WHEN MACK Truck’s press people invited me to drive their electric trash truck at its headquarters in Greensboro, N.C., I was just so there. The very phrase sounded magical. Electric Trash Truck could be the name of my ’60s art-rock band. They also offered to let me use the side-loader’s grabber arm to fling bins into the air. It’s harder than it looks.
But mostly I accepted because of a particular trash truck I used to hate in my old neighborhood in Los Angeles. About 5 a.m. this thing would come up our street, bawling like a calving moose, air brakes squealing and hissing every 30 seconds. At the end of the street the crew would run the compactor, or “packer,” which sounded like they were about to launch a mobile missile. Now there’s a product category ripe for innovation, I thought, before drinking myself back to sleep.
With no engine rumble or barking brakes, Mack’s LR Electric rolls like a mute-button version of its diesel equivalent.
Last week, full of hope, I climbed into the springy seat of the Mack LR Electric, a battery-powered version of the company’s best-selling and noisiest trash truck. Built around components shared with parent-company
(not the car company), the LR Electric is a low-cab-forward design, with windshields like Elton John glasses. The side-loader body, built by Heil, wore the livery of refuse giant
which is testing the prototype in Hickory, N.C.
Electric trash truck love is in the air. In January, as part of L.A’s program to reduce carbon emissions, city sanitation officials announced it would transition its fleet of 1,100 refuse trucks to battery-electrics by 2035, with new truck purchases being primarily electric by 2023. New York City has made similar commitments, including a 100% electric fleet by 2040. With more than 2,100 collection trucks, the DSNY is not only the world’s largest municipal sanitation department, it is also one of Mack’s best customers.
The smallest and arguably the most diesel-centric among legacy manufacturers, Mack is late to this party. BYD’s U.S. operation already has EV trash trucks for sale, with small numbers working in West Coast states. Canada-based Lion Electric, Daimler, Peterbilt and DAF all have prototypes or early production models of EV trash trucks in the pipeline.
One might even dismiss the LR Electric as a bit of greenwashing, except that trash trucks represent a core part of Mack’s business. “I’m telling you, as of now, we are accelerating,” Mack Trucks president Martin Weissburg told me at the test track. “We are going into series production next year—not the end of next year, either.”
From the pilot’s seat—either left or right—the cab is airy and square-cornered, like a ski gondola. Most of the interior space is taken up by the switchgear-laden center console, under which usually lives an 11-liter turbo diesel straight six, capable of producing 1,260 lb-ft of torque at a dead-awakening 1,050 rpm.
I twisted the starter switch. An indistinct hum came from somewhere, as indicators and switchgear lighted. Ready to go. Foot on the brake, I pushed the yellow air-brake button on the dash—PWWISHH. Selecting D for Drive, I squeezed the go pedal. The 24,500-pound machine surged lightly, confidently, issuing only a soft, voltage-y whine. Attack of the 50-foot golf cart.
Trash trucks are not just loud on the outside. “It’s a stressful environment” for operators, said Scott Barraclough, Mack technology product manager, riding shotgun. “We couldn’t be having this nice conversation in the [diesel] truck.”
Also missing from my test drive was the shrill, regular chuffing of air brakes. EV trash trucks will incorporate regenerative braking, using the hunkka e-motors to halt the truck without resorting to the mechanical brakes. The instant I lifted my foot off the accelerator, the big truck slowed like it had hit a sand dune.
The Mack is not what you’d call slinky. But in its way this is one sexy beast, a pinup fantasy of fleet operators in every corner of the world.
Why? Operating costs. While EV trash trucks will be more expensive than conventional trucks, they have the potential to save big on per-mile costs, including energy and maintenance. Refuse trucks (and mail trucks, and school buses) live on “closed-loop” routes: low daily miles, limited speeds, and repetitive accelerating/braking. This sawing back-and-forth is what internal-combustion and particularly diesel engines do least efficiently.
But this duty cycle is electric propulsion’s happy place. Wrightspeed, which builds range-extended electric conversions, advertises that its trash-truck conversion could net up to 60% reduction in fuel consumption. Lion claims its Lion8 trash truck, with 400 km range, could save fleet customers 80% on total energy costs.
Regen braking, on little cat feet, also saves big on maintenance. Collection trucks may make hundreds of stops per day, thousands per week. Brake repair is their most costly maintenance item. But in routine operation the LR Electric’s regen braking will do most of the stopping. “These trucks will have air brakes like any other,” Mr. Barraclough said. “But it won’t have to use them every 50 feet.”
EV trash trucks can also skip other servicing, including engine and transmission rebuilds, oil changes and diesel emissions treatment. The DSNY is currently evaluating another LR Electric prototype in Brooklyn. Deputy commissioner Rocco DiRico told an industry forum in March the maintenance costs were “little to none.”
Mack’s execs declined to ballpark any potential savings in operating costs. “It really depends on the application,” said spokesperson Christopher Heffner. They could only promise it would be quieter.
With no engine rumble or barking brakes, the LR Electric rolls and slows like a mute-button version of its diesel equivalent. Alas, it’s still not quite the trash-stealing ninja that I hoped. The packer and claw arm mechanism are still powered hydraulically, requiring a groaning pump to pressurize the hoses.
The Lion8, by contrast, uses hushed electric motors to drive the hopper and arm movements. The trash truck of my dreams is still out there.
MACK LR ELECTRIC, WITH HEIL AUTOMATED SIDE LOADER BODY
Price, as Tested Not available
Drivetrain Battery-electric with dual 167-kW AC motors and regenerative braking, four lithium-ion battery packs (600 volts), two-speed transmission, tandem 46,000-lb rear axles
Maximum/Continuous Power 400/334 kW (536/448 hp)
Maximum Torque 4,051 lb-ft at 0 rpm
Gross Vehicle Weight Rating 66,000 pounds
0-20 mph 3 seconds (estimated)
Charging Up to 150kW charge power at 200A, 550-750 volts, compliant with SAE J1772
Write to Dan Neil at Dan.Neil@wsj.com
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