Trucking electric: British firm Charge reveals electric truck plans

  • Electric range-extender trucks set for sale in 2017
  • Promise of lightweight construction, 50% lower costs
  • Astonishing build time and autonomous driving claims

Oxfordshire company Charge is hoping to revolutionise the trucking industry with a bespoke range of innovative electric trucks, planned for production in 2017. A prototype can already be seen during the drivers’ parade at the Formula E electric racing series, but now we have official images of a small production model – can you imagine the lorry pictured here cruising city streets by the end of next year?

Can a British start-up really pull this off? Well, the details are a little vague at this stage, but Parkers has been able to get clarification in some areas. And as ever we remain keen to see more eco-friendly solutions succeed in the commercial vehicle sector.

Charge electric truck – first details

The latest press release suggests Charge is working on electric trucks ranging from 3.5 to 26 tonnes. The company’s website suggests the plan is for the range to start at two tonnes, potentially suggesting an eco alternative for van drivers, too, but we have confirmed that 3.5 tonnes will be the starting point.

They will be built from “revolutionary ultra-lightweight composite materials”, which isn’t particularly specific, but should be possible – at a cost. The good news is that this would significantly reduce kerbweights, offsetting the traditionally hefty bulk of electric drive hardware (the batteries in particular tend to be heavy).

Charge electric trucks

Charge says it is developing the electric motors and controlling “power electronics” in-house – which should give it tight quality control and the ability to ensure the elements are precisely fit for purpose. And indeed, the company is supplying such components to the autonomous Roborace championship, a new support series for Formula E.

Charge claims this electric technology will reduce operating costs by “more than 50%” compared to conventional trucks. Should this prove viable they will certainly appear attractive to the value-sensitive trucking industry.

What about range? Electric vehicles usually can’t travel very far…

While Charge refers to its trucks as electric, they aren’t exclusively electric. Rather they appear to be range-extender vehicles – like the petrol-electric version of the BMW i3.

Accordingly, Charge says the trucks will “produce zero emissions for the first 100 miles they travel” – meaning they will run on electric power only for this distance; you’re probably best saving this ability for urban centres, rather than running it straight down – and then “for longer journeys a ‘dual mode’ can be used to ‘top up’ the battery and extend the range to 500 miles.”

Charge has declined to provide any more details about the exact drivetrain setup at this stage (we did ask), but does say its vehicles will meet all the latest global EV (electric vehicle) legislation. Including London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s forthcoming Direct Vision Standard for lorries – which should bring increased safety for pedestrians and cyclists as well.

Sounds good so far – what’s the catch?

This all sounds like a wonderful ambition – but we’re struggling to see how a start-up company is going to pull off some of the details. Charge has been able to clarify this a little at our request, but we’re still keen to hear more once further info is made available.

Chief curiosity is the claim that it will take one man just four hours to assemble a Charge electric truck – the company goes on to scale this to suggest that just 10 men working two shifts a day could assemble 10,000 vehicles a year.

Charge electric trucks

For this to be possible, the truck will surely need to be as easy to assemble as a giant kit of Lego, and indeed the company gave Parkers this follow-up statement: “The reason it only takes four hours to build a Charge truck is down to its modular design which has been based on the team’s background and experience in software and telecoms, and because the materials are lightweight composites they are easy to attach.”

For context it takes 22 hours to build a single Vauxhall Vivaro medium van – and that’s using the full capabilities of Vauxhall’s factory in Luton, which was fully upgraded just two years ago.

Charge says “the first of many new factories” will open near its Oxfordshire HQ in 2017, however, and has stated aims to scale operations globally in order to “serve the huge demand”. It’s not yet prepared to discuss exact numbers, but has additionally told us: “We have had lots of interest and pre-orders but we can’t disclose them at this stage and we expect many more as we don’t think there is a better electric truck solution on the market anywhere today.”

Autonomous ready?

Other claims that raise eyebrows include the trucks’ ability to receive “over the air” updates like a smartphone – though electric carmaker Tesla already employs such a system, so it's not that far-fetched – and the assertion that they will all be “autonomous ready, built for future driverless regulations and ready at the push of a button.”

Autonomous driving technology in particular requires a huge amount of development. Charge has told us that all the self-driving systems are being developed in-house, but hasn’t given any more information about the actual process.

What about the price?

Charge is also saying it will be able to sell its completely bespoke electric vehicles at the same price as established, conventionally-powered rival models. Electric tech is traditionally more expensive than petrol or diesel, even for large-scale mainstream manufacturers, but if the build process is as simple as Charge tells us it is then perhaps overheads can be kept to an absolute minimum.

It’s a fascinating concept – and we are keen to learn more. After all, electric commercial vehicles are heading for a significant boom in the next few years; you can read the latest about electric vans on Parkers in the following stories: