While the Tesla Semi will likely hit the market in 2050, China is already buzzing with hundreds of different electric trucks made by dozens of truck makers. Granted, they’re not as advanced as the Tesla Semi will probably be, but a truck doesn’t have to be advanced to be electric. In China, what is on the road now counts more than the promise of future technology.
Because of the way China’s economy is intertwined with its government, we have to start this discussion about electric trucks with some background on how electric truckmakers are organized.
Chinese Truckmakers Tend To Be Government-Owned
The Chinese truck market is bizarrely fragmented, with dozens of small, medium, and large truckmakers competing for market share. The market is still strongly regionally divided, with only a minority of China’s truckmakers sells nationwide. Most only sell in their home province and surrounding provinces. It used to be like that with cars too, and that only really changed in the mid-2000’s.
Most truckmakers are still state-owned. Generally speaking, state-ownership comes in many different kinds in China. There is ownership by the central government, by provincial governments, by city councils, and even by counties. Then there can be ownership by many other government entities, like industrial zones, universities, investment funds, or other state-owned companies. Many “state owned” companies are owned by a mix of all these, with some private investors thrown in, and with a listing on a local stock market. These listings are something to check very carefully; in most cases the state-owned companies themselves are not listed, but rather a subsidiary created especially for a listing. What exactly this subsidiary owns and does is often not entirely clear.
When it comes to truckmakers, most are owned by the central government or by provincial governments. This differs from the car market, which today is a blend between state-owned and privately-owned companies. One reason for this is that the central government considers truck making a strategic sector, way too important for transportation and for the military to leave it to the private sector.
However, even the central government believes that there are too many truckmakers in China. Over the past decades, the bureaucrats in Beijing have been trying hard to consolidate the sector, but yet without much to show for. Likely because of these characteristics, there aren’t any famous “start-ups” set to disrupt the sector like there are in the car market (NIO and Xpeng come to mind).
Chinese truck makers differ from Western ones in other ways too. Most truck makers sell rigs under multiple brand or sub-brand names, instead of focusing on one specific brand. The companies typically sell in every segment of the commercial vehicle market, from tiny vans to the heaviest tractor trucks, instead of focusing on one specific sector.
The Rise Of Electric Trucks
For about 10 years or so truckmakers have moved into electrification. In the past, many truck makers merely showed off an electric truck to please the government, but today it is serious business. Besides pure electric power trains, many Chinese truck makers are also developing hydrogen FCEV vehicles and methanol-powered trucks. More on those in my next article on Chinese trucks. In this article, we take a look at heavy electric tractor trailers that are somewhat comparable to the Tesla Semi. But that is not at all the only kind of electric truck the Chinese make. Everything gets electrified nowadays, ranging from small delivery vans to garbage trucks to street cleaning vehicles to buses to mining vehicles and heavy dump trucks.
Most electric tractor trailers are based on existing diesel-powered trucks; only one truckmaker, BYD, develops EV trucks from the ground up. The battery pack is always located in a container right behind the cabin. This makes for easy swapping and for easy charging. Most truck makers offer either swappable and chargeable batteries or chargeable-only. Charging goes surprisingly fast because truckmakers have developed a system with dual-charging ports that each can charge a battery simultaneously. A big 282 kWh battery can be charged in under two hours. A swap takes up to six minutes. The swaps may happen in a relatively simple building, easy to erect on a construction site or a transport hud. The trailer drives inside, the driver scans his phone, and the battery is swapped fully automatically. An absolutely fascinating process that is addictive to look at.
The big advantage for companies of choosing EV trucks over diesel trucks are lower operating and maintenance costs. An article from Chinese media gives an example about diesel vs. electric dump trucks: operating costs of the diesel is some 1200 yuan per day, whereas the EV costs only 700. For yearly maintenance, the diesel costs 15,000 yuan and the EV just 5000. That makes for a lot of savings in a country the size of China. As for pricing, the heavy tractor trailers in this article — trailers with generally a similar outputs and capacities — are priced similarly, usually in a range from 900.000 to 1.1 million yuan (133,000 – 163,000 USD).
As you may have noted, I use the word “most” a lot. That is because there are so many Chinese truckmakers making a dizzying number of trucks. This makes writing difficult at times. I do a lot of China-related research, mostly about cars and trucks but also about trains, airplanes, and ships. It happens every so often that the complexity of a sector makes me half mad; it is then when I hide under my desk mumbling: “Aaaah China has so many x companies and y regulations and z policies and when I think I got ‘m all I find a thousand more. Aaaah I’m going crazy.” To which my wife, when she pulls me out from my safe space, simply replies: “Yes, but China is very big”.
And that is indeed the answer and the truth. China is big. One point four billion folks have and need a lot of everything. It is, indeed, a surprise there are only a few dozen truckmakers instead of a few hundred. Still, I had to make some choices for this story. There is no fair way, really, to include some truck makers and not others. I decided to discuss some of the biggest, the smartest, and the buzzy-est. Just keep in mind that this is just the tip of the iceberg. In China, there is always more. Now to the trucks:
BeiBen started life in 1988 as a truck-making joint venture between China North Industries Corporation and Daimler-Benz. The BeiBen name is a memory of that time, with Bei being the Chinese name for North and Ben being short for Benz. Today the joint venture is long dead, but the company continues to use the BeiBen brand, and even today some of its trucks still use the 1980’s Mercedes-Benz cabin design. China North Industries Corporation is better known internationally as Norinco, one of China’s largest state-owned weapon makers.
BeiBen’s largest electric tractor trailer is the BeiBen V3 BEV, a 25 ton 6×4 with a blue bar in the grille, indicating its friendliness to nature. In China, blue is the color of new energy vehicles, unlike in most of the rest of the world, where it is green, as in “green-energy vehicles.”
The V3 BEV is powered by a 360kW (483 HP) electric motor, sourced from Shaanxi Fast Gear, a subsidiary of Weichai. Top speed is 80.89 km/h, and not a meter more or less. [Editor’s Note: That is clinically slow — only 50 mph. -DT]. The 282 KWh LFP battery is sourced from CATL. It is by far the most popular heavy truck battery in China and we will see it lots of times more. The battery is charged via two charging ports that charge simultaneously, good for a full charge in just 1.5 hours. BeiBen makes many variants of the V3. A popular variant is a dump truck with swappable batteries, which sells notably well among Chinese steel companies. A battery swap takes just four minutes.
BYD is best known internationally for its speedy PHEVs, electric buses, and one of its investors, Warren Buffet. However, BYD makes a whole lot more electric vehicles in China, including small electric vans, all sorts of specialty vehicles, and heavy electric trucks. Back in 2017, the Beijing Municipal government started to replace its old diesel-powered street-cleaning trucks with electric BYDs. These new EV cleaners were much faster; I remember seeing them going like crazy over the road, with the crew smiling like madmen.
BYD’s heaviest electric tractor trailer is the BYD Q3, with a streamlined cabin and aero bits between the front and rear wheels. The Q3 is powered by two electric motors, one on each rear axle. Combined output is 280 kW (375 HP). The motor is mated to a gigantic 355 kWh BYD LFP battery. It has two charging ports that can simultaneously charge the battery pack at 100kW each. BYD claims a charging time of only 1.6 hours, a top speed of 89 km/h, and a range of 200 kilometers (around 125 miles) using the now obsolete C-WTVC (China World Transient Vehicle Cycle) standard. There is a simple reason that top speed always stays just under 90, as that is the maximum speed allowed for trucks on China’s highway network. (56 mph!)
Dayun Auto is a car and truck maker based in Yuncheng city, Shanxi Province. The company is relatively young, founded only in 2004. Its car business sells pickup trucks and compact electric cars and SUVs. Its truck department sells a long lineup of diesel and electric powered trucks in all sorts and sizes. Dayun Auto’s main shareholder is the provincial government. Dayun-branded trucks are exported to Africa, South America, the Middle East, and other Asian countries.
Dayun’s largest tractor trailer is the Dayun N8V BEV, an impressive 6×4 with a bling-bling grille. The company sells two versions: with a swappable and chargeable battery (pictured) or chargeable only. Power comes from twin-electric motors with a combined output of 360 kW. The Dayun N8V uses the same 282 KWh CATL battery as the BeiBen. Dayun claims a max range of 170 kilometers. A battery swap takes six minutes and a fast twin-port charge just one hour.
The Dongfeng Motor Corporation is one of the oldest and best known Chinese automotive conglomerates, founded in 1969 and based in Wuhan, capital of Hubei Province. The car division makes everything from tiny city cars to military off-roaders, and it operates several large Sino-foreign joint ventures. Commercial vehicles are made and marketed by Dongfeng Commercial Vehicle, a huge company building everything from minivans to pickup trucks to heavy trucks. Dongfeng was quite early with electrification, but mostly in the small and medium truck segments. When it comes to the heavy stuff they are just getting started. Dongfeng sells its heavy tractors under the poetic Tianlong name, which translates to “Heavenly Dragon.”
The heaviest Dongfeng electric truck is the Dongfeng Tianlong KL BEV, a 6×4 battery-swappable tractor with a 13.4 ton curb weight. The 360 kW motor is sourced from SNC Power Train, a large electric motor maker currently based in Shanghai. The 282 kWh battery comes from CATL again.
A dual-full charge takes just one hour and a battery swap 6 minutes. Top speed is 89 km/h and range is 200 kilometers. It is a popular machine ordered in large batches. For example, a company called China Railway Huitong Construction bought a hundred of them in one order.
Farizon Auto is a brand under Geely New Energy Commercial Vehicle Group, itself a division of the Zhejiang Geely Holding Group. This group is the mothership of a vast collection of brands and companies, including Geely the car maker, Volvo, Polestar, Proton, and Lotus. Geely New Energy Commercial Vehicle Group is also the owner of CAMC Hanma (see below). The Farizon Auto brand was launched in 2016. It makes a series of electric vans, methanol-powered trucks, and medium- and heavy electric trucks.
The Farizon Xinghan G1E490 is the company’s heavyweight. The battery supports both charging and swapping. The electric motor has a peak output of 360 kWh and 2500 Nm. The motor is sourced from CRRC Times Electric, originally a railway-equipment maker that recently moved into the electric vehicle business. Battery is, once again, the 282 kWh unit sourced from CATL. Top speed is 89 km/h again. However, Farizon also makes a pure electric dump truck with a non-swappable battery with a massive 322 kWh battery between the front and rear axles.
Jiefang, meaning “Liberation,” is one of China’s oldest and largest truck makers. The brand was originally founded in 1953. It is owned by First Auto Works (FAW), also the owner of the famous Hongqi car brand. The very first Jiefang was the CA10/CA30, based on the Soviet ZIS-150 which in turn was based on the American International KR-11 which was supplied in great numbers to the Soviet Union during WWII under the Land-Lease agreements. Today, Jiefang makes about 500,000 vehicles a year, including small trucks, army trucks, and all sorts of specialty vehicles.
The 6×4 25 ton Jiefang J6P BEV is the company’s top electric tractor trailer, with a swappable and rechargeable battery behind the cabin. The logo on the grille is called the “Winged 1,” referring to First Auto Works. In the specifications we meet some friends: The 360 kWh / 2500 Nm electric motor was provided by CRRC Times Electric and the 282 kWh LFP battery by CATL. Jiefang claims a range of 200 kilometers. The company also makes a badass heavy-duty 8×8 dump truck chassis variant of the J6P BEV.
Foton is a large Chinese truck maker majority owned by the BAIC conglomerate. Foton was founded in 1996 and is based in the Chinese capital Beijing. Foton makes pickup trucks, vans, buses, and all sorts of trucks. It tried its hand at carmaking, too, with the unsuccessful revival of the German Borgward brand, which is now bankrupt. A long-running truck and diesel-engine joint venture with Daimler is very successful, but the Germans are not involved in the electric truck-making business.
When it comes to EVs; Foton builds various electric buses, vans, and trucks. Like most Chinese automotive companies, Foton loves to launch new brands and sub-brands. Last year, they launched a new sub for their EV offerings called Foton iBlue.
Foton’s biggest electric tractor trailer is the iBlue Heavy Truck, fitted with a swappable and chargeable battery, as always located behind the cabin. This battery is, again, the 282 kWh LFP made by CATL. A battery swap in one of Foton’s fancy swapping stations takes just six minutes, and a normal dual-port charge takes max 1.5 hours. Range is 200 kilometers. The electric motor has an output of 360 kW and 2100 Nm.
[Editor’s Note: It seems like lots of Chinese EV trucks have 483 horsepower, 282 kWh CATL batteries, a range of about 125 miles, can be charged in one or two hours, and can have their batteries swapped in six minutes. Lots of similarities, here. -DT]
Hongyan is a truckmaker founded in 1965 and based in the megacity of Chongqing. The company has an interesting history. Their first trucks were based on borrowed design and technology from French truck maker Berliet. When that ended, Hongyan started a joint venture with Steyr, which was a very busy Austrian bee in China at the time; in 2003 Steyr was replaced with Italian truck maker Iveco for yet another joint venture. Later, Shanghai-based SAIC became part of this deal. It then all became kind of messy and after lots of take-overs and mergers the company was fully taken over by SAIC in 2016.
Today, Hongyan makes trucks under three somewhat odd sounding brands: Genlyon, Genhoo, and Genpaw. The three brands build a wide range of vans and trucks, and some sweet specialty vehicles like a brilliant electric mining dump truck with 4800 Nm! (Over 3,500 lb-ft). The electric trucks are positioned under the Genlyon brand.
The Hongyan Genlyon H6 is the company’s only heavy electric tractor trailer. Hongyan tried a little harder than most to make the H6 aerodynamic with an integrated roof spoiler and side blades between the wheels. The Genlyon H6 is available as a 4×2 and as a 6×4. The swappable and chargeable battery is CATL’s 282 kWh LFP. The 360 kW/2500 Nm electric motor comes from CRRC Times Electric. Range is 200 kilometers.