WILLIAMSBURG, BROOKLYN—In 20 or more years of covering the electric vehicle space, I’ve been to countless “introductions” in which big companies announce with great fanfare (and free lunch for journalists) that they’re exploring the future with a test fleet of electric cars and trucks. All two of them. Or three, maybe even four. The test lasts a year or so, then it’s back to business as usual—with thousands of diesel trucks.
That’s what made the Chanje event in Brooklyn so unusual—and heartening. The electric truck company—which grew out of the ashes of Smith Electric Vehicles, also helmed by CEO Bryan Hansel—is building a large unibody cargo van from the ground up, with design in the U.S., and manufacturing in a huge, four-million-square-foot factory in Hangzhou, China. Manufacturing is already underway there with a shuttle bus variant of the Chanje V8070 for the Chinese market. The 20-25-seat bus is likely to come here later.
The important thing is that this Chinese-made truck has already been crash-tested and certified for the U.S. market. And the company’s partner, Ryder, is buying 125 of them and putting them in its rental fleets in New York, California and Chicago by the end of 2017. That’s in a couple of months. Will this be the first Chinese-made passenger vehicle on American roads?
According to Dennis Cooke, fleet management president for Ryder, “We are proud to partner with Chanje to bring an all-electric medium-duty vehicle to market.”
The van can haul up to 6,000 pounds, with 675 cubic feet of storage, and according to Hansel is aimed at last-mile deliveries. He said the company has spent close to a billion dollars over five years bringing the truck to market. The ultimate plan is to make the truck components in China, then assemble them in the U.S. at 100,000-square-foot regional factories (starting on the west coast).
Decentralized plants were also Smith’s master plan. A plant in the Bronx was announced. That didn’t happen, but Smith did deliver plenty of electric trucks, to customers like Frito-Lay and Coca-Cola, and they’ve logged something like 20 million miles.
With a 70-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack and a 198 peak horsepower motor, the big vans (really big, actually) have a range of up to 100 miles. Chanje claims 50 mpg equivalent.
I got to drive the Chanje van around the crowded streets of Williamsburg, which is undergoing feverish reconstruction. It feels smaller than its 26.5-foot length, and it’s OK on city streets. That’s in part because it’s only 7.2 feet wide. A lot of the cargo space is vertical. The cargo area is cavernous, and could easily swallow a car or maybe even two. Empty, it’s like a cave—there was even a big echo effect.
Another thing I noticed is how quiet the Chanje is, which can be attributed to its unibody construction. Hansel explained that standard box trucks have aluminum panels riveted in place, and that means a lot of flex—even if the powertrain is electric.
The V8070’s cabin is fairly Spartan, as befits its status as a work truck. There are the necessary battery charge screens, and an Eco button that increases regenerative braking. Frankly, it could have increased it more—I like a lot of regen, because it enables one-pedal driving.
According to Austin Hausmann, vice president of engineering, Chanje’s heated-and-cooled batteries come from Sinopoly, which is wholly owned by Chanje’s Chinese partner, Hong Kong-based FDG (which makes cells, packs and whole vehicles). FDG has sold a couple thousand Chanje vehicles already, under the Chang Jiang brand name.
Hausmann also said that Chanje will offer scaled-up and scaled-down versions of its truck, and batteries similarly scaled.
Chanje is entering a big market. There are about seven million medium-duty trucks in the U.S., and 500,000 are sold annually (according to IHS Markit). These are the trucks you see all over American cities, making sure there are Fritos at convenience stores, onions in the restaurant kitchen, and milk in the dairy case.
Suresh Jayanthi, vice president of energy services, said Chanje is aiming to make sales to small (10-25 trucks) and large (50-200 trucks) fleets. It’s working on 20 charging depots, mostly in California, but also four in New York and three in Chicago. “Our operations will be tactical and scalable,” he told me. Big utilities such as PG&E are being consulted.
This could be the first really big electric truck deployment, which is what we need if we’re actually going to have some effect on our beleaguered planet. The Chinese factory could build 30,000 trucks annually, but more locations are planned. Trucks without tailpipes, it’s about time.
Here's some video about it all: