Auto Tech

Komatsu is developing all-electric excavators

The Japanese heavy-equipment manufacturer could start mass-producing battery-powered diggers as soon as 2023.

Noisy, smoke-belching heavy equipment could soon become a thing of the past.

Electric vehicles may not work for all drivers in every application, but they are the future. As battery technology advances and companies figure out how to improve our charging infrastructure, EVs are going to become a viable transportation option for more and more motorists. But the world's streets and highways aren't the only places where electric power can prove its worth. On Monday, Bloomberg reported that Komatsu Ltd., Asia's leading manufacturer of construction equipment has partnered with Proterra Inc., a company that manufacturers electric buses and battery packs, to build electrically powered excavators.

Proterra will supply Komatsu with various components including batteries and peripherals. Later this year, the Japanese firm plans to begin testing small and midsize excavators fitted with electric powertrains. Assuming everything goes to plan, commercial production could begin in 2023 or '24.

In the automotive world, the benefits of electric powertrains are numerous. EVs provide instant torque for snappy off-the-line getup, they have way fewer moving parts than internal-combustion engines, electric motors are also nearly silent and produce zero tailpipe emissions. Many of these upsides would also apply construction equipment, especially that last one. Governments around the world are pushing to reduce carbon emissions, and the phasing out of smoke-belching heavy equipment could make an appreciable difference in cleaning the environment up, especially in urban areas.

Nothing is perfect, though, and electrically powered vehicles have their downsides. Battery packs are heavy and expensive, charging times can be lengthy and the infrastructure is lacking in many areas. Driving range is also an issue, especially in cold conditions. Whether Komatsu's new crop of electric excavators will work as well as its existing models remains to be seen. And there are other questions to be asked: How do you charge a backhoe or a bulldozer when it's out on a job site, for example, potentially miles away from an electrical outlet? But if nothing else, this move is a step in the right direction.

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