Power to the truck – the history of electrically driven commercial vehicles

  • Around 1900: wide range of electric vehicles from MMB and DMG
  • Commercial vehicles with wheel-hub motors as early as 1906
  • 1970s to 1990s: the era of experimental vehicles
  • 2016: electric drive on the verge of the breakthrough

Petrol engine, steam power, electric drive – following its invention by Gottlieb Daimler in 1896, the final type of drive for the truck was still uncertain in the first two decades of its existence. The first, ground-breaking diesel-engined trucks from the then still separate companies Daimler and Benz came out in 1923. In the past decades, the brands of Daimler AG and its predecessor companies have developed and tested every conceivable kind of electric drive.

Around 1900: wide range of electric vehicles from MMB and DMG

The company Motorfahrzeug- und Motorenfabrik Berlin-Marienfelde (MMB) embarked on the production of electric vehicles back in 1899. Owned by shareholders and supervisory-board members of Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG), MMB was taken over by DMG in 1902. It later became the Berlin plant of Daimler AG.

It produced electric vehicles under licence from Columbia Automobiles, which was at that time successful in the USA. In addition to passenger cars, MMB manufactured light-duty trucks, buses and fire-fighting vehicles with electric drives. Department stores used electrically powered vans for their deliveries, while hotels transported guests in electrically powered omnibuses. In 1901, MMB's range included commercial vehicles with 350 kg payload, baggage vans with 1000 kg payload, mail cars with up to 1200 kg payload and fire-fighting crew carriers.

The criteria from 1901 are still highly relevant 115 years later

As selection criteria for the type of drive, MMB recommended the following in 1901: "As to whether preference should be given to electric or petrol-engined motor vehicles, we advise that, for urban operation or where the total daily distance is 30 to 40 km and electrical charging stations are available, exclusive preference should be given to the former, the electric drive. Electric vehicles are of less complex construction than those with a petrol drive and have the particular advantage of being quiet and odourless, in addition to being constantly ready for operation." Criteria that, over a century later, sound more relevant than ever.

Commercial vehicles with wheel-hub motors as early as 1906

In 1906, DMG's Austrian subsidiary began using patents of Lohner-Porsche to produce electric and hybrid vehicles with wheel-hub motors. These included small vans and trucks with up to 4000 kg payload. A single battery charge gave the trucks a range of up to 70 km with a top speed of 18 to 20 km/h. In the years that followed, DMG's Berlin plant also manufactured electrically powered fire-fighting vehicles, electric trucks and trolley buses.

1970s to 1990s: the era of experimental vehicles

From the mid 1930s until the 1950s, electric drives reappeared in trolley buses. A landmark vehicle was the OE 302 hybrid bus of 1969. It was followed in the next years and decades by a wide range of different hybrid drives in urban buses. Beginning in 1972, for a quarter of a century Mercedes-Benz produced vans with battery-electric drives as experimental vehicles and prototypes as well as in small volumes. In the 1990s, Mercedes-Benz developed prototypes of the 1117 and 1517 trucks as well as of the Vario 814 D large van with hybrid drive. The breakthrough was not achieved, however, owing to excessive restrictions in relation to weight, range and cost.

After the turn of the millennium, improved battery technologies and electronic controls presented new opportunities for the development of electrically powered commercial vehicles. Examples included urban buses with hybrid drives from North America, Europe and Asia as well as the series-produced Vito E-Cell battery-electric van.

The past ten years have seen the development and, in some cases, series production, likewise on three continents, of trucks with hybrid drives. These include the Freightliner Custom Chassis and Freightliner M2, prototypes of Axor and Econic Hybrid, the series-manufactured Atego Hybrid and, above all, the successful Fuso Canter Eco Hybrid.

2016: electric drive on the verge of the breakthrough

Vehicles with a fuel cell drive are equally to be classed as electric vehicles. The fuel cell generates the electrical on-board power from hydrogen. This is an area of development to which Mercedes-Benz has given a key impetus, such as in 1997 with the NeBus and later with small-scale production of the Citaro F-Cell and Citaro E-Cell Hybrid. Series production of the next generation has been announced. This will be preceded in 2018 by the launch of the battery-electric Citaro E-Cell and Citaro Compact Hybrid. All-electric light-duty trucks already in operation include the Fuso Canter E-Cell.

With the Mercedes-Benz Urban eTruck, the electric drive for heavy-duty commercial vehicles is entering a new phase. 120 years after the truck was invented by Gottlieb Daimler, the cards for the right kind of drive for short-radius distribution trucks are being reshuffled.