No looking back Part:1

Monday, June 25, 2018

Over the next three months we’ll take a look at what’s going on at Fuso. In this, part one, we’ll recap on inner workings and culture and discover what’s ‘here’ but not here currently; in part two we’ll find out what’s not here but will be in the not too distant future; and lastly we’ll go for a spin in what wasn’t here but is now.

Buildings, culture, and great foundations – a recap
“Last year at the TOKYO MOTOR SHOW we came out with ‘Fuso is back’. It was done for the press and exhibitors, but it was also done for us. Fuso as a company has been through numerous challenges over the years. We held our own for a period of time but as a brand in certain areas we felt we’d become a ‘me-too’ product. We were the strongest in New Zealand and Australia and we disappeared,” said Ilan Elad, Fuso director Region 2, global sales. The tall, charismatic, good humoured Israeli has been with Fuso for three years and Daimler for five; an uncompromising yet natural leader of people.

For those wondering by the way, a ‘me-too’ product is one created that ’s similar to a competitor’s with the intention of preventing that competitor from maximising market share. But around the middle of the current decade that all changed. A new senior management team at Fuso received a mandate from mother Daimler to re-set course and put the brand back on centre stage. As we well know, the ramifications of what happened in the succeeding years have been felt globally. Last year, for the fifth consecutive year Fuso tabled record EBIT (earnings before interest and tax), and decreased quality related costs.

The 78-year-old 431,200m2 Fuso K1 manufacturing facility in Tokyo, Japan, is undergoing a $90m revamp that includes a new corporate HQ and campus, and a consolidation of the K2 parts and R&D facility into K1.

Product-wise the company’s investment in commercial BEVs (Battery Electric Vehicles) is currently setting the pace with the only series produced LDT (Light Duty Truck) in the world in the eCanter (see below), and the E-FUSO MDT (Medium Duty Truck) looming soon. As well as the ‘e’ brand, traditional product lines have been bolstered with a revamped bus and HDT (Heavy Duty Truck) range, based around the Daimler platform, with all the product advantages that brings. We’ll see the first of the new HDTs here in 2019, and there are a few surprises.

But arguably the biggest jump has been in culture, and the blending of a traditional Japanese-based workforce with a plethora of incoming fresh faces from around the globe. Today Fuso has 46 nationalities working at home operations in Japan, with more women in management roles than ever before. Although all that blending presents challenges, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages, explained Elad. He said bringing such a mix of ideas and cultures adds a richness and strength to the business, and certainly helps the interactions with customers in the 171 markets the company deals in around the world. Innovations like the company DTA1 App help bridge the communications and cultural gaps keeping everyone informed of milestones, bouquets, and achievements.

Fuso also run a graduate programme available to anyone and everyone around the world who qualifies, and are working in a number of ‘give back’ charity and welfare initiatives around the world, including Fuso New Zealand with the local Kids Can programme. All staff are encouraged to get on board. Asked if they are where they wanted to be, Elad replied with an emphatic “No.”

“First of all we want to be number one. Our competitors are very strong, but I think we’re on the right path. The next three years will tell us where we come in. From a me-too product we are the leaders in the world today for electrification. With the HDT products we have now, I think we’re there also, and in Daimler we have the ability to invest. We want Fuso to be number one again.”

Q: What’s ‘here’ but not here?
A: Thor’s little hammer

A bunch of trucks and buses sat on the test track at Kitsuregawa, 162km north of Fuso’s K1 head office in Tokyo. Amongst them was small white flat-deck local distribution truck looking utterly diminutive. There were no neon signs pointing to it, no dancing girls or fanfare, it was just there, sitting quietly...quietly being the key word. Move the gear lever into D and it also took off quietly; in one sense completely unspectacularly, in another sense, spectacular indeed.

“ What do you think?” said the instructor.

“Really impressive. Very quiet. Quick off the line all right. Very peppy! It would rival the average car easily. What ’s it like with a load on?”

“It’s loaded to max 7.5 tonne GVM now,” he said. Not doubting the integrity of ole’ mate beside me for a moment, a quick glance in the back window confirmed a series of concrete slabs sitting almost below the sight line of the deck sides. At that moment the serene ambience we’d been travelling in was broken with the sound of my jaw hitting the floor. In a flash of thought every diesel powered truck was analogous to the all-dominant T-Rex looking skyward at the little bright dot in the sky growing rapidly bigger. “ This little truck,” I thought, “is the catastrophic meteor for internally combustible diesel.” The little eCanter breezed up the hill, stopped halfway, took off on the incline just as it had before, turned around and ‘motored’ – if that ’s even a viable word in this context – back to the bottom. I’d only been in it a matter of seconds and already I was converted and transfixed, even obsessed with Fuso’s inbuilt gauge-based video game ‘claw back my range’. Well, it’s not an inbuilt game as such but it’s about as addictive as teletennis was in 1982.


Photo: The six batteries are mounted saddlebag style with protective frames around them. On eCanter 2.0 they’ll be inside the frame rails.


Photo: eCanter with the box body in the more familiar blue.

We could go again and again, as many times as we liked until the time ran out. The hill loop or the 3.6km long high-speed track. Every time was equally impressive. If this is what 100% of available torque from the first engine revolution feels like, then where do we sign up?

But why this truck, why is it the ‘meteor?’
Well, that ’s simple. The eCanter is the first series produced battery electric commercial vehicle. Yes, its first release of 500 units is being staged around the world with surgical precision, the key determiners being suitability of application (metro delivery) and continuity of component supply – batteries being the narrow-neck in the supply chain currently; but nonetheless, series produced it is. As outgoing Fuso CEO Mark Llistosella said on his recent trip to Auckland, “ We have to start somewhere”. Like the meteor that rendered our omnipotent reptilian predecessor mammal tucker, the impact of the eCanter will spread rapidly. Already, as we pen these words, customers in parts of Japan, the US (including UPS), and Europe (including DHL) have commenced their journey to the threeyear mark (approx) at which point their increased outlay for eCanter over its diesel sibling will cross equilibrium and turn cash-positive, not forgetting the planetary brownie points. That ’s a great payback time in anyone’s eyes, considering Fuso have a 10-year or 300,000km guaranteed life on the batteries. After that they ’re good for 80% functionality, or as current thinking predicts, running your smart house, local Ferris wheel, garage door opener etc. W hat happens to the ugly bits at end of, end of, end of life, no one’s absolutely certain, but worrying about such things has never featured hugely on humanity’s radar – although we are improving.

Talk to project lead for eCanter, Pavan Vishwanath, and you can see the glint in this man’s eye from the crystal balls deep inside his head.

“Our goal is to have this truck the same cost as the diesel equivalent ex-showroom by 2025.” We’d argue that based on the rate of battery development that ’s a pretty safe number. So let ’s have a look at eCanter, where it’s come from, and where it’s going.

There had been prototypes around since 2010, but in 2015 the decision was made to get serious and prepare something for market, all part of the broader revival and shaking off the ‘me-too’ thing. At the 2016 Tokyo Motor Show, Fuso had a pre-production prototype on the stand, looking very lean, although it was only good for about 30km. Come mid last year and eCanter 1.0 was all go with a heap more batteries, 80km/h top speed, 100km range, 7.5 tonne GVM, and a four tonne payload. On top of that Fuso announced a whole new bloodline E-FUSO, for the BEV arm of the business. The eCanter is powered by six 360-volt batteries in parallel, hanging as saddlebags on the chassis. It still has a prop shaft and a differential.


Photo: The eCanter dash


Photo:  The battery level and range meter on the central digital display. You can claw back range with intelligent driving.

The selection of batteries is all about compatibility. They ’re taken straight from the Daimler electric car programme, obviating the need for safety and compliance testing. In regard to range, Vishwanath says the range is conservative and a safe average.

“Irrespective of the application you use, our trucks reach 100km. The are some applications where our trucks have shown they can go 160km.” Remember, this is an electric truck so everything counts, not just payload and how hard you drive it – heaters, stereos, flashing your lights at your mates – all add up. They might be the answer to road rage. Tooting your horn at every car that does something to piss you off might be costly at the end of the day.

The payload of four tonne includes the body, but remember most other daily mechanical running costs are down the toilet, and Jacinda will love you here in New Zealand so RUC won’t be an issue for a while. And as for the 80km/h top speed? eCanter’s intended to be a city girl. That ’s its turf, so it doesn’t matter a jot. If you’re into high-volume, light-weight transport, then you’d be forgiven for booking Christmas in the Maldives on the back of an eCanter buying spree.


Photo: The whizz-bang box that does some magic to make the truck go...or for you techies... the DC-DC convertor and Power Distribution Unit (PDU). Orange cables are high voltage.


Photo: The DC CHAdeMO fast charger and slow charger.

CO2 savings from the little jewel is what people outside the industry want to know about and that equates to 16 tonnes per year over the oil burning equivalent. As we’ve reported previously, that ’s the CO2 munching capability of a park the size of Rangitoto, so not to be sneezed at. Put a thousand eCanters in the city loop and the Mission Bay Schnauzer’s going to be panting a whole lot less on the morning stroll. Safety’s something there’s always a lot of talk about with regard to BEVs. The eCanter’s batteries in the 1.0 model are guarded with a heavy framework even though there’s been no fire in any crash testing to date. At the time the batteries were developed, Daimler handed them over to the German government for independent testing; again there were no issues with product integrity. Obviously in a truck carrying a tare weight penalty, having heavy frames to protect batteries is not ideal, and putting them inside the frame rails would be an obvious solution. Enter the scene eCanter 2.0 next year. eCanter 1.0, the one we drove in Japan, was always a ‘start ’, and model 2.0 will bring with it some significant improvements. Firstly, as we said above, the batteries move inside the chassis rails, increasing the safety further and reducing the need for a jungle gym around them. This will be possible due to the loss of the old prop shaft and diff as per a conventional truck, replaced with an integral e-motor/axle. On both counts you claw back weight. The Power Distribution Unit (PDU) will be encompassed in the batteries also. How much weight will the 2.0 will save? They ’re not letting that one out just yet, but according to Vishwanath it will also come with a 180km range.

A positive future for battery evolution
Of course the cornerstone of future electric mobility is – at this stage – the battery. R&D in this field will be the buzz for the next iteration of our land-based transport history, and trends of recent show much progress. Battery boffins talk a whole new lingo compared with all of us purveyors of particulate. To them there are two key KPIs in the forefront of their minds. The first is Watt-hours per kilogram (W h/kg) – in other words, how much grunt your battery delivers per kilogram of weight. According to Vishwanath that figure today stands at 140. Fuso (Daimler) see that figure at 240 by 2021. That ’s a hefty jump. The other KPI is of course cost. Currently the price per kilowatt hour (kWh) per battery package stands at about 175 Euro (NZ$296). In 2021 they ’re predicting that figure to be around 75 Euro (NZ$127).

We must not forget the laws of supply and demand in all of this. Global demand for batteries already far outstrips the ability to supply. As supply creeps northward, pricing should be affected. Between now and 2025, $50bn US is being invested in gigafactories (places that make fancy batteries), and even by 2020 lithium-ion battery production will have increased 521% on 2016 figures. Of course, most of this growth comes courtesy of China, which appears to be on a crusade in regard to BEVs.

What of the future?
Daimler is investing heavily in BEV technology, partly due to a belief in the direction (don’t knock them, Karl got it right last time around – they have cred), and partly to keep China in check. Having said that, being a colossus, they have enough in the war chest to back a couple of nags and in that regard their hydrogen programme is certainly not left wanting. Vishwanath says the battery electric case for the small metro delivery vehicle is strong and it currently sits well inside the viability matrix. He said in the next four years research will centre on three key areas. Firstly, cell chemistry with solidstate, metal-air, and lithium-sulphur, with a maximum 1000 volts, a cell-specific energy of 375Wh/kg and a reduced cost as per above. Secondly, a 800 to 1000-volt-based e-motor integrating the reduction gearbox and differential for increased weight saving and efficiency. Thirdly, infrastructure. “Already today the limitation is on the infrastructure side, not the vehicle. Charging guns available are 45 to 50kW and the vehicle can take 150kW. The vehicle is ready, but the infrastructure is not ready,” Vishwanath says.

Medium-duty trucks hold a slightly more tenuous position on the outer fringe of viability. Having said that, the E-FUSO MDT unveiled at the Tokyo Motor Show last year, able to carry 11 tonne with a range of 350km, is due for local ( Japan) release in 2023, and demonstrates how hard Fuso continue to push the R&D teams.

So why is eCanter the nemesis for all diesels?
We’ve realised in recent years just how much energy is encompassed in a tank of diesel. After nine minutes of filling it’ll shift 50 tonne at 90km/h for 600km, without fuss. Saying it’s past its use-by date is one thing, replicating it is another. But what eCanter does is change the perception. There’s a generation of drivers coming who will start their careers in silence, accelerating to highway speed at maximum GVM, like a car. They won’t take kindly to being ‘promoted’ on to the line haul unit with abysmal performance and needing to be filled with smelly, greasy, filthy crap. What eCanter and those like it to come will do is put incredible heat on HDT research and development teams to come up with something...and quick. The hydrogen hybrid may yet find its niche, but one thing is clear, OEMs are on notice. Fifteen years from now, the performance expectations on the part of owners, drivers, and BEV road users in regard to line haul trucks will be a quantum leap ahead of where they are now.

eCanter and Godzone?
New Zealand Trucking magazine talked to Fuso New Zealand managing director Kurtis Andrews in Japan recently about when we might see eCanter gliding around here. “MFTBC [Mitsubishi Fuso Truck and Bus Corporation] is still in its customer evaluation phase to ensure true reliability out in the real world. This is happening in the USA, Europe and in Japan. We would certainly like to get our hands on some eCanters yesterday, however we also completely understand the programmes MFTBC runs to ensure the reliability of the FUSO product. We think New Zealand’s renewable energy generation makes a great story for eCanter; hopefully the decision makers do too.”

And when they do arrive? “Stock will be limited, due to the worldwide demand that is currently being experienced on EVs. At this stage our focus is on getting some stock on the ground. Initially, it is likely that vehicles will be closely managed by FNZ and we will need to assess the sales strategy when we get closer to the launch of this vehicle.”

Roll on sparky!