Where did the time go? For the work truck industry’s annual pilgrimage to Indy for Work Truck Week, the mood was “It feels like we were here just yesterday.”
After pivoting to virtual in 2021 due to the pandemic, the energy at this year’s show was palpable. The show floor was packed, with more than 500 exhibitors and 71 new ones, an upward trend from the average of 50 to 60 in recent year’s past.
The trends here aren’t necessarily new but are magnifications of the seeds planted at recent shows. A lot of the action involved the displays and announcements from the new crop of independent electric truck makers.
The Class 3-6 EV Race Heats Up
The show floor was electric, literally, as about 20 manufacturers exhibited electric vehicles or electric chassis. It must’ve been a record. Many of the new independent commercial EV makers — Xos, Bollinger, ELMS, SEA Electric, REE Automotive, Zeus, Motiv, Battle Motors, and Lordstown Motors — exhibited. But they were met on the show floor by the established truck makers and their new EV products.
The Shyft Group (reorganized from Spartan Motors) introduced a new EV division, Blue Arc EV Solutions, that will produce an EV chassis and an electric Class 3 delivery walk-in van with deliveries starting in Q3 next year. Freightliner Custom Chassis had on display its new Class 5 electric van, MT50e. Both companies can leverage established manufacturing and coast-to-coast dealer and service infrastructure from launch.
In the race to market, having a great product is only the start, so electric OEMs that are just beginning to put together those other crucial pieces around sales and service are falling behind.
EV Indies Arrange Manufacturing Flexibility
Last year, we learned from Lordstown how much money it takes to make an auto plant operational and withstand zero cashflow from vehicle sales. Edward Hightower, the new president of Lordstown, touted in an interview the company’s deal with Foxconn as the sustainable path. Instead of trying to keep the lights on in an empty plant, Foxconn’s plants and workers can transition from electronics contract manufacturing to EVs as sales ramp up. Xos has a similar lean and flexible production process.
For the independents, scaling production to demand is essential to survival, as the established automakers can more easily shift to EVs in their existing plants.
Don’t Forget the ICE
With all the attention on electrification, the venerable internal combustion engine (ICE) gets lost in the shuffle. Yet OEM engineers are still realizing incremental improvements in performance and fuel economy: The 2023 model-year Ram ProMaster’s 3.6L Pentastar V-6 gets a 9% improvement over 2022, while the Sprinter’s new four-cylinder diesel engine has higher low-end torque, is lighter, and gets better mpg.
These gains do matter, as many work applications remain better suited for ICE vehicles and as organizations are asked to demonstrate carbon emission reductions from their entire fleet.
New Importance of Lightweighting, Aerodynamics
When it comes to electrifying work trucks, battery weight sucks up payload and kills range — making a lighter weight, more aerodynamic body now more important than ever. Morgan Truck Body has engineered a new box with foam core paneled sidewalls and has replaced steel and wood with aluminum wherever possible. The materials are more expensive, but so is wood now too. The changes reduced the weight of the box by an astounding 1,500 lbs., a 30% reduction over the previous design.
Aerodynamic improvements come from side skirts, a cab faring, and wheel covers, while plastic “vortex generators” mounted up the truck’s rear side corners improve air flow. The new design reduces drag by 8%. Oh, and those ugly sidewall rivets are no longer, on Morgan’s and other truck bodies.
J.B. Poindexter & Co.’s new unit, EAVX, was created to do exactly this, work with JBPCO’s brands Morgan, Morgan Olson, and Reading Truck to design bodies for the new market of electric chassis.
It Takes a Village to Electrify
Manufacturers understand that their fleet customers interested in buying EVs will need help with the harder parts of electrification — planning infrastructure for home, depot, and public charging, working with utilities on power needs and necessary upgrades, and implementing systems to tie it all together seamlessly. That’s why manufacturers are putting together package deals with service providers that can help with these facets.
Ford reorganized its commercial division into Ford Pro partly to meet the fleet electrification challenge. General Motors has a new stable of charging and energy management partners and EV fleet consultants. To Ed Peper, head of GM fleet, this “easy button” is essential to scale fleet electrification, he said in an interview.
At this year’s show Hino announced Inclusev, a similar portfolio of solutions but for the medium-duty side. Fleet management companies now have their one-stop-shops for electrification as well.
Cameras, Cameras, Cameras
An increasing safety focus of truck makers is driver “situational awareness,” which includes cameras, sensors, and artificial intelligence designed to alert drivers to road hazards and mitigate distracted driving behavior. This has been a developing trend for years, though digital rearview mirrors, 360-degree bird’s eye views, and monitors mounted in the truck body — all available from the factory, not aftermarket — are gaining traction.
Morgan Truck Body’s 360-degree vision systems have monitors and cameras in the cab and in the truck body that give drivers and loaders visibility to the surrounding environment and reveal hazardous load shifts.
According to Ram, the “most requested improvement requested by large-van customers is better visibility around the vehicle.” In response, ProMaster added an available digital rearview mirror and a 360-degree Surround View camera.
Staying Small for the Final Mile
The explosion of last-mile delivery only accelerated during the pandemic, and the work truck industry is facilitating the trend with new vehicles, ergonomics improvements, and safety. Much of the action is with smaller vans, which accommodate younger, non-CDL drivers accustomed to consumer vehicles.
Metris, Mercedes-Benz Vans’ smaller commercial van, is now offered in two GVWRs. The Shyft Group’s Utilimaster unveiled R2, another vehicle for its Velocity line specifically for last-mile deliveries. Built on a Ram ProMaster cutaway chassis, the walk-in R2 falls under 10,000 lbs. GVWR and avoids DOT regulations.
As last-mile drivers make over 100 stops a day, even small process improvements facilitate more efficient deliveries. Mercedes Sprinter’s “Speed Delivery Door” is sensor-controlled and automatically opens to allow a driver to enter and exit with hands full.
For Morgan’s refrigerated bodies, fleets can spec a secondary automatic slide-up door to keep contents cool without having to close the swing door.
Telematics Swims Upstream
An ongoing trend in telematics is the transition from aftermarket modems to factory-installed OEM modems, and the ability for fleets to access numerous applications from a single pane of glass. The evolution is picking up speed in the work truck space.
Navistar announced factory-installed telematics on all its new Class 6 to 8 International trucks. The modems will integrate with Navistar’s proprietary connected services platform, which includes 30 telematics partner integrations. The platform’s open architecture allows it to integrate with all makes and models of vehicles on the market.
Also at the show, Geotab announced a new partnership with Free2move, the fleet, mobility, and connected data arm of Stellantis. The solution will use embedded telematics in Stellantis vehicles that integrates vehicle data from Free2move servers into Geotab’s platform. Fleet managers will get one unified dashboard and have access to the Geotab Marketplace, a portfolio of apps and integrations from third parties.
You’ll hear more about other factory integrations soon, including a tie up between major automaker and telematics provider that wasn’t quite ready for showtime. The biggest connectivity integration to date may actually be in car rental, as Hertz announced a deal with a “third-party telematics provider” to connect essentially its entire fleet.
EV Pickup Wars Are on Like …
The three electric pickups for fleets — Chevrolet Silverado EV, Ford F-150 Lightning, and Lordstown Motors Endurance — grabbed attention on the show floor. The Silverado EV was the shiny new entrant, while Lordstown unveiled a pre-production version of Endurance, a more refined version of its Alpha model.
Deliveries of the F-150 Lightning officially begin later this spring. Endurance is slated for the third quarter of 2022, while GM will start delivering the Silverado EV in spring 2023. We’ll have to wait for more info on the Ram electric 1500, which is scheduled for release in 2024.
Let the EV pickup wars begin — though the vast majority of units won’t start flowing until next year, as this year’s allocation is hand selected and in small numbers. Of course, this doesn’t factor in unforeseen supply chain issues.
We’ll exit this blog with a snapshot on how these three models stack up on specs, at least on paper. Note that the updated Endurance specs were given to me on the show floor by Lordstown; Silverado EV WT and F-150 Lightning Pro specs are available online. Specs can differ significantly between work truck models and other trim levels and battery configurations.
Remember, a spec-to-pricing comparison for these trucks at this point still involves numerous variables, including dealer markups and how much you’ll pay beyond the base price to achieve top capacities and performance.