18 June 2023 |

Size matters


Americans love big cars. 

Which is a big problem. It’s a big problem when it comes to gas guzzlers and their emissions footprint; many big cars will be sold in 2023 and will still be on the road in 2033 and even 2044. 2035 gans car sale bans won’t change that. Big cars are also a big problem when it comes to road fatalities. It doesn’t take a sophisticated understanding of physics to appreciate what happens when big vehicles collide with small ones (or, god forbid, people). 

And it’s a problem when it comes to EVs, too. Simply put, a 9,000 pound EV Hummer isn’t that great for the environment. In a full lifecycle emissions analysis, it might still eek out as better than an internal combustion engine vehicle, which will burn ~500 gallons of gas annually (on average). 

But, like all EVs, big EVs require a certain amount of environmentally-unfriendly mining to provide materials for their batteries. The bigger the EV, the bigger the battery needed, and the bigger the upstream environmental impact of mining. 

Big EVs thus inevitably mean there will be a lot of underutilized battery capacity sitting in American garages. Capacity that could have serviced multiple small cars, or could have been used as energy storage for the grid rather than powering something as big as a Rivian, that EV Hummer, or Tesla’s Cybertruck. Further, bigger EVs and their battery packs are less efficient uses of electricity, measured in kWhs required to move a vehicle 100 miles:

Size isn’t all that matters. But it matters a great deal. (Source here)

Finally, big EVs are unnecessary. Even if you need a truck for work, it doesn’t need to be big. Most big trucks don’t have bigger truck beds:

In sum, in most ways, large EVs are an affront to a critical mineral and green-electricity-constrained world. 

Which equals here. Several auto OEMs are cropping up to make smaller, lightweight vehicles that will (ideally) still appeal to American buyers. 

This week, TELO Trucks emerged from stealth and debuted a decidedly small EV truck concept. The truck is only 152 inches long, compared to 184 inches for a Tesla Model 3 and 216 for the EV HummerThe company also raised $1.4M in pre-seed funding at a $10M post to build out its team, which is already full of alumns from Tesla and other venerable transportation-focused industries. 

I had the pleasure of meeting CEO and Founder Jason Marks a few weeks ago and exchanging some questions with him before the launch. Our Q&A (with my thoughts woven in) follows.

Sizing up the big opportunity for small trucks

Q: Lots of American OEMs want to make EVs, and frankly, many are struggling (Ford, Rivian, etc.) What gives you the confidence to enter this market? What sparked the desire?

Jason: For one, there’s a huge hole in the market for what we’re providing. EVs are getting bigger and bigger, and that’s not meeting the needs of a world that’s size constrained in many ways, nor is it all that helpful in getting us “vision zero” (an initiative to reduce road fatalities). 

We also have a massive advantage by starting now. EV companies have figured out how to make motors, inverters, drivetrains, BMSs, and most of the components. We have expertise in batteries, safety, packaging, and design; that’s all we have to focus on. We don’t have to build it all. We will leverage contract manufacturing for a large portion of our vehicle. That wasn’t possible five years ago. 

Further, supply chains are still sorting themselves out, so it’s better to be building than shipping. We don’t have multi-billion-dollar factories that we have to retool. We can do things right from ground zero, with all the knowledge of what’s happened over the last 15 years and the last 150 years.

Nick: Makes perfect sense to me on the mission and on contracting out a lot of the actual manufacturing work. That said, keep reading for more on the battery and charging components of the car’s envisioned ‘tech stack’ below.

Q: One thing that stands out to me is that smaller EVs = more efficient use of battery capacity (and thus material inputs). How else would you elaborate on the climate benefits / general benefits of smaller EV trucks?

Jason: Smaller EVs mean more efficiency in both in terms of aerodynamics (smaller surface area) and rolling resistance (less normal force). That means smaller batteries go longer distances (fewer battery materials) and fewer materials overall. It also means fewer tire particles in the roadways and waterways. Another considerable benefit is safety: trucks are responsible for 3x more pedestrian fatalities than smaller cars because they’re large and have poor visibility. We’re thinking about occupant and pedestrian safety from the get-go.

Nick: I like how Jason added fewer materials overall, not just battery materials. Aluminum is an under-discussed metal the manufacture of which contributes ~3% annual global greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing the complete material intensity of any product (when plausible) is laudable. The same goes with the tire particles component; we don’t talk about this much either, but tire pollution from cars is, by some measures, an even bigger problem than particulate tailpipe emissions. Oh, and the safety of humans is good too, you know!

Q: Americans love big cars, particularly trucks. While a climate tech audience is likely aligned on the value of smaller vehicles (and to reduce road fatalities), what gives you confidence that buyers will spring for smaller EVs?

Jason: Our preorder numbers are a good indication. Before we started, we surveyed hundreds of people in major cities, and there’s a want, if not a need, for these types of vehicles. Automakers just don’t build them. 

Nick: The company logged north of 1,000 preorders (including one of mine) a few days post-release. How many of those translate to purchased vehicles down the road is difficult to predict; the pro-order price is affordable to me, although the projected truck price is not (yet), haha. 

It would also be a bit misleading to say automakers aren’t building them. Major U.S. OEMs may not be. But competitors like Canoo making smaller electric vans and trucks. And smaller EV concepts sell well in elsewhere globally. 

A fitting photo of the TELO Truck concept given how much time I spent on the beach of late

Q: With whom are you working on the battery packs? Will they be made domestically so they fit into regulatory frameworks/incentives?

Jason: We will build our skateboard, which hosts our battery, safety, and packaging technology. The remainder of the vehicle will be contract manufactured. Based on Forrest’s extensive background in EV battery packs, we have our own battery IP for our pack, harkening back to the original Tesla Roadster mules. We will abide by the Inflation Reduction Act! 

Nick: Forrest here refers to Jason’s co-founder and CTO, Forrestt North, who was early at Tesla, where he helped develop some of their first batteries. Makes sense that TELO will focus on differentiating their battery design and let others do the rest, manufacturing-wise. 

On the charging front, Jason noted their vehicles will be NACS native (which refers to Tesla’s North American Charging Standard) from the get-go. Over the past month alone, OEMs as large as Ford and GM have announced NACS compatibility for their EVs, so this is no surprise. Tesla’s standard is becoming a defacto national standard. Jason also noted they’ll include CCS adapters, giving customers even more fast charging options.

Q: Post-pre-seed, what’s next on the immediate roadmap? What’s the focus for H2 2023?

Jason: Our H2 focus is on a driving prototype! 

Nick: I’m excited about the ambition, but skeptical we see this before 2024.

Q: How do you measure success? Aspirationally, what do you want to be true in 2030? 

Jason: We’re extremely milestone based. Every phase of our company has a technology, market, and funding milestone. We want to be delivering over 100,000 vehicles per year by 2030.

Nick: If they hit that goal, mark my words, I’ll DEFINITELY buy one. 

Q: One more wild question… thoughts on battery swapping? Ample, another Bay Area company, is making strides there. Will TELO Trucks include battery swapping? 

Jason: Haha, how did I know that was coming… there’ll be future updates on that topic, don’t worry! 

Q: From whom would you like to hear? What actions should folks take if they’re interested? Where should folks follow along with the story?

Join us on Discord to follow along! Place your preorder on our website. Join the mini truck party!

The net-net

Don’t let the niceties of the words ‘mini truck party’ and the truck’s cuteness fool you. This is a decidedly masochistic business to try to build. It makes me respect Jason and team tremendously, and I think they’re a bit crazy, which we need more of! 

All that might be the masochist in me talking, too. Going the OEM route is hard, no matter how much manufacturing you outsource. It’s a highly cash-intensive business, and your success is out of your own hands at many steps along the way (e.g., during years of testing and approvals).

Further, to return to what is perhaps the most crucial question for the company, do Americans want small EVs? Especially trucks?  

I hope so. I preordered my TELO truck. But, even beyond the uphill battles TELO faces to make its first car, I’m not 100% sure that many of my other compatriots are interested in cute, small trucks. The best-selling vehicle in the world in Q1 2023 was the Tesla Model Y, which is still a pretty big car. 

Hope I’m wrong!