Why This Tesla Motors Co-founder Loves Electric Garbage Trucks

Ian Wright designed what may be one of the coolest street-legal cars of all time: the electric X1 looked like a Formula 1 racecar and went from zero to 60 in a breathtaking 2.9 seconds. Now, though, all Wright wants to talk about is trucks, especially the workaday delivery trucks and garbage trucks that ply city streets.

Why the excitement? Wright is the founder of Wrightspeed, a San Jose, CA-based startup that’s designed electric powertrains for medium- and heavy-duty trucks. “Garbage trucks are the perfect driving cycle for us: they get two or three miles per gallon, drive 130 miles a day with 1,000 hard stops that chew on the brakes. They’re just perfect,” he says.

Wright was among the founders of Tesla Motors. But despite his background in working on luxury performance cars, he’s come around to thinking that the biggest opportunity for electric vehicle disruption is where most of the fuel is burned—that is, big trucks. Cars may go through a few hundred gallons of gas a year but a commercial truck will burn through thousands of gallons or more. That means there’s a better financial incentive in terms of fuel savings to go electric.

The company sold two kits to retrofit FedEx delivery trucks to electric power and recently sold 25 more conversion kits, Wright says. It’s also in the process of putting electric powertrains on 17 garbage trucks in northern California, which will allow the fleet to comply with new air quality rules.

Within the month, Wright expects to raise a Series D round of growth capital, which will include a strategic supplier as an investor, to start building more of its electric powertrains. The company has already raised $16.5 million of venture capital in three rounds and received grants from the California Energy Commission to expand manufacturing. He hopes to take the company public in three years.

Befitting a man who designed the X1, the technology in Wrightspeed’s truck conversion kits is deep. There’s an electric motor on each of the truck’s drive wheels (it can be two or four depending on the vehicle) and an on-board generator to replenish batteries once their charge gets below about 20 percent. The generator can operate on natural gas or diesel.

Conversion costs under $100,000 for medium-duty trucks and under $200,000 for larger trucks, Wright says. For commercial customers, though, the return on investment is what drives buying decisions. By saving fuel and maintenance costs, converting to the extended-range electric powertrain can pay for itself in a reasonable time, Wright says. “At a three-year payback, everybody will do it,” he says.

WrightTruck promo

Credit: Screen capture from Wrightspeed promotional video.

The transformation from glamorous, high-performance cars to the world of trucks came over time. Wright says he spent five years refining the business model after being shut down by investors on Sand Hill Road.

The key was homing in on a large market. A significant number of consumers are buying electric passenger cars, but because they’re more expensive than their gasoline counterparts, the market is limited to a few percent of the overall market, many analysts say.

By contrast, Wrightspeed is targeting fleet owners in metro areas where the regular stop-and-go traffic is an advantage: by braking or slowing down, the powertrain can recharge the battery, just as a hybrid car does.

“With my business model, it’s not a consumer decision—it’s a business-to-business decision. People don’t buy because it’s a fashion statement or because it’s cool. If the numbers line up, they’re going to do it,” he says.

In general, venture investors are skittish of investing in the auto industry over worries that large suppliers will crush smaller competitors or that margins are too small in heavy equipment, Wright says.

But the company does face some startup competition: Greenville, S.C-based Proterra, which is also headed by a former Tesla exec, in June raised another $30 million to manufacture its electric buses, which are aimed at municipalities. Boston-based XL Hybrids also sells a conversion kit to fleet owners, although it converts trucks and vans into more traditional hybrids.

Wright’s belief is that electric powertrain technology is fundamentally better—electric motors are very efficient and generally offer better driving performance. But it needs the right business model to truly become mainstream. “This is such cool stuff. It’s so much better than pistons and gears. But how do you make a difference in the auto industry? How do you get to disruption?” he says.

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  • Bill Wesley

    why not trains?

    • mkonezw

      Trains run in the same place all the time. They don’t need batteries and the like. They need power lines.

      • Enric Martinez

        Not always, there are place where power lines are not practical like in regions with mountains. But diesel electric trains date back to the 1930 already

    • Martin LaMonica

      GE is making hybrid trains. There’s a lot of energy that can be captured and stored into batteries during braking. http://www.lionel.com/visionline/geevolution.html#/nav/products/greenfleet/geevolution

    • Don

      Trains have been Diesel/Electric for years.

    • jonbryce

      Because there are loads of electric trains out there. They have the benefit of overhead or third-rail power lines so they don’t need to worry about running out of fuel.

    • Plus, trains can go very long distances without transferring quite as much energy as city trucks. Large heavy loads can conserve, even generate, their own power once a run gets started because they don’t need to stop as often and on a downhill slope they can generate more electricity than they’ll need to complete the run. But yes, once they’ve stopped, they require a LOT of power to get going again. Still, railroad transport is far more efficient than garbage trucks. I’m sure we will see more improvements in locomotive motor technology more and more companies see shared improvements in stator design.

    • fran farrell

      Exactly so. individual all wheel drive on diesel electric locomotives would keep trains on the rails in emergency situations like the all wheel drive coming to Tesla’s, will keep them on the road to Heavenly Valley.

  • Antonio Bonfiglio

    Cummins Kinetics is in this game too

    • jamcl3

      Interesting, I had not seen that. But Cummins Crosspoint Kinetics is still a parallel hybrid (albeit with super capacitors, not batteries) so the diesel will still run most of the time. Wrightspeed is quiet most of the time.

      • mike logan

        Look at Motivps (motivps.com) no petroleum all electric garbage truck running for many months already in Chicago. They also have been building school buses, shuttle buses etc. for some time. No hybrids, all electric, and their system will run on ANYcurrent or future battery technology without redesign.

  • Complete Anon

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  • fran farrell

    As a consumer of all that Garbage Truck noise I’t like to see a little more thought put into 100 year-life high tech and near frictionless bearings, more precise and quiet picking up, dumping and putting back of garbage cans and some acceptance of the fact that Garbage collection has taken thousands of hours of sleep and perhaps a year off my life.

  • Richard Fox

    Excellent, possibilities are limitless in the service and delivery industry with huge benefits in noise and pollution, what are we waiting for?

  • mike logan

    Great idea, everyone. Electric heavy duty vehicles are a necessary step in the evolution of logistics and transportation. But why have a petroleum based engine to recharge batteries?

    Look at Motivps.com they have an All Electric garbage truck contract with the City of Chicago and a garbage truck has been QUIETLY hauling garbage there for quite a while already..

    Motivps is listed in Popular Science as having one of the best Green Technologies in 2014.

    Motivps (ps for power systems) is not shipping rebuild kits, but fully working battery equipped vehicles that will work WITHOUT STRUCTURAL BODY OR SYSTEM REDESIGNS, on any current or future Electric Vehicle (EV). No gas or diesel motor, no need to redesign as battery tech changes, and power is not based on how many axles the vehicle has.

    The company already has shipped school buses, shuttle buses, and a huge variety of mid to large size vehicles, companies from Ebay to Chicago’s waste and recycling companies are already on board.

    • michael

      Mike, while an all electric vehicle would be ideal, the issue is cost. An all electric garbage truck is more than twice the cost of a traditional engine. The only reason chicago bought the motiv truck was that they gained Grant money from the department of education.