Shock drive!

13 MinutesBy NZ Trucking magazineMay 26, 2020

It will always be a special day when you get to drive the only vehicle of its type on the country‘s roads. We took Fuso‘s eCanter for a spin around Auckland to investigate the practical side of electric trucking.

“Fancy a go?” came the request from the Fuso New Zealand (FNZ) PR department. “Would we ever!” was our reply. How could we turn down an opportunity to drive such an intriguing vehicle under evaluation for the local market on home tarmac? Especially so since our first (and up to this point only) encounter with the eCanter was more than a year and a half ago at Fuso‘s Kitsuregawa test track outside Tokyo. Even under those controlled circumstances, which really only provide a taste of a vehicle‘s abilities and little indication of what it will be like in real-world conditions, the electric whiz kid from Tokyo left us asking “Where do we sign up?” Alas, only selected markets in Europe, Japan and the USA were lucky enough to be given the initial run of pre-production e-Canters for customer evaluation. “At this stage our focus is on getting some stock on the ground.

Initially, it is likely that vehicles will be closely managed by FNZ and we will need to assess the sales strategy when we get close to the launch of this vehicle,” FNZ managing director Kurtis Andrews told us while we were over in the land of the rising sun. It took nearly a year, but in mid-2019 a sole eCanter arrived at the FNZ head office in Mangere for some local evaluation and promotion. Over six or seven months, it spent some brief 24-hour spells with a handful of FNZ customers. Most of that feedback, we‘re told, has been very positive, especially with regard to last-mile delivery applications. That, of course, is where lightweight electric trucks like the eCanter should come into their own as the world‘s more advanced cities make a push to drive out carbon emissions from their city centre streets. Not only air pollution, mind you, but noise pollution, too.

Photo: eCanter gains speed like a passenger car, and has no problem keeping up with Auckland traffic.

A drive around town
This is what the eCanter‘s electric drivetrain has been tailored for. A liquid-cooled 82.8kWh (420V) lithium-ion battery back straddles the chassis rails (which is the standard 750mm wide frame and 3400mm wheelbase) in six units for even weight distribution. Connected to the 135kW/390Nm permanent synchronous electric motor, Fuso claims the eCanter will offer up a practical range of 100 to 120km (pushing a maximum of 150km in ideal circumstances). That should, in theory, be enough to shift the eCanter and its 4-tonne payload capacity around town for a day. According to FNZ, customer trials showed that, when used correctly, the regeneration process is delivering better mileage than the expected 120km practical range from a single charge.

Photo: Cab is comfy and functional.

Those with anxieties of range will find solace in the two-stage regenerative braking (more on that later) and capability of reaching 80% charge within an hour on a DC fast charger – easy enough to fill up over lunch. For those in a real jam, the eCanter also has a single-phase 30A charge cable. That, though, would be of more use for charging overnight than for a quick emergency top up. Fuso claims that it will cost approximately $10 to recharge the eCanter from a battery level of 20% (at an off-peak residential rate of $0.15 per kWh). So, some form of energy management and charge planning would be needed. Luckily, the eCanter makes monitoring electricity flow easy through its dash-mounted touchscreen system that displays instant battery data including range, charge level, regeneration status and energy gain. While on the subject of the interior, there are only a few clues dotted around the eCanter‘s cab that would lead the driver to think he‘s about to set off in silence.

Apart from that touchscreen system, there‘s a charge indicator alongside the 160kph speedo and an LCD display that imparts all manner of driving information at a glance. Otherwise, there are some eCanter badges dotted around and a push-button starter. Hit that starter and the dash lights up as it ordinarily would, but there‘s no smell, no sound, no shake, shimmy or vibration. Move the conventional P-R-N-D gear selector into drive, lower the conventional mechanical park brake, lift your foot off the brake pedal and the eCanter glides off in a flurry of, um, simplicity?

A reduction gear connected directly to the transmission shaft allows the eCanter to speed up without shifting, and with only a tonne in the box during our drive, the eCanter would jump off the line and get up to 50kph as quickly as any of the cars around it. Turn onto the expressway and before the eCanter even merges with traffic it‘s already bumping on its 90kph limiter. Okay, making full use of that effortless electric shove will expedite depletion of the battery, but keep the needle of the right-hand gauge hovering in the ECO range and the eCanter maintains progress efficiently.

Photo: Simplified instrumentation to monitor the vitals &  Touchscreen system lets driver monitor energy flow

Big truck tech in a compact package
Managing speed is easy. Lift off the throttle and the eCanter begins to slow down against its electric motor. If more retardation is needed, flicking the left-hand steering column stalk selects the first and second stage of the regenerative braking. The amount of retardation is more than sufficient for a vehicle in this weight class (7500kg GVM), easily bringing the eCanter to all but a final stop without use of the foundation brakes. All the while, it‘s putting a little bit of energy back into the batteries. Sure, it‘s a little eerie at first, driving a truck with the only noise being from the wind rushing past the windscreen and the vibration from uneven road surfaces. In fact, wind noise is only noticeable at highway speeds.

Driving around town, the eCanter is serene. There‘s no doubt spending every day in this cab would be far more relaxing for driver and crew than an equivalent oil-burning unit. Air conditioning and electric windows enhance comfort, while the little eCanter incorporates a brace of advanced safety tech usually only found in larger machinery. At the top of the list is Active Emergency Braking. This uses front-facing radar to monitor the road ahead; it will warn the driver if the eCanter gets uncomfortably close to the vehicle ahead and even apply the brakes if the risk of an accident increases. eCanter also has Lane Departure Warning, which uses a camera behind the windscreen to detect lane markings and triggers an alert if the vehicle crosses them without using the indicator. Electronic Stability Control aids vehicle control and improves stability.

Photos: Plug and play.  Right: No fuel tank here, just a battery.

The New Zealand perspective
By the time you read this, the eCanter will be back home in Tokyo, having completed its scoping mission in Aotearoa. We liked it and, more importantly, so did Fuso New Zealand‘s customers – but where does that leave us? Cameron Childs, FNZ national sales manager, says that there is broad global demand for eCanter but New Zealand is a very small market – meaning we won‘t be high on the list. “Our goal was to impress upon Mitsubishi Fuso Truck and Bus Corporation (MFTBC) the importance of e-mobility in New Zealand to ensure we are well placed in the queue for stock when supply becomes available. “We are working closely with MFTBC to secure supply but we‘re not currently in a position to speculate on local availability,” Cameron says. This is a pity as, indeed, the eCanter has proved it‘s fit for last-mile applications on the streets of Auckland.

“For the right applications, moving to an electric vehicle is going to be an easy decision. The challenge initially, like any new technology, is going to be the upfront cost. However, as the market matures, any operator running last-mile delivery will see the benefits of reduced running costs, zero tailpipe emissions, quiet operation and driver comfort,” Cameron reiterates. Factor in the low charging cost, the fact the eCanter qualifies for RUC exemption, and a claimed 30% reduction in maintenance costs, and it‘s difficult to ignore regardless of upfront cost. It will be interesting to see the numbers once FNZ crunches them. All things considered, eCanter stacks up as a viable alternative. With mass production scheduled for 2021, we hope Fuso New Zealand‘s done enough to butter up MFTBC for some units. If that turns out to be the case, we suggest you don‘t turn down the opportunity to give one a go.

Photo: Four-tonne payload … and a quiet loading zone.