A Silicon Valley-based company that specialises in the electrification of powertrains for large commercial vehicle (CV) applications, Wrightspeed prides itself on supplying highly efficient powertrains that allow fleet operators to obtain maximum payback per load. Chief Executive Ian Wright, who also happens to be a Co-Founder of Tesla, gave Megatrends an insight into the world of CV electrification.
Wrightspeed has recently launched a new vehicle range extender, which the company believes is “one of the most significant automotive innovations of the last 25 years.”
Dubbed the Fulcrum, the range extender uses an 80kW turbine generator that is one-tenth the weight of its piston generator counterparts commonly found in conventional internal combustion engines (ICEs). It is also 30% more efficient than existing turbine generators and is fuel agnostic, with the ability to burn diesel, compressed natural gas (CNG), liquefied natural gas (LNG), biodiesel, propane, kerosene and others.
“The Fulcrum has huge advantages over piston engines with the power to weight ratio. A 10,000 hour life engine like the Fulcrum with integrated generator only weighs 250 pounds. You can make a 10,000 hour life piston engine generator, but it weighs about 2,500 pounds. So immediately the Fulcrum offers a 10:1 weight advantage,” explains Wright.
When it comes to the CV segment, saving weight is a “vitally important part of saving fuel”. Therefore, Wright believes that the lightweight design of the Fulcrum is one of its most important features.
“There’s also a 10:1 advantage in emissions,” he continues. “As turbine engines use continuous combustion, and because there is a lot of excess running a very lean burn, the emissions are radically low. We believe the Fulcrum is at least ten times cleaner than any piston engine, allowing us to meet California’s strict emission standards without using any kind of after treatment.”
Without the need for catalytic converters or particulate filters, Wright believes that the weight savings “slowly start to make a huge impact”. However, he is quick to point out that it is not all about weight saving. Wright is confident that the Fulcrum’s flexibility to use a variety of fuels, coupled with its advantages in noise, vibration and harshness (NVH), will make it a platform for the future of CVs: “The CV segment is very interested in using alternative fuels like natural gas because of the savings. But the conventional engines suffer from pumping losses, resulting in rapidly declining efficiency. You don’t get this problem with a turbine engine – the efficiency is exactly the same, no matter what fuel you use. The fact that the Fulcrum makes for a smooth and comfortable ride, is quiet, clean and light makes it a very appetising platform.”
So what makes the electrification of the CV segment “appetising” for fleet operators? Wright explains that not all CV fleets would benefit from applications like the Fulcrum, but larger trucks “could see enormous savings if they adopt electric powertrains.”
This is due to scalability. “Heavier trucks need more power, they need more torque, they need more storage, and the costs of powertrains go up. Simultaneously, as you go into that heavier vehicle segment and harder drive cycle, you find that the fuel savings go up much faster than the costs,” he says.
Using the Nissan Leaf as an example, Wright describes the economy of scale. The Leaf is “a little electric car, with a powertrain that is cheaper than one found in a medium-duty delivery truck. Its powertrain will be around 60% of the cost; but in the medium-duty truck, you are displacing a vehicle that’s burning 14,000 gallons of gasoline a year, and we can save well over half of that.”
Conceding that it may cost “twice as much” to build a powertrain for a Class 8 garbage truck as it does for a small delivery van, Wright suggests the heavy upfront cost can act as a strong deterrent to many fleets. On the other hand, “saving three to four times as much fuel leaves some people gobsmacked, and they can’t wait to receive their payback and start reaping the rewards.”
Wright is confident that most people’s reaction to the Fulcrum will be the latter. He has high hopes for the range extender, and thinks it will push Wrightspeed in the direction of segment domination: “In five years or so, we intend to be the dominant powertrain supplier in these applications. I think we will spread our technology wider than that by then, and you’ll start seeing some of it in high performance cars, and in other vehicles that you may not have considered at first. But in the heavy-duty segment, we will be dominating the high efficiency powertrain market.”
If the electrification of the CV segment is so compelling, why do some industry experts question its viability? Wright says that it comes down to engineering preference. “There are people who are zealots of one sort or another, and they believe in pure battery electric vehicles (BEVs) with no fuel burning at all, so they eliminate range extenders from their worlds,” he explains.
Taking this approach, Wright admits that pure electric CVs are not feasible. “We would need to put 16 of our battery packs on a Class 8 garbage truck if we didn’t use a range extender, which cost around US$15,000 each. This would take up half the useful payload of the garbage truck, and half the space they need for the load itself,” he says.
Using the Fulcrum enables Wrightspeed to have three battery packs onboard. Essentially, Wright says for the electrification of CVs to work, “you must use a range extended architecture.”