Why This Tesla Founder Is Now Betting on Electric Trucks

Which is more offensive — the toxic emissions or overwhelming noise pollution of diesel trash trucks? Both do serious damage to quality of life in a community, and California regulators have taken the lead on curbing the effects with stricter emissions standards. That leaves fleet managers with the problem of retrofitting old diesel trucks, or scrapping them for more efficient models that cost about a half-million dollars.

Ian Wright, a co-founder of Tesla Motors who went his own way years ago, is doing what he can to corner this niche of the market by offering electric powertrains that replace conventional truck engines. The end result is a trash (or delivery) vehicle that is twice as clean and infinitely quieter than the outgoing diesel version. If successful, Wright’s business model may end having a greater impact on the environment than Tesla is having with its luxury electric cars.

Wrightspeed, the company Wright founded after leaving Tesla in 2005, began as a maker of electric powertrains for sports car performance. However, investors didn’t see the market as ready for such a product when Wright looked for funding, the Associated Press reports. From there came the idea to reduce emissions and improve the operations of commercial trucks that use 20 times more fuel than the average passenger car. (Wright estimates a diesel garbage truck uses 14,000 gallons of diesel fuel per year.)

Particulate emissions continue to plague big cities like New York and Los Angeles, but progress in getting diesel polluters off the road has been slow outside of the work done by the California Air Resource Board (CARB). Now that fleet owners are facing the choice of scrapping trucks or making them compliant, electric powertrain replacement has become attractive even at the cost of $200,000 for battery, electric motors, and a range-extending gas engine for medium- and heavy-duty trucks.

People try a new electric-powered Renaul

PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images

Wrightspeed’s business model already has high-profile customers. According to the AP, the company has order to replace powertrains on 25 FedEx trucks and 17 garbage trucks owned by Santa Rosa’s Ratto Group, a company that handles recycling and trash collection for the Bay Area communities of Marin and Sonoma. The boost in business has allowed Wrightspeed to move into larger facilities with hopes of expanding his workforce tenfold in the next three years.

As CARB’s influence continues to grow and emissions caps get tighter, Wright and company may have the answer to better efficiency without compromising on performance. The powertrains deliver anywhere from 125 horsepower to 500 horsepower continuously along with regenerative braking to keep battery levels stable. Electric range is between 30 and 40 miles before switching over to a range-extending gas engine that run on compressed natural gas (CNG) or diesel fuel.

While the price tag of $200,000 may seem high, owners see a much faster return (approximately four years) on the investment because trucks burn so much fuel in the course of a year. (Compared to, say, the premium of a Honda Accord PHEV that takes forever to repay.)

Also, the $500,000 cost for a new garbage truck that meets current CARB requirements is far more prohibitive. Commercial fleet owners who are found not complying with emissions standards face more than a slap on the wrist. As reported in May by trade publication Land Line, CARB has nailed one California trucking company with a fine exceeding $500,000 for diesel fuel violations.

Wrightspeed has an answer for businesses and municipalities looking answers to quieter, cleaner services to the community. Whether the company can deliver on a larger scale remains to be seen, but the demand should only increase in the coming years.

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