Cummins beats Tesla to the punch by revealing electric semi truck

Diesel engine stalwart shows sleek electric big rig designed for short hauls.

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Cummins may be best-known for producing brawny diesel engines for commercial trucks and light-duty pickups, but it's leaping into the world of EVs with both feet. On Tuesday, the Columbus, Indiana-based company revealed an Urban Hauler Tractor concept that's pure electric. In doing so, Cummins may have stolen a little thunder from Tesla — the Silicon Valley automaker has plans to reveal an electric semi truck of its own in September. 

Designed as a Class 7 semi, the 18,000-pound big rig known as AEOS is designed to move freight locally, over short hauls. It can carry some 44,000 pounds of payload, and its 140-kWh battery pack only takes an hour to charge at a 140-kWh charging station. The fully operational prototype is only tipped to have 100 miles of range, however, so AEOS is definitely a city-oriented cargo solution. (By contrast, reports have Tesla's yet-to-be-revealed rival as producing 200-300 miles of range). Cummins says that by 2020, improvements in battery tech are "expected to reduce" the charge time to 20 minutes.

Being engine experts as opposed to whole vehicle developers, Cummins has wisely tapped the auto industry engineering and development gurus at Roush Industries to help develop the truck, which helps explain how production is planned for as early as 2019. Cummins does not plan to assemble the trucks, but instead views itself as a supplier of the battery and driveline system.

A new electric powertrain is key, but it can't do it all on its own — the AEON ekes out as much range as it can through low-rolling resistance tires and regenerative braking. The company also notes that roof-mounted solar panels could cut consumption even further, and the concept features cameras instead of side mirrors to help reduce aerodynamic drag. (The latter still isn't legal under US law for passenger cars or trucks). 

Interestingly, when it hits the market in a couple of years, Cummins says it plans to offer an extended-range model that leverages one of the company's diesel engines like a generator to charge the battery pack, not unlike a Chevrolet Volt. That solution will stretch range to 300 miles between plugs and still cut emissions versus diesel-hybrid trucks by around 50 percent. 

Tesla may be the highest-profile company looking to break into EVs designed for commercial hauling, but it's far from the only one. Cummins is a company that has been around for nearly 100 years, and this reveal telegraphs the company's intention to wade into battle with a new generation of transportation startups like Nikola Motor Company and electric-bus company Proterra for the future of freight.

First published, July 29. Update Aug. 30: Adds new video.