Daimler Trucks North America CEO Officer Roger Nielsen introduces the Freightliner eCascadia. Picture: Eric Johnson / Reuters

Portland, Oregon - Daimler has unveiled a pure electric big rig truck it promises to have in production by 2021, as it mounts a major challenge to European and American rivals, including new entrants such as Tesla.

Truck buyers are expecting global regulation to curb pollution from trucks; they see advantages from lower fuel and maintenance costs of electric vehicles, but a fleet technology switch is far from certain given the challenges of cost, charging infrastructure, range, and the problem that heavy batteries could restrict payloads.

Daimler's Freightliner eCascadia is an 18-wheeler with a 400 kilometre range, aimed at regional distribution and port services, while Tesla has said that its Semi - which it expects to build by 2020 - will be suited to longer-distance runs with an 800 kilometre range.

At the same presentation Daimler also showed its medium-duty Freightliner eM2 106, with a range of up to 370 kilometres, designed for local distribution, such as beverage delivery, which some analysts see as the "sweet spot" of the emerging electric truck market. It will deliver a total of 30 prototypes of the two models to customers later in 2018 for field testing and expects to have the trucks in production in 2021.

Daimler Trucks North America CEO Officer Roger Nielsen conceded that eCascadia's payload had been curbed by the size of batteries, but said: "Overall, this is an ideal application for customers whose routes have a distinct radius and whose operating model provides time for battery recharge."

Martin Daum, head of Daimler's trucks and buses divisions, introduces the medium-duty Freightliner eM2 106. Picture: Eric Johnson / Reuters

ACT Research senior analyst Tim Denoyer commented that local delivery "makes an enormous amount of sense because it doesn't have the long-range requirements, yet puts on enough miles on a daily basis where you can get fuel savings". Success for the larger Class 8 trucks would hinge on lowering battery costs, he said.

"While electric truck sales will be fairly significant in coming years," he added, "I don't think it will displace diesel anytime soon especially in highway, long-haul trucking where obviously battery capacity and range anxiety present itself."

Daimler's prototypes will use battery packs from German supplier Akasol, which buys lithium cells and adapts them to battery systems used by bus makers Daimler and Volvo among others, as well as in industrial vehicles, locomotives and ships, but Daimler spokesman said no  final sourcing decisions on batteries have been made. 

Daimler, as the world's largest truck maker, with a 40 percent share of the roughly $39 billion (R515 billion) a year North American heavy-duty truck market, has much to lose as competition for electric trucks intensifies. Rival truckmaker Navistar and its partner Volkswagen - which plans to invest $1.7 billion (R22.5 billion) on electric drives, autonomous vehicles and cloud-based systems by 2022 - aim to launch their own medium-duty truck in North America by late 2019.

Big savings

A heavy-duty commercial truck runs up to 160 000km a year, and Tesla has promised a 20 percent saving on current operating costs pwer kilometre, to some skepticism. It also has more than 450 reservations for its truck and expects to have a head start, although its plans are still developing. CEO Elon Musk plans to start production in 2020 but there is no Tesla truck factory yet.

Martin Daum, head of Daimler's trucks and buses divisions, took a jab at Tesla when asked whether Daimler would start accepting truck reservations with cash down payments, as Tesla does to raise funds.

"We don't need the down payments to finance our investments," he said with a smile. "We give prototypes away for nothing - it's gaining knowledge on their side, as well as on our side. Then we sell the trucks and then we deliver the trucks. We don't need any pre-orders."

New R&D centre

Daimler also announced a new research and development centre for autonomous driving in Portland, which will work with existing facilities in Stuttgart, Germany, and Bangalore in India, to get self-driving freight trucks on the road. Daimler plans to invest more than 2.5 billion (R39 billion) in research and development on trucks by 2019, with more than 500 million (R7.7 billion) earmarked for electric heavy-duty commercial vehicles, connectivity and self-driving technology.