Proterra, a Silicon Valley-based maker of electric buses, is leveraging its heavy-duty vehicle expertise and branching out into commercial vehicles by supplying technology to power a new line of zero-emission delivery trucks for Daimler’s Freightliner unit.
The Burlingame, California-based company is providing battery packs, motors and other components for Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp.’s MT50e line of panel trucks that can haul loads of up to 23,000 pounds and travel about 125 miles per charge. It’s a bigger, heavier-duty vehicle than the smaller battery-powered delivery vans that startups Rivian and Arrival will be building for Amazon and UPS, Proterra CEO Ryan Popple tells Forbes.
“This is a heavy-duty truck chassis-based delivery vehicle versus a light-duty chassis, but both are absolutely essential for logistics, and all of these vehicle categories are moving toward EV,” Popple says. As battery and parts costs decline, “it’s now really hard to find a category in urban transport where electric electrification doesn’t make sense.”
Though sales of electric passenger vehicles to U.S. consumers remain modest, accounting for only about 2% of the 17 million cars and trucks sold last year, there’s been a surge in product announcements and investments aimed at bringing a new generation of commercial vehicles to market in a race to meet demand for products that reduce transportation companies’ climate-warming carbon emissions. They range from Elon Musk’s battery-powered Tesla Semi and rival long-haul trucks from Nikola, Toyota and Hyundai powered by hydrogen to startup Rivian’s Amazon vans using the same “skateboard” platform developed for electric pickups and SUVs to newcomer Arrival’s low-cost battery vans made from recyclable composite materials.
Daimler is an investor in closely-held Proterra, which has sold more than 900 buses to transit agencies over the past several years at an average price of $750,000 each. While the upfront purchase cost is about 50% higher than for a diesel-powered model, electric buses typically are cheaper to operate and fuel, saving money over multiple years of use.
Popple didn’t share financial details of the Freightliner project or an estimated price for one of the Freightliner electric vehicles.
Staffed with numerous Tesla veterans including Popple, Proterra has steadily expanded beyond transit buses the past two years, partnering with other manufacturers to make electric coaches and school buses. It also supplies charging systems and consulting services to electric fleet operators.
The truck market Proterra is jumping into with Freightliner, class 4-6 commercial vehicles, is a much bigger revenue opportunity, with annual U.S. sales of about 200,000 vehicles compared with only up to 8,000 transit buses a year.
Increasing private sector interest in zero-emission vehicles and clean energy seems to be at odds with the Trump Administration’s abandonment of the Paris Climate Agreement, heavy promotion of carbon-based fuel production and mining, and its easing of fuel-efficiency and air-quality rules. Current EPA leadership is even working aggressively to take away California’s decades-old authority to set emissions rules that exceed those of the federal government–and which more than any other factor are responsible for creating the U.S. EV market.
So what’s pushing companies to go electric? Economics, says Popple.
“When something creates economic returns or brand value for a corporation, they’re generally going to make level-headed, good business decisions or decisions based on competitive dynamics with other players in their market. The policy overlay in some ways is kind of an afterthought,” he says.
“We’re entering into a phase where the largest operators of transportation systems, whether they’re transit agencies or their large commercial vehicle fleets, they’re making decisions based on their own economic models, their own brand exposure to emissions and the pressure that they’re getting from investors to ensure that they’re resilient to fossil fuels.”