PLUGGED INTO TOMORROW

In Tests, Isuzu, June 202126 MinutesBy Gavin MyersJuly 6, 2021


Like it or not, the EV revolution is coming. With trucking, however, there’s a lot to consider in the move away from diesel. Early action is vital, so TR Group has recently added three SEA Electric Isuzu F-Series to its rental fleet. It’s time to get charged up about electric trucks.

What you see on the pages before you is – essentially – a trio of Isuzu F-Series like any other. Except these aren’t. Nestled between their chassis rails isn’t the familiar 6HK1- TCC 7.8-litre, six-cylinder diesel engine and six-speed gearbox. Instead, you’ll find a couple of black ‘battery pods’ branded SEA Electric, which consist of a large group of lithium-ion cell modules.

To Joe Public’s untrained eye, the only outward sign that these aren’t like any other Isuzu (ignoring, for now, their unique, eye-catching branding) is the fact they’re utterly silent. No diesel thrum, no gear changes, no exhaust gasses. Those who know trucks, however, will quickly pick up the differences.

But, before we get ahead of ourselves, why are we here? Well, as you’ll read in our interview with TR Group general manager Brendan King (see Doing the Right Thing), the company realises the need to act early in the move to vehicles powered by alternative fuels. This will allow it to learn about the technologies and figure out the long-term costs, while doing its bit to be a responsible citizen and help accelerate the uptake of the technology. The company will use the opportunity to introduce its clients to the technology, help educate the market and, hopefully, drum up some enthusiasm for an emissions- free drive.

If there was a better Kiwi company to do this, we haven’t heard of it. TR Group runs the nation’s largest truck fleet, and undoubtedly this project will yield useable results.

It was a considered investment from the start, which is apparent the moment Mark Harvey, TR Group training and compliance manager, gives me a tour of the three mechanically identical SEA Isuzus, neatly reverse-parked ahead of their TransNet charging stations.

 

SEA plus Isuzu

The beauty of the SEA-Drive system is that it can be scaled for various applications and various vehicles. While SEA’s own series-produced vehicles (see Pushing the Envelope) are built on Hino 300 and 500 platforms, Stephen Fairweather, New Zealand general manager for SEA Electric, says Isuzus have made up the bulk of the company’s conversions so far. For TR Group, CAL Isuzu did the fit-out of the electrical components as a subcontractor to SEA.

Mark tips the cab to show me those black pods, one beneath the cab where the engine would usually sit and one under the body more or less where the gearbox would be. Directly behind that, about two-thirds to the rear of the wheelbase, the permanent- magnet AC motor directly drives the standard Isuzu diff via a shortened driveshaft.

Upfront is the heater, and mounted under the body on the right-hand side are the braking system, 24-volt batteries, power steering pump and air compressor. SEA has locked the more sensitive components in boxes on the left-hand side. There, you’ll find the cooling system for the major components of the drive train (the pods themselves are passively cooled), as well as the ‘component box’ that houses the air-conditioning pump, high-voltage distributor, fuse box, and the computer that manages it all. “If the system experiences an electrical fault, it is heavily protected and designed to shut down to prevent an incident or vehicle damage,” Mark says.

      
TR Group is proud of its three new electric trucks.

Accessories such as the Palfinger tail lift are powered by 24-volt batteries, charged by the truck’s onboard inverter. Ancillaries such as the air-con, heater, power steering and pneumatic brakes are all tied to the high- voltage system, and operate as you would expect. Most of these draw very little power, the biggest consumer being the 5kW heater. This runs to a temperature and then maintains its heat, switching on and off as required.

With a standard pre- start check on an internal combustion engine, checking the coolant level would be the norm. On the SEA EV this is no different and just as critical – the coolant is used to maintain the optimum temperature when driving or charging. Climb aboard, and it’s all typical Isuzu fare. Some standard switches and gauges (DPF regen, fuel level and coolant temp, among others) become redundant with the conversion so they have been blanked out. The tachometer has been left as it’s important for the starting procedure – it doesn’t work when driving.

Starting is simple. With the handbrake applied and the gear selector in neutral, turning the key makes the system ‘live’. The driver then presses the brake pedal and holds the key in the ‘start’ position, and the rev counter will cycle to maximum and back to zero, at which point it’s all go. The procedure can be performed only once every 20 seconds to protect the electrical system. Still, I found that it takes only a couple of starts before it feels as familiar as starting any other vehicle.

In the dash is Isuzu’s standard Android-based infotainment system, into which SEA has worked its software. This is the driver’s leading information hub and displays charge percentage, speed, range, energy usage, drive selector position and any faults or warnings. The truck’s analogue speedo still works, as do its air- pressure gauges.

Juicing it up

If there’s one thing TR was clear on, it was the need to make every aspect of operating the vehicles as easy as it could be. “We’ve paid attention to the little things to set up our operators for success,” says Mark, taking me through the charging process on one of the three trucks.

Like the trucks, each of the three sheltered charging stations is identical, housing a permanent five-pin AC power lead and a Commander 2 touchscreen wallbox from TransNet.

“We learnt it’s one thing to need to charge a vehicle; it’s another to have the infrastructure capable of doing it – a serious amount of power is needed,” Mark says, explaining that the trucks are charged at 22kWh on 32A. The power is provided from the grid via a direct connection, ensuring the supply remains stable.

   
Soon to be a typical installation at a depot near you? The charging stations at TR’s Penrose office are designed to make things as easy as possible.

The charging process is straightforward. The driver connects the power lead (the actual charger and charging software is built into the truck) and then accesses the wallbox by selecting the truck’s rego and entering a PIN. Then the truck and the wallbox have a brief chat and, assuming everything is in order, the truck’s cooling fans kick in and the charging process begins. No power runs through the charging lead until this point.

The driver will know the truck is charging when a green light flashes on the truck’s connector. They can also check the wallbox or the mobile app, which allows them to control the charge remotely. The wallbox and the app display data, including the state of charge, amps, kilowatts and charging time. Electricity costs can be added into the background to give accurate session pricing per vehicle. Mark says the trucks take 10 hours to charge from 1% to 100%, which costs approximately $25. The charging software regulates the charge on three- phase at 32A and 22kWh for the first five hours, taking it to 80%. For the remaining 20%, it drops to single-phase charging over five hours. This saturates the battery and prolongs its life.

It’s all effortless, and if the driver gets stuck at any time, TR has placed QR codes in the charging stations (along with printed instructions). Codes have also been placed at the connector of the truck and in the cab, which the driver can scan to access charging/starting quick-reference guides or the SEA Isuzu’s operator manual. If the operator would prefer to connect to their own three-phase power instead of returning to the TR charging stations, each truck also has a portable charge lead.

   
A battery pod under the body between the chassis rails. Right: Ancillaries are mounted under driver?s side of body, including braking system, air compressor and power-steering pump.

A calm day in Piha

First up on our very loose test-drive schedule is one of the unladen units – just for a brief jaunt around Auckland to get a feel for the truck in its raw state. These units will, of course, find themselves being driven empty numerous times a day, or at least at the very end of it. Taking in some midday stop-start traffic and highway cruising, it was immediately apparent that the only difference to the drive is a lack of sound or gear changes. Belt up, drop it into D, and mash the accelerator. Or, as the kids would probably say, plug and play…

The ride without a load is slightly more comfortable than a standard F-Series (not that there’s anything wrong with it) because of the extra 700-odd kilogrammes the batteries add to the tare. You’re looking at 6740kg compared with 6000kg of a normal FRR600 with body et al. But you still get 4260kg to play with for an 11,000kg GVM.

That’s what our second test unit was loaded up to – some palleted concrete and full-to- capacity water tanks neatly strapped down. We planned a roughly 100km round trip from TR’s Penrose head office through Auckland and out west to Piha. Why Piha? Why not? It’s near enough but just far enough to give the SEA Isuzu a good run without risking range, takes in open road and city driving in equal measure, and has some undulating sections with a decent drop into and climb out of our destination. It’s perfect for testing most of the truck’s capabilities in one go.

Just on the point of testing, Mark and about half a dozen other TR team members have clocked up more than 1000km across the three trucks in simulated metro operations. Multiple drivers, stop-start driving, backing, hill starts, using the tail lift – everything the trucks would go through in operation. To date, the highest range achieved is 172km, the lowest 135km.

“The trucks would rarely operate all day at 11 tonnes, so somewhere in the middle is probably reasonable,” Mark says. Much like any other vehicle, overall ‘fuel consumption’ is heavily influenced by the driver, so keeping an eye on the energy monitor should aid in getting the best out of it. What if a driver does run his truck out of power, though?

Unfortunately, that’s a dropped driveshaft and a tow truck. Technology hasn’t yet got to the point of a roadside jerrycan top-up for EVs.

Says Mark: “Through testing, we have run one of the vehicles down to 1% energy level. I can assure you range anxiety is a real thing and I felt this. Planning your day is more important with an EV. There is a vehicle limp mode but utilising this energy all depends on how the operator runs out of their final energy supply.”

Our laden unit is charged to about 96%, and Mark (along for the ride) and I are keen to see how it does out to Piha. “We’ve not thought of coming out here; it’s a real good test route for these,” he says.

Compared with the empty unit, the first point of difference is the need for more accelerator travel to get moving, but boy, does it still get moving. Electric cars are renowned for their immediate torque and bonkers acceleration and I can report that electric trucks are no different (relatively speaking). Consider that the SEA-Drive 120b offers up maximum torque of 2500Nm with just 11 tonnes all up. Talk about punching well above your vehicle weight class.


   
Counter-clockwise from top: The tail lift runs off the usual 24-volt electrical system; No diesel engine under here … just a whole bunch of buzz; The brains of it all – usually locked up securely.

“Josh Vendrig, the SEA EV guru, has spent many hours with us testing and fine- tuning the vehicle software to achieve an economical vehicle that also offers fantastic performance. This can only come from on-road testing and the support from Josh and the SEA team has been excellent.”

Fair enough. These vehicles are all about managing the daily workload and not ripping down Meremere. Besides, even with the delicate balance of economy and performance, there is no lack of pulling power (as we’d later find out on the climb out of Piha).

Out on the motorway and the SEA Isuzu is gingerly calling on its 150kW of continuous power and 1230Nm of continuous torque with the mildest use of the accelerator on my part to keep it at a steady 89kph, the maximum geared speed. There’s only the wind rush around the cab; the only other noises one might notice are the cooling fans and air compressor coming on and off. I might face purgatory for this next statement, but it’s amazing how you don’t miss a diesel engine buzzing away beneath you when it’s not there. Okay, I’ll clarify that, at least not in the case of a smaller truck like this… ISXs, C15s, 6V-71s and V8s will always hold a special place.

Using the multi-stage regen controlled via the standard engine-brake column stalk, I can quickly and accurately manage the vehicle’s speed just as in a conventional diesel. In this case, the truck’s electric motor both slows it down and acts as a generator, and it’s suggested that drivers leave the lever fully engaged for maximum effect – putting as much energy as possible back into the batteries and prolonging the range. However, I found this approach needs real sensitivity to move on and off the accelerator smoothly. No doubt that comes from time behind the wheel.

The roads between Auckland’s western suburbs and Piha are narrow, curvy and dip and rise all the way to the drop into the town. The regen came into its own through the descents with the brake pedal mainly called into action for tighter sections and to help keep the 11 tonnes at a steady 20kph as we descended gently, quietly, calmly into town.

It was much the same on the way back, with the Isuzu’s 4×2 drive and 5160mm wheelbase making it nimble and easy enough to thread along the road. With fair use of the accelerator, the climb out of Piha was easily made at 20kph to 30kph – and a lack of blaring combustion. Other than those who came to quiz us about the ‘electric truck’ branding on our unit, the residents of this picturesque seaside paradise were none the wiser.

Without the opportunity to drive a conventional FRR600 back-to-back, I ask Mark how he thinks one would compare on a similar climb. “The electric truck will outgun a comparable diesel on an uphill section like that, especially because there’s no shifting interrupting the power delivery,” he reckons. It doesn’t seem as though the climb has taken its toll on our energy range and, returning to the Penrose yard, the truck shows 34% left in the batteries for a range of 69km. Combine that with the 100km we drove and the 172km max range seems to be bang on.

“It’s no different to fuel – the more defensively you drive and the more alert you are, the more you can extend the range,” Mark comments.

To e or not to e?

I came away from my drive in TR Group’s SEA Isuzus largely convinced that the move to electric drive in light and mid-weight, metro- based trucks can only be a good thing. There’s the air and noise pollution aspect, and from the perspective of how easy and serene the drive is, I reckon we’re onto a winner. But moving to electric motoring in any sense comes with its compromises. Range and the time taken to ‘refuel’ will always be the foremost concern, though there will be some applications where hits of 172km will be sufficient. Planning will be the name of the game here.

Then there’s maintenance. With a conversion like this, there’s the need for ‘double handling’, meeting Isuzu’s and SEA’s requirements. SEA generally aligns its maintenance schedule with that of the cab-chassis OEM to minimise downtime, mandating a six-monthly visual check of cables and connectors – a 90-minute job with (usually) no consumables. This will be done by SEA, though the company has held numerous component and technical training sessions with TR’s maintenance team so that they have some knowledge should a glitch creep in while the vehicle is out with a customer. Brendan King comments on the inevitability of an EV maintenance specialist joining the team sometime in the future.

   

1) A mobile app and Commander 2 touchscreen wallbox from TransNet make
juicing up easy. 2) QR codes at the charge port and in the cab open quick reference guides – makes it easy for drivers.

   

3) Simple connection, simple instructions. 4) The portable charge lead connects to any three-phase socket and charges the truck like any charging station.

Third are the costs. The outlay in vehicle purchase and infrastructure set-up is markedly dearer than a diesel, but EVs are currently RUC- exempt until 2025, and a full charge costs far less than a full tank of diesel. Maintenance should be much cheaper, too. How that all balances long-term remains to be seen – that’s why we’re here, remember.

Finally, if diesel engine technology has taken some significant steps in the past decade (they’re more powerful, more efficient and cleaner than they’ve ever been), then that involving EVs has taken leaps. As Mark points out, the technology is changing so rapidly that these new vehicles are not actually as up-to-date as they could be.

“It’s so fast-paced and always has to be reviewed to make sure we’re offering the right options.”

Again, that’s why we’re here. TR Group is embracing the technology and putting these trucks into its rental fleet early, which will allow the company to understand the technology, learn what works and futureproof itself. It’ll take some time for those results to show themselves, and we’ll be interested to see how things progress.

Electrically, would be my guess.