eTruck Bringing New Spin to Electric Truck Market

July 9, 2024

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While OEMs all over the world are trying to solve the decarbonization issue, a family-owned and female-led company has come up with an interesting solution to significantly reduce carbon emissions from the commercial transport sector.

Housed in just one building in Omaha, Nebraska, eTruck Transportation is run by the Knudsen Family, with wife Judith as CEO and owner, Russell as president, and their son Andrew, who oversees sales, marketing and design. The trio has been diligently working on the eTruck solution since 2012, but their story — and their passion for vehicles — begins decades ago.

The Back Story

As the son of a farmer growing up in rural Iowa, Russell worked not only on the family’s cattle farm, but also on cars in his spare time.

“I always worked with cars when I was younger on the farm — changing taillights, putting automatic transmission shifters down on the center console, pipes underneath, different wheels — we did all that kind of stuff,” says Russell.

But the real spark came when Russell and his wife took a trip to the LA Auto Show in 1980 after getting a significant commission check from his employers, which he promised to use to buy her any car at the show. Judith took an instant liking to the Excalibur, a car styled after the 1928 Mercedes-Benz SSK. Instead of signing the papers to take the car home, Russell decided he could build one of his own, which he did back in Iowa with a friend who owned a body shop.

This first attempt at a custom car, called the Baroque, the first custom model for Knudsen Automotive, which was founded in 1978. A few years later, GM’s Pontiac brand spiked interest by Russell and his crew to design a version of the Firebird that would turn heads and raise pulses. The result was the Tojan, a revved-up version fitted with a V-8 and a twin-turbocharging kit that would muster around 800 hp and deliver a top speed of 206 mph.

“Anything we did was totally our own design, our own work, our own everything,” says Russell.

Back to the Present

Fast forward four decades and the Knudsen family is at it again. As an outlier in the vehicle space, Russell and his wife decided to take a look at the electric vehicle (EV) market and give it a little twist. Rather than build a new vehicle from the ground up, Judith came up with a concept to go even greener by recycling used Class 8 trucks and turning them into battery-electric versions that can drive from coast to coast without a charge.

“Everything’s unique in the concept,” explained Russell. “We simply put pieces in it from the hood forward and everything else bolts right back. The transmission does not come out, the driveshaft stays — the tires, wheels, axles, everything. All the electronics in the truck remains the same except for the system that controls the batteries to the electric motor. We’re quite different in a lot of ways, but we’re saving money for the customer.”

Starting with a used Freightliner Class 8 — chosen by Judith for their abundance in the market — the Knudsen’s crew removes the monster diesel engine and swaps it with considerably smaller four-cylinder Rolls Royce diesel, a generator, an electric motor, and some battery packs. The new diesel, which produces a fraction of emission compared to its big brother, simply runs the generator at a very low rpm to charge the batteries, which then drive the electric motor attached to the drivetrain. In essence, the smaller diesel engine acts as a power generator for the electric motor, removing the need to stop and charge the truck along the route.

“The electric motor takes the place of the diesel engine, which gets electricity from the batteries,” explains Russell. “And the batteries get charged by the small diesel Rolls Royce engine. So, we’re going to cut about 75% of the fuel costs and about the same in emissions — the diesel is basically idling.”

This new process and its pricing results in two semi tractors or three straight trucks for the same price of a new battery-electric truck, with the same benefits, according to Russell.

The concept certainly succeeds in solving the range issue related to electrifying the trucking industry, something OEMs are constantly trying to resolve. And while there will still be emissions emitted from the small diesel engine, it will be considerably lower than what is currently being used by an overwhelming majority of freight haulers.

“The downside of most of these EVs is they can’t get any distance; they can’t haul anything,” says Russell. “You need three trailers to take one trailer’s worth of stuff, weight wise.”

eTruck Transportation will also be offering 100% battery-electric Class 8 and Class 6 versions, which are slated to start production within the year, with many already standing in line. But in most cases, the Knudsen’s system will be shipped to partner shops to be installed in the trucks, or to the fleets themselves, after getting a course in how to install the system by Judith’s crew in Omaha.

“We don’t put the system in the truck, we build a system that’s ready for installation. We’ll show them how to do the installation. But once you’ve done it three times, you can do it blindfolded,” says Russell.

eTruck also offers an option to give the used truck a facelift before it starts its second life as an EV. Using the creativity well that they previously dipped into to come up with the Baroque and the Tojan, the team developed an aerodynamic and futuristic-looking shell that can be easily swapped out during the engine installation process.

“A guy in England helped us come up with a design,” explains Russell. “We said we wanted to see a futuristic railroad train tractor that jumped the rails and went down the highway.”

Investors Lining Up

While the business was started with a check signed by CEO Judith, the ongoing development of the vehicles has been powered by private investors as well. Some know the Knudsens from previous ventures, while others have learned of them through word of mouth. One such investor did a little homework before she decided to join, visiting a local truck stop to gather some insider intel.

“She got up one morning, drove down to the local truck stop and sat in the coffee shop offering free coffee for any driver willing to offer their opinion,” said Russell. “She had a couple dozen people come by that day, and when she asked if they would they be interested in the truck, not one person said they wouldn’t buy from me.”

After her experiment, the investor was hooked, and a check made its way to the eTruck HQ via Fedex a few days later.

Next Steps

With a vision steered directly for the future, the Knudsens are looking to ramp up production, as well as personnel in the next five years. They are projecting sales to quickly jump between now and their next full year of production, with the workforce and facilities increasing as well. The driving factor, according to Russell, is the size of the overall market, especially when you consider the number of used trucks that are able to be converted with the eTruck system. The company is currently taking orders and interested parties can find out more at the eTruck website.