A new electric truck startup came out of stealth this week to announce its plan to bring its heavy-duty electric vehicle to market before the Tesla Semi hits in 2019. Thor Trucks’ prototype, the ET-One, is a “Frankenstein” built from parts cobbled together from other tractor-trailers. It has a range of 300 miles, a full load capacity of 80,000 pounds, and will eventually retail for $150,000. It’s also working on a 100-mile-range version.
It seems that everyone from tiny startups to established OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) are taking a stab at battery-electric trucking these days. And Tesla made a big splash last month with its 400-mile-range Semi. But Thor Trucks thinks it can stand out by converting fossil fuel-burning trucks into battery-electric ones with its unique powertrain technology and in-house battery production. That said, the startup is realistic about its expectations, admitting it lacks the resources to build its own truck from scratch.
“There’s been smoke and mirrors in this space, and a lot of buzz,” Thor co-founder Giordano Sordoni told The Verge. “We want to be mindful about how long it takes to engineer hardware that’s super safe and effective.”
Sordoni, who suffered from asthma as a child, said he and his partner Dakota Semler were motivated to start a project that would be a “triple bottom line play” — something that would have a social impact, an environmental impact, and could be a sustainable business. Semler, who converted his mother’s SUV to run on vegetable oil, grew up around the trucking business; his family owned a fleet of 150 trucks based out of Riverside, California. An electric truck startup seemed like a perfect fit. “This checked all the boxes,” Sordoni said.
Their prototype is called the ET-One. The chassis comes from a Navistar commercial truck. It uses heavy-duty Dana axles and an off-the-shelf motor from supplier TM4. They decided to build their own battery modules from cells and packs purchased from a vendor. “We don’t want to literally reinvent the wheel,” Sordoni said. “We don’t have a billion-dollar factory set up in Nevada.”
This modest approach may serve them well in an industry wary of hype. Unlike the passenger vehicle market, fleet owners and delivery companies are motivated by cost savings and economies of scale. And there’s a lot of baked-in skepticism about electric vehicles, thanks to concerns about weight and the amount of time it takes to charge a vehicle. “We understand the thinking in the trucking industry, it is what it is,” Sordoni said. “It’s not broken, but we want to help modernize it.”
Thor is tiny compared to its competition, with just 18 employees. Meanwhile, giants such as Cummins, Daimler, Bosch, Tesla, and Toyota are all working on their own green semi-trailers. Thor is trying to take advantage of the glut of EV talent in Los Angeles to build up a larger team, recently poaching engineers from Navistar, US Hybrid, and electric bus manufacturer BYD.
The ET-One is no static concept. The co-founders recently demonstrated its towing capacity in a short drive around LA, pulling around 60,000 pounds of cargo. And they hope to test the Class 8 load limit of 80,000 pounds soon. That said, Thor says it will build a scaled-down, medium duty truck, too, which will be good for short hauls between a port and an urban center.
“A lot of players are coming in the commercial EV industry, because it’s a good time to get into it,” Sordoni said. “In comparison to other folks, I think what we’re talking about is all super reasonable. We’re not promising thousands of charging stations and millions of trucks. What we’re offering is scaled down and realistic.”