Electric Trucks, Truck Reviews, Truck Technology

Benz sets a charge with eActros

It was becoming easy to think Mercedes-Benz might have dropped the ball in the push for electric truck ascendancy, but nothing seemed further from the truth after a recent drive in an eActros rigid model in and around Melbourne. In short, this is a battery electric truck ideal for life in the ’burbs and more to the point, shows how and why the advent of electric trucks will go only one way. Ahead!
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Video: Daimler Truck Australia Pacific/Greg Bush

Like their counterparts at Volvo Group Australia, and probably most other prominent brands with plans for battery electric models, those responsible for Mercedes-Benz electric trucks in this country visibly wince when discussion drifts to an electric truck fire on Melbourne’s Westgate Freeway last November.

Rightly, their concern is that the high-profile coverage of a Kenworth conventional fitted with a locally developed Janus battery package spectacularly burning to the ground on a busy city road may have a detrimental impact on the acceptance and future prospects of battery electric trucks generally.

It didn’t help, of course, that social media’s array of ‘expert’ commentators came catapulting out of the closet with frenzied cynicism, seemingly ignorant of the effort and expense being poured into battery electric technology by the world’s most advanced and powerful automotive brands.

But hey, in the social media world, it’s the clicks that count. Why let facts ruin a good rant?

Anyway, the mere mention of the Janus event was ample motivation for Benz’s boffins to push a few salient facts as they presented details of the eActros battery electric range prior to a revealing test drive on the suburban streets and arterial roads of outer Melbourne. Facts like, in case anyone has forgotten, Mercedes-Benz (and to be fair, its continental contemporaries) takes safety rather seriously and it would be naive in the extreme to think that its battery electric models aren’t well endowed with a vast suite of advanced safety measures and likewise, haven’t been subjected to the most exhaustive safety tests imaginable.

Image: Daimler Truck Australia Pacific

As Mercedes-Benz’s e-mobility group manager Romesh Rodrigo pointed out, eActros models have an integrated shutdown system which works in concert with the extensive range of standard safety functions to effectively cut all power if an incident occurs. Moreover, the high voltage system can be shutdown either manually or automatically and each battery has an integrated battery management system. Externally, batteries are protected on both sides of the truck by solid side impact barriers while in the cab, there’s a fire detection and alarm box, and prominent in the cab close to the driver’s left is a manual shutdown button.

In commercial terms, however, the job now is to get eActros into the market after a somewhat stalled introduction since the preview at last year’s Brisbane Truck Show of an eActros 300 rigid model and its waste industry counterpart, the eEconic.

The newly minted director and vice-president of sales and marketing at Daimler Truck Australia, Andrew Assimo, cites a booming market and subsequent delays at bodybuilders as a major reason for an apparently slow start but equally, emphasises that the transition to battery electric trucks demands a steady, carefully considered approach by both the supplier and the customer.

Mercedes-Benz eActros 300 and its eEconic waste specialist sibling made their Australian debut at the 2023 Brisbane Truck Show. It took a while but Benz is now charging ahead with its electric truck plans. Image: Daimler Truck Australia Pacific

Asked if delays had caused Mercedes-Benz to lose marketing momentum to arch rival Volvo’s high energy push with electric trucks, a smiling Andrew Assimo said almost dismissively, “Daimler Truck plays the long game”.

It was, however, a distinctly upbeat Assimo who asserted that customer interest in electric trucks is “incredibly high” and while keeping details typically close to the chest, signalled a major order for eActros from a high profile customer. A customer, we believe, based in Western Australia but again, he would not be drawn into further detail except to add that it will be one of the single biggest orders for electric trucks outside Europe.

And speaking of Europe, giant Swiss building materials producer Holcim has announced plans to add 1000 Mercedes-Benz eActros 600 LongHaul models to its European fleet in a large scale move to implement a comprehensive sustainability strategy. The eActros 600 is essentially a prime mover model, launched in Europe last October and while Mercedes-Benz’s local leaders are quick to confirm it is also part of their future plans, no timing has been given for the model’s debut on the Australian market.

Image: Daimler Truck Australia Pacific

Right now, Mercedes-Benz’s immediate focus is on the introduction of the medium-duty eActros 300 and eEconic, with product planning manager Noel Griffiths reiterating that the transition to battery electric trucks requires a carefully considered, even cautious approach. It is important, for instance, to realise that a battery electric truck won’t suit every application and accordingly, Mercedes-Benz will closely monitor all enquiries to ensure that the application suits the truck, and vice versa.

What’s more, at this stage of evolution, battery electric trucks don’t come cheap. Currently, price is around 2.5 times more than an equivalent diesel model and likewise, there’s the cost of recharging infrastructure for either a fixed fast charging system or a portable, considerably less expensive alternative which takes significantly longer to recharge.

Image: Daimler Truck Australia Pacific

Either way, an adamant Andrew Assimo insists recharging infrastructure is the key to the future for battery electric trucks and says it is incumbent on governments to ensure the electricity grid is up to the task of recharging the increasing multitude of electric vehicles of all types.

Yet despite the exceedingly high initial cost of an electric truck at the moment, he declares that like all new technologies, purchase price will come down as demand and volumes increase. Meanwhile, in the transition process both now and in the foreseeable future, the involvement of Daimler Truck Financial Services will play a vital role in making electric trucks and associated infrastructure commercially available.

Electric trucks are, of course, nothing new to Daimler Truck Australia. Fuso’s light-duty eCanter has been available for several years and with the latest generation now ready to hit the market, there will be a renewed push to see the evergreen Canter charge deeper into local distribution duties.

MirrorCam is standard on eActros 300. Its practicality for longer combinations like B-doubles is highly questionable but this second generation version is well suited to shorthaul rigid work. Image: Daimler Truck Australia Pacific

Again though, it’s the introduction of eActros and eEconic to the stable which adds the biggest charge to Mercedes-Benz’s battery electric ambitions, so far!

Lots to like

During a short but intense visit to Mercedes-Benz headquarters in Germany in the second half of 2022, it was blatantly apparent that like others, Daimler Truck was pursuing a two-tier strategy for its stated objective to make all its new trucks in Europe, the US and Japan, CO2 neutral by 2039. In effect, creating a dual technology portfolio with battery electric trucks for shorter roles and hydrogen fuel cell models for long distance duties.

Hydrogen, of course, is still a long way off but battery electric, well, it’s here now and have no doubt, in the form of an eActros 300 in a 4×2 rigid role, it has the ability to surprise and impress in a big way. Huge!

Schematic of the main components in a 6×2 version of eActros. The e-axle arrangement at the rear is a major advance. Image: Daimler Truck Australia Pacific

In 2022 I’d briefly driven a 4×2 eActros on the roads around Mercedes-Benz’s massive Worth factory in Germany and no question, that short stint created a reasonably positive opinion. It was, however, bland compared to the stunning, surprising and quite astonishing impressions that came from a recent drive of almost 100km in an eActros 300 along the streets and arterial roads of metropolitan Melbourne.

In fact, without hesitation or anxiety but with fingers crossed in due regard for risks to reputation, I will declare that the eActros 300 is the smartest and indeed, most impressive truck in the 4×2 rigid class I’ve ever driven. Bar none! True, eActros and its ilk won’t be for everyone and commercial viability remains a question without distinct answers, but in terms of performance, smoothness, simplicity, comfort, safety and efficiency, it has no equal among the multitude of medium-duty rigid trucks this backside has ever sat in.

Image: Daimler Truck Australia Pacific

Said to be on sale from the second quarter of this year, the eActros 300 and its eEconic sibling are the first cabs off the rank in Mercedes-Benz’s push beyond the light-duty limits of eCanter. Later in the year, 6×2 versions of both eActros 300 and eEconic will be added along with a 4×2 prime mover version.

Obviously, the graphics on the cabs and curtains of the two e300 demonstrators signalled that these weren’t your average ’round-town delivery trucks despite a somewhat standard gross vehicle mass (GVM) rating of 16 tonnes for a 4×2 medium-duty rigid workhorse. Nonetheless, while gross weight for the exercise was at least realistic at 15.2 tonnes, there was no escaping a significant payload cost with tare weight around 10 tonnes. The simple fact is that batteries are heavy and payload is another of the issues which some will find difficult to defend in ‘for and against’ deliberations on battery electric trucks.

On freeways or in the ’burbs, the performance, simplicity and smoothness of eActros is remarkable for a rigid workhorse. Image: Daimler Truck Australia Pacific

Technically, of course, the trucks are also entirely different to their diesel counterparts. For starters, there’s no driveshaft or conventional transmission. Instead, three large lithium-ion batteries, each spanning almost the full allowable width of the truck, feed power through high voltage electrical cables – easily identified by their bright orange coating – into an inverter which in turn sends power into an e-axle with two integrated, liquid cooled motors and a two-speed gear assembly.

It is, in fact, an extremely neat rear-end arrangement and sure, totally outside the realm of current normality but best of all, out of this powertrain comes continuous output of 330kW (443hp) and at its peak, 400kW (536hp). Consequently, the standard of performance in a truck of this size is, quite simply, brilliantly brisk and phenomenally strong.

What’s more, there’s what Mercedes-Benz calls a recuperation braking system. In simple terms, it’s an electric retarder and just as simply, it is stunningly effective. To quote Mercedes-Benz, the ‘five-stage recuperation braking system works like an engine brake to both spare the service (disc) brakes and recoup significant amounts of electricity, which is fed back into the batteries’.

On the inside. Comfort, convenience and overall simplicity rate at the top of the tree. Image: Daimler Truck Australia Pacific

Operated through a wand on the right of the steering column, it takes little time and practice to realise the retarder has the ability to do almost all the braking in either suburban traffic or quickly washing off speed on a freeway. Truly impressive and in the process, vastly extending the life of service brakes and critically, extending driving range by feeding energy back into the batteries.

According to Mercedes-Benz, range of the eActros 300 is, logically enough, around 300km but as the company points out, ‘exact range may vary depending on geography of the area, driving method, outside temperature, load and body, among other factors’. What’s more, the company asserts, ‘In our local testing, we achieved 300km with 20 per cent battery left when fully loaded.’

From behind the wheel, it was soon enough evident that Benz’s range claim was no hopeful exaggeration. It seemed, in fact, somewhat modest, even understated.

With the digital dash showing 76 per cent battery charge as the e300 glided quietly out of a Mercedes-Benz facility in Melbourne’s south-east, the truck was run for several hours through undulating ’burbs and backblocks before finishing with a freeway sprint. All up, 94.5km of stop/start traffic, suburban shuffling and freeway cruising before returning with 53 per cent of battery charge still available.

Image: Daimler Truck Australia Pacific

In short, more than enough to suggest that 300km driving range is easily achievable, aided and abetted by the effectiveness of a retarder which contributes so much to the electric Benz’s overall performance.

Most appreciably though, it’s the sheer simplicity and ease of driving an unquestionably advanced and efficient truck that most captures the imagination. Driving a medium-duty around-town workhorse just doesn’t come easier than this.

Sure, like a diesel truck, a heavy right foot and aggressive acceleration will have a detrimental influence on energy consumption but unlike a diesel truck, constant application of the retarder effectively puts fuel back in the tank.

Of course, with no mechanical mass pulsing under the cab, eActros is exceedingly quiet inside and out, making the standard inclusion of an ‘Acoustic Vehicle Alert System’ a smart move by Mercedes-Benz, providing an audible warning to pedestrians and the like at speeds up to 60km/h.

Likewise, it’s no surprise that Mercedes-Benz’s extensive suite of safety features includes provides further protection through its advanced emergency braking system along with twin ‘Side Guard Assist’ radar functions to detect cyclists, pedestrians and cars when the truck is making a left-hand turn.

Image: Daimler Truck Australia Pacific

Notably, the second generation of Mercedes-Benz’s MirrorCam system is standard in eActros and whereas the digital mirror’s suitability for longer combinations such as B-doubles is highly questionable, its suitability for shorthaul roles on a rigid truck is far more appreciable.

Conclusion

Overall, eActros is easy to view as a milestone model in the evolution and ultimate acceptance of battery electric trucks.

Shorthaul suburban applications are typically the working sphere of light and medium-duty rigids and at this stage of its development, that’s exactly where eActros 300 fits.

RELATED ARTICLE: Holcim places large eActros order for European fleet

Again though, battery electric trucks are not for everyone and despite the attraction of ultimately consigning fossil fuel costs and environmental impacts to oblivion, the practicality and expense of transitioning to battery electric models remain prohibitive.

It will, therefore, be a slow road to greater acceptance and more to the point, commercial viability.

Yet here’s the thing: No matter where you are or what you think, tomorrow is on the way.

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