Hitch your wagon to a star
By Nick Van Osdol
Technically the subject line for this email should have said hitch your star to a wagon. In a world where everyone focuses on electric engines and switching fuel sources, Range Energy is building an electrified trailer. They’re turning the wagon into the star.
Nor are they just putting a battery pack in the trailer. They’re building a trailer that assists with propulsion (one might even go so far as to say drives), creating torque and traction.
Notably, the utility of an electric trailer isn’t confined to use with an electric tractor. The first electric trucks are just starting to eek out onto the road; it will be a while before Tesla Semis or competitor trucks haul freight up and down the interstate.
Until then, Range Energy’s electric trailers can also hook up to the diesel tractors we’ve all gotten used to seeing, offering 40%+ fuel efficiency gains (and corresponding emissions reductions) in the process. That’s a big win if it works, seeing as diesel demand isn’t forecast to flip negative for another decade or so in the U.S. still otherwise:
Whether in rail transport or on roads, innovations are desperately needed to accelerate the shift away from diesel. That’s why I get so excited about technologies like Range’s, which offer something unique from the EV and renewable energy technologies that hog coverage.
To go deeper, I recently sat down with Ali Javidan, the CEO of Range Energy. The team he’s built at Range combines decades of experience in electrification, including at companies like Tesla. Let’s shift down a gear and take a closer look at the technology.
In our conversation, Ali noted that when most folks hear about what he’s up to at Range, they say “Oh, that’s cool, you’re putting a battery pack in a trailer.”
That would be a nice start, as it could help extend the range of an electric tractor and offer other benefits like more even weight distribution for battery packs.
But Range is building much more than that. Their prototype electric trailers – which are already out gathering road miles – create torque and propel themselves forward in concert with the tractor to which they’re hitched.
That sounds like it might require a newfangled data connection and come with all the perils and pitfalls of full self-driving technology in cars. That’s not Range’s ambition. They’re designing their trailers so that their torque request is calculated using measurements from existing interface points, such as the kingpin, which connects the tractor and the trailer. Since the trailer is hitched to and following a tractor that’s steering, things are simplified a bit compared to full self-driving. Based on the tractor’s behavior, the trailer can respond with torque in-kind.
Part of why Range Energy wants to work around the data connection and only rely on standard connections is because they want their technology to work with many different tractors. Relying on a non-standard data connection would mean working with many disparate data formats and protocols, most of which the tractor OEMs want to control and own. Range’s approach ensures near-universal compatibility without having to modify the tractor.
Their electric trailers will also employ the same regen technology that’s been around in cars like the Prius for the past decade, which turns thermal brake energy into extra electricity. Added to the torque generated from the battery pack, Range sees their trailers as a versatile decarbonization tool whether paired with diesel, electric, or any other type of tractor.
Who’s down to hook up?
The self-propelled trailer concept isn’t 100% new. According to Ali, it has been used and explored in niche military and industrial applications. But no one has attempted to bring it to mass markets.
Nor has the industry as a whole changed that much in decades. There have been some efficiency gains over the years, whether via better bearings, improved aerodynamics, etc… Still, this is a ripe area for disruption. And electric engines or hydrogen-powered ones aren’t the only avenues for said disruption.
For Range, the most critical question is whether truck drivers will enjoy the experience or at least be at ease. Truck drivers are an underloved, underappreciated set of essential workers in the U.S.; towing a trailer is a serious (and dangerous) business.
As a driver, you need a lot of confidence that your trailer is hitched safely and isn’t ‘at odds’ with your tractor for some reason. The goal is harmony, a smooth ride. As a driver, you also develop a lot of skill at ‘feeling’ the trailer behind you. If you have a trailer that’s propelling itself, it’s vital that it not feel like it’s gone entirely. You still want to feel it. You’d prefer it to feel like an empty trailer rather than a full one.
Ideally, if the tractor and trailer are working in concert, Ali envisions that their trailers will still feel like they’re ‘there,’ but will feel less heavy (and certainly not controlling the tractor).
Beyond driver confidence, it’s also key that the trailers inspire (and ultimately increase) confidence for fleet and logistics operations. One benefit of the electric trailer is that you can still drive with it even if its battery is down to 0%. Range’s trailers still offer benefits (e.g., their ability to harness thermal energy from the brakes) even if they aren’t charged overnight. This regenerative braking can still reduce fuel consumption by 10-15%
Similarly, the fact that they can work with a diesel truck offers fleet operators an opportunity to ease into electrification. It’s not that the owners and operators of these businesses don’t care about decarbonization. According to Ali, they’re extremely concerned about sustainability and future-proofing their businesses. But the most essential KPI is still making deliveries on time, over and over again, reliably. As Ali noted on our podcast, his team always asks themselves:
“How can we make sure [our product] works with the electric future we’re all anticipating, and how can we make it work today so we can tiptoe into said electric future gracefully.”
There are many potential benefits of Range Energy’s technology. Reducing diesel miles on roads is perhaps the most obvious impact area. That said, there are more. One example is reducing maintenance costs. With the stated goal of making a Range Energy trailer feel empty when towed vs. feeling like it has 40,000 lbs of freight, their trailers should eventually help prolong the life of electric tractors and their batteries, too.
Perhaps most importantly, I think Range Energy’s approach is critical for climate tech innovation more broadly. We’re decades away from deep penetration with electric tractors. 98% of trucks on the road still run on diesel. While innovating and accelerating the transition to electric tractors is key, asking oneself, “What else could we change?” is crucial too.
Said differently, whether it’s EVs or conventional renewable energy technologies, sometimes enough people are working on a problem already. And there is no shortage of other levers to pull that can drive climate and economic impact. Whether it’s electrifying trailers or something else that I can’t even imagine, it’s time to think outside the (gear)box.