is amazing but driving range from current battery packs is a limiting factor. That will change, says Fuso.

On the inside, arguably the only thing remotely normal was a round steering wheel but perhaps most intriguing of all were the mirrors.

On the outside, there are none. Instead, tiny cameras on the outer skin of the truck relay images onto colour screens on the inside of the A-pillars, providing an exceptionally good view down both sides.

As Llistosella also pointed out, the extraordinary torque and acceleration of electric power has created the need for considerable research in tyre types and tread patterns.

The show truck, for instance, sported low profile Bridgestones and a tread pattern reminiscent of wet weather racing tyres rather than a ‘round-town delivery truck.

According to several sources, the truck would be sent after the show to Fuso’s Kitsuregawa proving ground for extensive testing. We were headed there, too, but ours would be a brief visit long before the truck’s arrival.

Pertinent questions

Anyway, back in the meeting room, an upbeat Llistosella was more than happy to take questions and for me, there were two critical points.

First, surely charging technology and the availability of charging points are the determining factors for the current and future uptake of electric trucks?

Second, doesn’t Daimler’s investment and obvious faith in the future for electric trucks somewhat diminish the billions of dollars spent on development of HDEP, its global heavy-duty diesel engine platform?     

Obviously ready for the first question and seemingly untroubled by the second, the Fuso chief conceded the wide availability of charging points will take a co-operative effort by many entities.

These include but are certainly not limited to the co-operative involvement of competitors with electric truck programs, governments, energy providers, and fuel companies with their established infrastructure and subsequent potential to create income from fuel stations operating as energy storage sites. 

In Llistosella’s emphatic view, demand and commercial opportunity are already driving the future. "Concepts are changing and the paradigms of the past are going," he said.

Again, the world’s biggest cities are already looking to counter the social and environmental impacts of intense congestion, with electric local delivery trucks firmly on the radar of many city planners.

The population of the greater Tokyo region, for instance, is now estimated above 38 million and there’s nothing coincidental about the city now being equipped with around 7200 charging points for electric trucks.  

For its part, Daimler has already invested heavily in the support systems for what it calls ‘electric mobility’, creating multiple synergies between its passenger car and truck divisions.

Deutsche Accumotive, for example, is a Daimler subsidiary providing the batteries for E-Fuso trucks while Mercedes-Benz Energy specialises in stationary energy storage systems and increasing the life cycle of batteries.

Daimler also has stakes in ChargePoint, said to be the world’s largest provider of charging stations and infrastructure.

Then there’s its connection to StoreDot, an Israeli start-up company developing fast-charging battery technology.

As for any diminution of heavy-duty diesel engines, specifically Daimler’s HDEP range, it simply won’t happen according to Marc Llistosella. At least, not for many decades yet.

The simple fact is that the modern heavy-duty diesel engine remains unbeatable for the efficient movement of heavy tonnages over long distances by road.  

However, for light and medium-duty trucks running ‘round-town or short hops between regional centres, it’s an entirely different story.

Track work

Less than an hour in a bullet train then an easy drive through pretty rural precincts, Fuso’s Kitsuregawa proving ground sits serenely in the Japanese countryside about 150km north of Tokyo.

Yet despite the genuine courtesy and politeness of the engineers and drivers who work here, there’s no escaping the impression that visitors are tolerated rather than sought.

This is serious, secretive work and if you want to ask serious questions, ask someplace else because you’ll get no response here.

Just get in, drive what you’re allowed to drive, then get out. By the way, leave your cameras on the bus.

Even so, it’s amazing what the eye picks up.

Competitor models tucked behind buildings, trucks concealed under tarps, others in striped camouflage, and some just hammering around a track in full view, like one of Mercedes-Benz’s current mid-range models reminding everyone that Fuso is nowadays part of a very large global outfit.

Nothing, however, had the appeal of a nondescript little white truck sitting midst a line-up of light and heavy-duty demo models on a test pad.

The truck, of course, was an eCanter but we wouldn’t have it for long. At best, a couple of short laps each.

Now I’ll be blunt, driving little trucks essentially designed for local delivery work normally holds all the attraction of warm beer gone flat.

But this time I didn’t know what to expect. I’d never driven an all-electric truck before so it’s fair to say there was a good deal of anticipation.

Gross weight was said to be over seven tonnes and well, without putting too fine a point on it, this thing surprised and impressed in equal measure. It drives like nothing else and the simplicity is extraordinary.

 Space saver. Electric motor leaves plenty of room under Canter cab.
Space saver. Electric motor leaves plenty of room under Canter cab.

Just turn the key, put your foot on the throttle and go. And go it does. Quickly. Acceleration is phenomenal as full torque comes on stream in an instant.

What’s more, there’s no noise other than soft whines from the tyres and the driveline.

The driveline is still mechanical but give technology a little time and it’s almost certain motorised wheel ends will replace diff and driveshaft, reducing noise to nothing more than a whisper.  

Again, simplicity of the package is remarkable and one of the few gauges on the dash is an economy meter, showing a green band for the best preservation of battery life to maximise driving range.

But once you’ve felt the surge at take-off, the temptation is strong to just keep the foot buried.

The short hill climb section of the track had eight, 10 and 12 percent grades and from a complete stop, the eCanter lifted off without fuss or vibration on the steepest pinch. Easy! Maximum gradeability according to Fuso’s figures is 20 percent.

Right now, there’s not much more to say other than express the firm belief that eCanter is the thin edge of an entirely new era in truck technology.

For its part, by making the Fuso eCanter a production reality and giving electric trucks their own branding, Daimler Trucks has not only confirmed its belief in electric trucks but equally, its intention to be the commercial leader.

The simple fact, however, is that without this level of commitment from a global automotive giant, it’s unlikely any technology will evolve much past the concept stage.

Of course, maximum driving range of around 100 km is for now eCanter’s limiting feature but when this pushes out to, say, 250 or 300 km as it most surely will given the pace of developments in electric propulsion, a whole new appreciation will come into play.

Likewise, recharging systems and infrastructure are key elements which will take time and commitment from many institutions to reach satisfactory levels but given the economies of scale in the density of the world’s great cities, demand will drive investment. As it always does.

Again, electric trucks aren’t for everyone or everywhere but for the crowded mega-cities of the world, the benefits are undeniable.

Finally, I’ve seen a lot of evolution in truck design over many years but revolution can be counted on one hand. Those that immediately come to mind were both launched more than 30 years ago: Kenworth’s original T600 which took aerodynamics to an entirely new level in conventional truck design, and Detroit’s Series 60 which for the first time made electronics an integral part of the heavy-duty diesel engine platform.

For all their merit though, it took time to realise what impact they would have on future development.

In Tokyo, it took no time at all.

Read the full feature in the December edition of ATN. Subscribe here.

 

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