Electric cargo truck developers have to be ready for a long haul

Building an electric car is one thing. But move too fast in developing a heavy-duty electric cargo truck and bad things happen, according to the head of Southern California company that is trying to succeed where others have failed before.

In the past, electric trucks ran out of juice less than halfway through an eight-hour shift at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports. Parts of some of the trucks melted or caught fire. Some electric trucks were sent out on the road too soon, with too little power and too little endurance.

“There is often a lot of pressure on companies to rush their products out,” said Michael Simon, chief executive of TransPower, a Poway, Calif., company. Simon was referring to many failed efforts to produce a big electric truck that is durable and dependable, and that won’t be crippled by unrealistic cost-cutting.

“I’m trying to be careful and not oversell our product,” said Simon, who unveiled two of his company’s electric trucks in San Pedro on Thursday. The industrial trucks will be put to work at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the nation’s busiest cargo container complex.

The trucks give no outward hint of their ability to save on fuel and maintenance costs — estimated at as much as $50,000 each a year — or their pollution-cutting powers — a projected reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 100 tons each a year. Inside, their diesel engines and drivetrains have been removed and replaced with an electric motor, drivetrain and lots of batteries.

The trucks were showcased in San Pedro along with new technologies in energy use, security and cargo movement at an annual event put on by PortTechLA, a business incubator operated by a coalition that includes the port and city of Los Angeles.

Simon’s approach might serve as a lesson for others seeking venture capital funding and assistance from entities such as the Port of Los Angeles, the California Energy Commission and the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Sometimes “no” is the right thing to say.

“Can I build an electric truck now for the same cost as a diesel or natural gas truck?” Simon said. “The answer is no. We’re not there yet.

“These are prototypes. They are concept vehicles. They are well engineered, and they will be more robust than the electric trucks that have come out in previous years.”

Simon said he is happy to be involved in PortTechLA, because no one is prodding him to move faster than he should to develop the kind of truck that can last a full shift or longer, day in and day out, over a 10- to 12-year life span. Achieving that result will take time, Simon said.

“A lot of early-stage companies don’t realize that after you build your first models and drive them around a bit, you’re not even halfway there,” said Simon, who along with his team have about 20 years of experience in developing hybrid and electric vehicles. “You have to go through many miles of testing to make sure it is reliable and rugged. There is no substitute for thousands of miles and ideally about a million miles to make sure.”

The California Energy Commission is giving TransPower $1 million for truck development and $2 million for a stationary storage system for intermittent energy sources such as solar and wind power in a way that could help avoid blackouts.

The AQMD has committed to providing $500,000 for the truck project and will help the company seek federal funding.

PortTechLA, which is supported by $200,000 annually from the Port of Los Angeles, has provided advice, mentoring and invaluable business contacts, Simon said.

PortTechLA has 10 clients in the incubator and may add as many as five soon, Executive Director Jeffrey C. Milanette said.

“We are interested in energy-related projects, environmental and logistics projects or those that involve security,” Milanette said. “We are trying to help develop companies that can serve the needs of the port’s customers.”