If bigger is better, then the latest electric truck from Caterpillar has the drop on almost every other electric vehicle out there. The new electric truck is a zero emission version of the company’s massive diesel-powered 793 mining truck. Aside from helping to accelerate industrial decarbonization, the new truck demonstrates that battery-powered electric drive can tackle some of the toughest jobs on Earth.
The Caterpillar 793 Electric Mining Truck
Caterpillar announced the new electric mining truck in a press release last week. The release was a little thin on information about the battery pack, possibly because the new truck is still in the prototype phase.
We’re reaching out to the company for more details. Meanwhile, one tantalizing clue popped up in 2018, when CleanTechnica’s Kyle Field noticed a hookup between Caterpillar and the firm Fiskar, which is developing a solid-state EV battery.
Solid-state battery or not, Caterpillar appears to be satisfied that the electric truck can meet, if not beat, its diesel equivalent on performance. Last week’s announcement followed a workout for the new truck on a 4.3 mile course in Arizona.
“Fully loaded to its rated capacity, the truck achieved a top speed of 60 km/h (37.3 mph). The loaded truck traveled one kilometer (0.62 mile) up a 10% grade at 12 km/h (7.5 mph). The truck also performed a one kilometer (0.62 mile) run on a 10% downhill grade, capturing the energy that would normally be lost to heat and regenerating that energy to the battery,” Caterpillar explained.
“Upon completing the entire run, the truck maintained enough battery energy to perform additional complete cycles,” the company added.
The Electric Truck Advantage
That reference to regenerative braking underscores a key advantage of electric drive. Gas and diesel vehicles do have batteries, but they are relatively small. It is difficult to justify the expense of installing a regenerative braking system under a fossil fuel scenario. In contrast, electric vehicle battery packs are massive. They can store far more energy than a conventional vehicle battery. The bigger the vehicle, the bigger the battery pack, and the more opportunities for capturing excess energy from braking.
Regenerative braking also comes into play on electric rail systems, one recent example being the “Infinity Train” developed by Fortescue.
Fuel availability is another advantage. Wind turbines and solar arrays are becoming familiar sights at remote mining sites, leading to the potential for recharging truck batteries instead of transporting liquid fuel.
The Electric Truck Ripple Effect
In terms of marketing, Caterpillar is not letting the grass grow under its feet. The company has already recruited BHP, Freeport-McMoRan, Newmont Corporation, Rio Tinto, and Teck Resources Limited to get dibs on the new electric truck through the “Caterpillar Early Learner” program.
“The Early Learner program launched in 2021 and focuses on accelerating the development and validation of Caterpillar’s battery electric trucks at participating customers’ sites,” Caterpillar explains.
The idea is to collaborate with mining firms that are transitioning to zero emission operations. Caterpillar is not ditching the internal combustion engine just yet — its sustainability goals for 203o include a pledge that its new products will be more sustainable than previous ones in some way or another — but the company does foresee a growing demand for zero emission vehicles in the mining industry.
What About Those Solid-State Batteries?
Caterpillar’s hand in EV battery manufacturing could also give it a leg up in the emerging zero emission locomotive field, through its Progress Rail subsidiary.
If Caterpillar runs with the solid-state battery option, it will have plenty of company. Solid-state batteries are a relatively new development in the electric vehicle field, and solid-state technology still needs some trimming around the rough edges. Nevertheless, leading automakers have been putting down stakes in the EV battery manufacturing field. Mercedez-Benz and Vietnam’s up-and-coming VinFast have hooked up with the solid-state company Prologium, for example. Ford and GM are also on the growing list of automakers to hop on the solid-state bandwagon.
Solid-state technology might not be truck-ready in the near future, but electric truck manufacturers can already take advantage of new silicon batteries and other improvements that increase range, reduce charging times, and reduce costs.
Accelerating Decarbonization Through Interoperability
Caterpillar and its Learning Center participants are far from one-offs in the electric truck field. The entire global mining sector is pivoting into fleet electrification. Rather than dealing with a jumble of different service and equipment protocols from different manufacturers, some of the leading names in earth-digging have begun collaborating to promote interoperability.
BHP and Rio Tinto are already involved in one such effort. Along with another leading firm, Vale, they are establishing a “Mining Taskforce” under the umbrella of the 290-member electrification trade association CharIN. The new Taskforce is supported by the International Council on Mining and Metals and it builds on the three firms’ competition-based Charge On Innovation Challenge.
“CharIN fully supports the task force mining as it is absolutely aligned with our activities promoting CCS (Combined Charging System) and MCS (Megawatt Charging System) as the global charging standards for all kinds of vehicles,” explained CharIN e.V. Chairman Claas Bracklo in a press release last week.
“Interoperability is the key to success, this has been proven during the last years on passenger car, truck, and bus level,” he added.
Lessons For US Auto Manufacturers
Of course, no discussion of interoperability is complete without mentioning that the North American EV charging landscape has been split between Tesla’s technology and everyone else.
Adapters can be called into play. That adds another layer of cost and complexity at a time when rapid decarbonization calls for maximizing affordability and simplicity, but apparently the Biden Administration has gotten a commitment from Tesla to install adapters at its Supercharger stations in North America, as it has in parts of Europe.
“Later this year, Tesla will begin production of new Supercharger equipment that will enable non-Tesla EV drivers in North America to use Tesla Superchargers,” the Biden Administration stated in a White House fact sheet summarizing a laundry list of initiatives aimed at building out the public EV charging network, lowering costs, and improving access.
Whether or not installing adapters at Supercharger stations will make much of a difference remains to be seen. Reportedly, non-Tesla drivers will need to install a Tesla app on their phones in order to used the adapted charging stations. Carrying a Tesla app on your phone when you drive another EV would have made sense a few years back. However, now that more charging stations and more EVs are available, the convenience of Supercharger access is not as readily apparent.
Also, up until recently Tesla CEO Elon Musk kept his “different thinking” largely to himself. Now that the cat’s out of the bag, if you already own another EV, would you really want a Tesla app on your phone? If you have any thoughts about that, drop us a note in the comment thread.
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Photo: Electric truck for zero emission load hauling courtesy of Caterpillar.
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