A look at 'Topsy,' Edison Motors' new diesel-electric vocational prototype

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Chace Barber, the founder behind Canada-headquartered Edison Motors, has been dubbed by my colleague Alex Lockie the "millennial TikTok-er out to revolutionize log hauling in a '62 Kenworth." Barber named that old truck "Carl," and he'd retrofit it as a diesel-electric proof of concept that seemed to me to be aimed at fitting a crucial piece of the electric-truck puzzle for over-the-road haulers -- on-board power-generation capability, absent from most battery electric trucks available today. 

Yet as Barber elaborated in that story and, later, in our Overdrive Radio episode excerpting some of Voice of Go(r)d podcaster, writer and longtime trucker Gord Magill's talk with Barber about his efforts, Barber wasn't planning to target OTR operations with his version of a battery electric truck, backed up by a Caterpillar C9 engine for that on-board charging. At that time, Barber had only deployed the design as a retrofit to older-model tractors. Though this locomotive-style design might yield 5%-10% fuel savings OTR, its best return on investment/real cost savings would be seen by vocational operators, where it might operate fully electric on jobsites, in high-idle city applications ... Or: Log hauling in mountainous regions, where regenerative braking on downgrades would delivery excess charge back to the batteries. 

Now, Edison Motors is out with is its first newly built truck, and they're calling it the Edison L Series, to be available in two-drive-axle/500 kW (as in kilowatt, or 670 hp) and three-drive-axle/750 kW (1,005 hp) variants, with full specs listed for each model on the company website. Their prototype for it -- "Topsy" they call this one -- Barber and company hauled from headquarters in British Columbia recently to a truck and equipment show near Vineland, Ontario, where Magill got a close-up look at the rig.

Edison Motors' 'Topsy' prototype L500 diesel-electric truckTopsy sports a dozer-style cab with a center driver's seat and fold-over passenger seat that doubles as a cup holder.Edison Motors

Behind the Edison Motors prototype above on the trailer is a creation of the host of the fund-raiser car and truck show where Magill saw Topsy in person. That host, Deboss Garage, fashioned that unique unit as "The Shermanator," and Magill aptly calls it a "mutant tank-pickup truck."

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As for Topsy and the Edison L Series production, Barber and company are moving ahead with a variety of purchasing partners to begin producing these units and continuing to learn from the process. I talked to him this morning and he noted near-term plans to build "five-six trucks and then test them over the next two years," to really "get the kinks worked out in real-world applications. Then we’ll be looking at offering sales to the public." 

He doesn't want to make the mistake he feels some other electric-vehicle producers have made, rushing a product to market. "It's probably going to be at least two-three years before we can start selling trucks to the public," he said.

On costs, too, he noted right now building an L Series comes at a price premium of around 30% above the cost of a comparable diesel truck. That 5%-10% OTR efficiency gain puts the payback out five to seven years, thus, yet in vocational applications there's a much greater efficiency gain with this kind of system. Where regenerative braking is high in those mountain log hauling operations, for instance, as much as a 70% efficiency gain could be the reality. With a city application -- gravel trucks or other dumps, for instance, he noted -- a 50% gain could reduce return-on-investment time substantially.   

That's especially the case in Canada, where truckers are paying the liter equivalent of "$8 to $8.50 a gallon" in some areas, he said. 

Get enough customers over time by proving out the technology further, though, and scale-up investment in a bona fide manufacturing facility could reduce price premiums for Edison units substantially in the future, he added. Who knows, but that the 5%-10% efficiency gain over a standard diesel could then prove enough to move even highway owner-ops. 

Edison's overall philosophy around truck production, too, might come as refreshing for owner-operators who've been frustrated by sometimes opaque electronic controls and generally more difficult serviceability of contemporary diesels versus their older counterparts. 

On the Edison website, the company calls the L Series the "easiest to maintain electric truck on the market today," adding:

We consider all the small details. For example: not using huck bolts and using nuts to allow field service of parts. Huck bolts need a torch to remove, regular grade 8 bolts can use a wrench. 

We consider the large things: We promise that no computer system we design will ever go into a dealership to have its code read, all fault codes will be available to the driver with a written description of the fault and trouble shooting hints when possible. 

Every truck will come with a parts list of every single item put into the truck, what store we sourced that part from and the part number of the item. This makes sure that your mechanics can find the right part anytime they need.

Magill's story from the Ontario event gets into more detail, worth checking out, and Barber elucidates the company philosophy, too, in a recent edition of Magill's Voice of Go(r)d podcast, available via this link. Hear parts of Gord's first talk with Barber via this January 2023 edition of Overdrive Radio, too: 

Here's kudos to Barber and Edison for creative thinking and all the work put in, and Magill for bearing witness. Also: Magill found well more than Edison's Topsy prototype at the show. If you're not familiar with the Hayes Trucks manufacturer of yore, get a bit of a history lesson -- and photography of a well-preserved 1966 model Hayes Clipper -- via that story, too.

[Related: The Millennial TikTok-er out to revolutionize log hauling in a 1962 Kenworth]

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