Electrifying Our Road Fleets

‘Would you like to go for a spin?’ Austin offered. Before us sat a very ordinary-looking delivery truck, looking like a white box on wheels. ‘Ooh! Yes, please!!’

After buckling in, he eased the truck out of its parking bay, gliding silently across the factory floor then out onto the street. As we drove around the suburb he explained the various features and handling. I’d never been much of a car person myself, preferring pedal-powered transport, but I appreciated what this truck represented.

There wasn’t much to show that it was anything unusual, apart from a slick interior and the lack of any rumble from the engine. There was only the quiet whir of the tyres on the bitumen as Austin talked me through some of the features: all-electric powertrain, 10 year battery life, 350km range. A normal ignition key was used to start the truck, but a small light was needed to let the driver know the engine was on.

Around the world it seemed that vehicles were going electric, from electric cars, motorbikes and buses, through to electric flying taxis and navy ships. We’d all heard of Elon Musk and his famous Teslas. Most major automotive companies now had their own lines of electric cars, and I’d driven in a few of these already. But I’d never had a ride in an electric van or truck before, and it was this that had drawn me here.

Just an hour earlier I had pedalled my way through the busy commercial traffic and industrial lots of Dandenong South, one of Melbourne’s far southeastern suburbs. Arriving at the factory, I entered to find a reception desk and an open plan office with numerous staff at their desks.

I was welcomed by the CEO’s personal assistant, Lindsay, who was apologetic. Something had come up and the CEO wasn’t able to meet with me now after all — something about a Japanese delegation and international business deals. It was unfortunate timing. Lindsay suggested a tour instead, and soon had me donning a high vis vest and entrusted me to Joe, their Sales Director for ANZ, who led me through into the bowels of the factory.

We emerged into a huge and immaculate warehouse, all concrete and steel, fluorescent lights and polished floor. Large diagonal parking bays were marked out on the floor on either side of a central runway, many occupied with assorted heavy vehicles. Portable shelving units loaded with parts and tools stood next to some of them and a number of workers in high vis vests were hard at work.

The vehicles were the workhorses of our modern cities. To our left a white garbage truck sat alongside a couple of cab chassis trucks. On our right were a number of white panel vans, courier vans and open-tray municipal trucks, all looking shiny and new. One thing that struck me was that there was such a large variety of vehicles. Were they all made here?

Joe took me over to one of them: the cabin and long chassis of a municipal works truck used for council parks and gardens. The chassis components were all clearly visible and in the centre between the main chassis rails was a large black block, the company logo ‘SEA Electric’ emblazoned on its surface. The body was to be put on by another company, Joe said. They were aiming to have it ready by the first of June and it would be the first of its kind.

It was an ingenious idea, I thought as Joe explained it. Rather than design their own range of vehicle models and try to cater to the many diverse needs of customers, why not take existing vehicle models and simply outfit them with an electric powertrain instead of their usual petrol or diesel ones? Joe explained the ‘plug and play’ modular system they had developed, and which could be installed in vehicles made by other companies. They order in from the original manufacturer the truck or van that the customer wants, minus the powertrain, and then install their own proprietary parts.

This is what I was now looking at in the municipal works truck. Joe pointed out the powerful electric motors, the large lithium-ion battery sitting protected between the chassis rails, and the onboard charging system that could be plugged in to standard 3-phase power. The battery packs apparently had a lifespan of over 10 years and were 99.7% recyclable at the end of their life.

Despite doing his best to be a good tour guide, Joe had been receiving a stream of phone calls as we wandered around the truck and he finally excused himself. He handballed me over to Austin, their Business Development Manager, who looked as though he had more important things he’d rather be doing. He probably did, I thought, as I slowly began to appreciate the role they were playing in the electric vehicle (EV) revolution.

According to the International Energy Agency, the global electric car fleet exceeded 5 million in 2018, a 2 million increase from the previous year. 2.3 million of these were in China, though Norway was leading the way in terms of market share, with 46% of its new cars running on electricity in 2018. Already nine countries had announced a ban on new petrol and diesel car sales, commencing 2035 or earlier.

Price, range and access to charging points were still the main barriers in Australia, but with battery technology improving and a range of over 300km becoming the norm in new models, range anxiety could soon be a thing of the past. Add to this the networks of charging stations being rolled out around the country, with new fast chargers being installed that could provide over 350kW, or about 350km of range in 10 minutes of charging. Data from the Electric Vehicle Council showed that 2,210 EVs were sold in Australia in 2018, and this number would more than double by the end of 2019, thanks largely to sales of the new Tesla Model 3.

And now this company had emerged targeting service and delivery vehicles in urban environments, which would be hard pressed to cover 200km in a day.

Austin was polite and professional as he showed me along the line of electrified delivery trucks on the far side of the factory and then offered to take me for a spin in one. As we drove around the suburb he told me some of SEA Electric’s story, about a small Australian company that was fast becoming an international powerhouse. But to get the details I would need to talk with the man behind this whole operation.

This was one of only a few commercial companies I’d visited on my journey so far, and I had been a little shocked by the very business-like demeanour of the employees. Here, time was money and I needed to keep up. But I was to discover this character accentuated by their CEO, Tony Fairweather.

Returning to the front office, Lindsay had been trying to find some time for me to meet with him and asked if I was willing to wait. I opted to hang out in the office kitchen, observing the comings and goings of the engineers, factory workers and other staff. The cleaner arrived while I was there; a chatty young guy who it turned out was from a disadvantaged background and the company was supporting.

It reminded me of something else I’d seen while out on the factory floor: a large delivery truck sporting the Salvation Army logo. Joe had mentioned it was soon to be donated to the well-known charity, becoming the first EV in their distribution fleet. It hinted at a philanthropic side to the company.

A couple of hours later Tony at last became available, and we sat across from one another on the office couches to talk. Quickly realising he wasn’t one for idle chit chat, we got straight to business.

Tony used to work in importing and distributing commercial vehicles, such as diesel buses. He saw the way electric vehicles were heading and recognised that they were the future. But electric buses are hard to do, he said. Trucks are more suitable for electrification.

He started SEA Electric in 2013 as a research and development company and they spent four years developing and testing an electric powertrain for trucks. But they saw it would only be commercially viable if battery prices fell to less than $300/kWh, which wasn’t forecast to happen until 2025.

Instead the drop in battery prices came much earlier, in 2017, and three months later they launched their commercial operations. They produced seven different models of their electric SEA Drive, for light-to-medium duty vehicles, from 60kWh courier vans to 216kWh rubbish trucks.

In October 2018, the company achieved a major coup, with the state government announcing a deal to build a massive SEA Electric EV factory in the La Trobe Valley. It’s expected to employ 500 Latrobe Valley locals and assemble 2,400 vehicles a year, transforming the former coal power hub into the national capital for electric vehicles.

In March 2019, IKEA unveiled their first electric trucks, with plans to electrify their entire 60-vehicle fleet by 2025. Their partner delivery company, ANC, who would operate the trucks, had researched over 40 global electric vehicle manufacturers and opted for the Australian-based SEA Electric. The trucks start and end their day at the IKEA depot, charge overnight, with charging taking four to five hours, and are ready to go again in the morning.

Later this year, 2019, SEA Electric would launch the first 100% electric tipper truck and the first electric cherry picker. By year’s end they’d receive their largest order so far of a hundred electric trucks from the US-based company Zeem Solutions, which will be assembled under a licensing agreement in a factory in the U.S.

The timing is exciting, Tony said. He hadn’t been sure when electric vehicles would take off, but he’d seen an opportunity, and they were now riding the wave of rapidly advancing technology and expanding their operations very quickly. They’d grown from 20 employees to now over 80.

‘All trucks should be going electric’, Tony said, and he predicts that all delivery vans in Australia would do so within five to ten years. The powertrain of an EV has only one moving part — the electric motor itself — so there’s a dramatic reduction in maintenance, repairs and fuel costs. The regenerative braking means that there’s far less wear on brake pads and drivers are finding they need to replace them far less. ‘No product we sell takes longer than four years to pay itself off, and that’s without subsidies.’

But what about carbon emissions? EVs don’t produce emissions from the exhaust pipe, but there are upstream emissions from electricity production. According to the International Energy Agency, in 2018, globally, 39.6 megatonnes of carbon emissions were avoided thanks to electric vehicles. With the rollout of more EVs and lower carbon intensity electricity generation, this could increase to as much as 535.6 megatonnes avoided in 2030.

‘Every diesel truck that is taken off the road is equivalent to 20 cars in terms of carbon emissions’, Tony said. Plus, drivers were finding electric trucks more pleasant to drive, they made for quieter and less polluted streets, and they’re healthier, as the particulates in diesel exhaust had been found to be carcinogenic.

Tony was clearly a busy man, and he was becoming busier as his company went global, now with offices in Europe, the U.S., New Zealand and Thailand, licensing out their proprietary electric SEA Drive to overseas manufacturers. I happened to come on the same day a delegation from a large Japanese automotive company had arrived to meet with him. Tomorrow he was off to Brisbane, to Sydney the day after, then the U.S.

Any impatience I might have felt waiting for him was replaced by the realisation that I was lucky he’d spared time to talk with me. He asked me if he could be in a photo with me and my bike, and Lindsay kindly took a few snaps as we stood out front under the company logo, squinting against the late afternoon sun.

Having finally said farewell, mounted my bike again and set off back towards Melbourne, I reflected on the many trucks and vans that passed me on the busy main road. Would these all soon be electric? Would this mean no more cycling through exhaust fumes? The fast-paced business-oriented vibe of the factory had come as a shock, but deep down I understood that this was just what was needed — they were delivering an exceptionally important product and racing to get ahead in a highly commercial world. And I wanted them to win.

Huge thanks to Tony, Lindsay, Joe, James and the SEA Electric team for hosting me at their factory.