Large and in Charge

Tim Marrs
dyer-consequences

I'll be the first to admit that I don't pay nearly enough attention to Class 6 medium-duty electric trucks. And I think my colleagues around here would have to shamefully concur that we've had a coverage deficiency regarding that particular segment. But your thirst for news about Class 6 medium-duty electric trucks is about to be slaked in a major way. Prepare to have your mind exploded by this, the world-exclusive first test-drive of the Balqon Mule M150.

The what now?

The M150 is the latest product from Los Angeles-based Balqon, a company that builds electric trucks and port tractors. The Mule is based on an International DuraStar chassis, but instead of a turbo-diesel under the hood, it's got an electric motor. And instead of a fuel tank, it has banks of lithium-iron-phosphate batteries from a Chinese company called Winston Global Energy. And instead of a transmission -- wait, it still has the Allison 3000RDS automatic transmission. I guess when you've got 150 hp for a 26,000-pound truck, you need as many gears as you can get.

The Mule before me at Balqon headquarters is fitted with a thirty-passenger shuttle-bus body, and it would look like any other shuttle bus but for the vivid blue and green wrap proclaiming its EV-ness. Inside, the stock International fuel gauge remains, but the low-fuel warning light is always aglow. (This is not an oversight, but a bit of Balqon alternative-energy humor.)

The real energy gauge is an LCD screen on the center stack that prominently displays "SOC" -- state of charge. And we're at 96 percent. I climb behind the wheel and guide the massive, pavement-crushing International chassis out onto the street. I hope I see a Toyota Prius driver, so I can act self-righteous. My vehicle might be thirty-seven feet long, but at least it doesn't have a gas tank, you dictator-hugging earth-hater.

The Mule M150 accelerates as you might expect for a thirty-passenger bus with 150 hp under the hood. The Mule's power delivery is like a tree's taproot boring down through a crack in the sidewalk -- slow but relentless. With the electric motor hooked to a torque converter and the six-speed transmission, the Mule has some serious torque multiplication going on, but the horsepower situation certainly leaves something to be desired. Top speed is 70 mph, if you've got a while. But for city buses and urban delivery trucks, the Mule's 0-to-35-mph performance is what's relevant, and in stop-and-go traffic on Los Angeles boulevards it holds its own. The accelerator is programmed for smooth launches, so just floor it and go.

And then keep going for 150 miles (unloaded) or 90 miles (fully loaded), because this thing has the battery capacity of a showroom full of Nissan Leafs. In passenger cars, batteries present two big physical challenges: where are you going to put the pack, and how much does it weigh? In a truck or a bus, the answers to those questions are, "Anywhere you want," and "Who cares?" The batteries hanging from the Mule's ample frame rails provide 220 kilowatt-hours of juice, or nearly fourteen Chevy Volts' worth. That should be good for a full shift in an urban bus, and the batteries can be fully recharged in five hours.

Another Balqon product, the Nautilus XR E20 port tractor, has batteries that can handle back-to-back eight-hour shifts. "With trucks, we have the space to be able to do that," says Balwinder Samra, Balqon CEO. Samra's been in the battery game for thirty years, watching promising cars like the GM EV1 and Toyota's electric RAV4 come and go. So he's got a jaundiced eye when it comes to EVs taking over the world, and yet... he thinks EVs are on the verge of taking over the world.

"I think the tipping point will be when a car's battery holds the energy equivalent of a six-gallon gas tank," Samra says. "Right now they're at about two gallons and making improvements all the time. I compare it to the cell-phone business. At first only a few people had those big brick phones, but when talk time reached two and a half hours, all of a sudden everyone had cell phones. The day that car batteries get there, the demand will be so large that traditional companies like Ford and Toyota will be challenged by nontraditionals."

It's funny to think of a Volt or a Leaf as the mammoth cell phones of the car world, but if lithium-air batteries, which have the energy density of diesel fuel, come into widespread use, 100 miles of EV range will probably seem as quaint as a Motorola StarTac. "[Ultimately] you can't compete with the energy efficiency of electric vehicles," Samra says. "And that's why we feel EVs will win at the end of the day."

There are certainly EV skeptics who think the internal-combustion engine will dominate for another century. Balqon sees the electric future barreling toward us a lot sooner than that, bearing down like a bus.

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