Getting on that electric highway

5th February 2018
Lanna Cooper


When Elon Musk unveiled Tesla’s first electric truck to much fanfare last November, there was talk of this neglected area of the electric vehicle market finally getting some attention. However, for entrepreneur and former submarine commander Asher Bennett, Musk is seriously behind the times.

His company, Tevva Motors, is already in the driving seat and zooming towards a future where, Asher believes, electric trucks will be not only commonplace, but the preferred option for logistics companies everywhere. Breakthrough Magazine paid a visit to his Essex HQ to find out what’s got him all charged up...

When you meet Israeli-born businessman, Asher Bennett and hear him talk about his electric truck concept, his confidence in the technology is so absolute that you end up wondering why this hasn’t been done years ago.

“Who knows?” Asher shrugged, as he gave Breakthrough magazine a tour of his Chelmsford premises. “It’s exactly the same technology that is used in submarines - we have a big lithium ion battery that we charge from the grid at night and the only thing turning the wheels in the vehicle is the electric motor.”

So far, so simple - and familiar. Electric cars and buses have been big news for a long time and are set to become even bigger. Last year the Government announced a £400m investment for an electric charging network alone and major automotive brands all over the world are racing to position themselves at the front of the technological vanguard.

But the idea of electric trucks has not really been taken seriously, mainly due to the range restrictions that battery operation imposes, the current lack of charging infrastructure and the severe consequences that any company would face if its electric fleet failed to deliver.

And here we reach the crux of the matter. The average electric car operates for around 1.5 hours a day, while buses follow pre-determined routes that allow for recharging. Goods trucks, however, can be on the road for up to 12 hours per day and if they run out of power, that’s seriously bad news for both the supplier and their customers. It’s this risk that has sidelined trucks from the wider electric vehicle agenda.

But Asher believes he’s solved this problem and that his solution will revolutionise the logistics industry. He’s been involved in building battery systems for electric vehicles for the best part of a decade, but four years ago he decided to draw inspiration from his naval background and change the world with Tevva Motors.

“The only way to use a purely electric truck is on short routes, but by doing that you’re killing the two advantages of using one,” he said. “You can make huge cost savings by using electric trucks but those savings are made on a per-mile basis, so if you only use it on short routes, you’re not getting that cost reduction. Also, the emissions saving is not there because you’re only replacing a dirty diesel truck on a short route, instead of a long one.”

Asher’s key innovation is a range extender that acts as a generator to recharge the battery while the truck is driving. Just as in a submarine, the fuel-powered generator provides a backup option to keep the truck moving if the battery runs out.

The idea is to use the range extender only when necessary, in order to keep emissions at a minimum. But if the driver forgets to plug the truck in at night or there’s an inconvenient power cut, the truck can still hit the road and meet its schedule.

“Using just the battery, a 7.5-tonne truck can run for about 160km but with the range extender, it could drive from here to Manchester,” Asher said.

“Even if you were to use the truck for short routes most days and just needed it to make a longer journey a few times a year, you’d have that capability, whereas a purely electric truck can’t do that. The current technology is all about batteries, motors and chargers, but imagine you had a fleet of 100 electric trucks and the power went down. We have the back-up technology that changes everything.”

With five patents on the range extender, this is more than just a generator - it’s an intelligent piece of kit. The cloud-based software system communicates with the truck and securely uploads data, which enables it to ensure the range extender is used in the most efficient possible way. In case the driver was tempted to just keep hitting the range extender every day, there is no on/off button.

The device is controlled remotely and each day an energy management plan is automatically produced, based on the previous day’s data, today’s route and other factors that can affect range. The plan can then be adjusted and the vehicle will be instructed when to turn on the range extender, for how long and to which of the three power settings.

Even this is a dynamic process, as Asher explained. “If we know the route, payload, driver etc we can predict that the truck is going to run out of energy by a certain point and that the range extender will need to be turned on. This is where we use a technique known as geo-zoning; we’ll anticipate the route and make sure the extender is turned on while the truck is on the M25, for example, rather than in a city centre or near people’s homes.

"There are clear-cut low emissions zones, but pollution levels can also change during the day, so we’ll work around that. We’ve taken it to the next level by allowing our trucks to adapt dynamically.”

Uploading data to the cloud also allows Tevva to carry out prognostics on the vehicles, rather than just diagnostics. This means they can anticipate and correct problems in advance, saving the delivery company valuable down-time.

Delivery giant UPS already appears convinced that Tevva’s innovation is the future for their business. After conducting an extensive 15-month trial with a repowered truck in their London fleet, the company experienced significant fuel savings and has placed an order for 15 further trucks. Asher is also in discussion with 30 other fleet operators as word of his revolutionary solution spreads.

Although the limited use of fossil fuels in the range extender is already reducing emissions drastically compared to a diesel truck, Asher is not satisfied yet. Last year his multi-awardwinning company received a £250,000 Government grant to investigate the potential of glycerine as a fuel, which could allow the technology to be completely emission-free.

“That’s the Holy Grail for us, because it would mean that even when the range extender is turned on, there is no pollution,” Asher said. “We’ve won grant competitions to the value of a few million pounds, because our truck has shown the Government and delivery operators that the technology works and puts no limits on your operations.

“No one is using glycerine in transportation, this is completely new. The advantage of glycerine is that it’s carbon neutral and when used in a very specific combustion cycle with the right filters you don’t get any local emissions. It’s not difficult to manufacture and it’s also already an unwanted by-product of many other industrial operations, which makes it extra clean.

"We’re developing the idea with a partner and the prototype will probably be ready early this year. But even using a fossil fuel engine, I believe Tevva is the world’s greenest vehicle, because although we have a small amount of emissions currently, our truck does double the daily range of an electric truck.”

Asher is looking for further investment of £10-£15m to expand the business and his plans include building Tevva trucks from scratch, as well as repowering existing vehicles. Having ensured that the design is package protected to allow for the future introduction of digital and autonomous driving systems, Asher is confident about Tevva’s long-term impact.

“We’re already part of the autonomous vehicle movement - while other people focus on detecting pedestrians and so on, we focus on the autonomous energy management that is a part of it,” he said. “We’ve had unbelievable interest, with so many countries having declared their intention to ultimately have zero emissions. All the big truck companies are talking to us and it’s very exciting.”

Tevva Motors has worked with Breakthrough funding, a company that helps UK SMEs achieve R&D tax credits - a government scheme created to enhance and reward innovation amongst UK businesses. Could you be eligible? Click here to learn more.

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