Driving tests

How do you drive an electric truck?

What’s different between driving an electric truck and a diesel truck? The majority of drivers would struggle to get an electric truck started without some kind of introduction, so let’s go over the basics.

The first step is to disable the battery isolator switch. This is on the outside of the vehicle and will usually be just behind the cab. Now you can turn the ignition on.

No power can flow if the battery isolation switch is disabled

You’ll need to do a pre-trip inspection, just like for a diesel truck. While you’re doing your inspection, don’t touch any cables that are orange as they are the high voltage cables.

The orange cable takes power from the battery at 400V! There could be several of these, depending on how spread out the battery banks are.

There will be a few other things to check that are not present in diesel trucks (e.g. a separate heater due to the engine not producing any heat that can be used for heating the cab), and there will be some things that are not present (e.g. engine oil). You must check the coolant every day as EVs rely on it to operate at the right temperature.

In this particular configuration, the single electric motor is attached to the driveshaft, but in others, there could be individual motors on the wheel hubs

Assuming you’ve left your truck on charge overnight, you should have a full (or close to full) battery and be ready to go. Bear in mind that extremes of temperature can change the battery’s range.

Remember when getting in or out of the cab that you should use three points of contact.

To start the vehicle follow the manufacturer’s recommendation. This might include holding the ignition switch down or turning the key until the check lights turn off. It may not be possible to start it until you are in neutral or with the footbrake depressed.

Wait for the air pressure to build, otherwise your brakes won’t work.

When you’re ready to go, put it in gear, release the brakes and treat it like any other truck – push the accelerator and it’ll go.

What’s it like to drive?

The instant torque from the engine will mean rapid acceleration from a standing start when unloaded, but this will drop off quickly.

Battery power usage and other metrics should be shown on a screen.

When you accelerate, you could see a graph showing how much power is used (this could be, for example, 150kW and 2000Nm when accelerating, but only a few kW when maintaining speed on a flat road). When braking or coasting, energy will be generated to be fed back into the battery. This is like having light exhaust braking, so you will slow down more quickly than you would expect. You may be able to select higher levels of this power regeneration which will cause you to slow down even more quickly.

The best driving techniques to adopt are SAFED (safe and fuel efficient driving). This means looking ahead to anticipate what’s happening so that you can smooth out your acceleration and braking; every time you accelerate and brake you are wasting momentum.

If you are using auxiliary equipment such as a tail lift, follow the manufacturer’s recommendations as you may need to leave the vehicle switched on to avoid draining the low-voltage batteries.

What are the good things about driving an electric truck?

  • It’s quiet. You hear some electric motor noise, but it’s eerily silent at times, which means you can hear what’s going on around your truck while you’re driving. It means you can do delivery runs much earlier in the morning without disturbing residents.
  • It’s smooth – there’s no vibration from the engine, and the acceleration is seamless.
  • When loading or unloading, there are no fumes.
  • There’s no chance of spilling diesel on your boots when refuelling.
  • There should be less maintenance required as there are fewer moving parts – no engine or gearbox.

What are the bad things about driving an electric truck?

  • The readout for the remaining kilometres is optimistic and it’s likely you’ll run the battery out quicker than you think. If your battery is running out, you’ll need to find a place to recharge, or return to base.
  • The brakes in electric vehicles tend to suffer a lack of feel. As the braking doesn’t initially activate the service brakes, they feel spongy.
  • You have no engine noise to judge your speed by and you’ll find yourself looking at the speedo more frequently, realising you’re doing more than the speed limit and having to adjust back down.
  • It takes longer to charge an electric truck than it does to fill with diesel. This isn’t a problem if you have enough battery power to last you through the day, but could be if you run out and need to charge as you can’t simply pick up a jerry can of electrons and refuel.
  • The batteries weigh more than an engine. In the case of the truck we tried, it was 800kg more. This isn’t huge, but that does mean 800kg of freight you can’t carry.

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Darren is a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists and the NZ Motoring Writers' Guild

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