How smart trailers could give trucking a clean, electrified boost

One of the most ubiquitous sights on the road is an 18-wheel truck. These large, loud vehicles are a prolific presence on America’s interstates, and are made up of two big components: the tractor, which does the pulling and is where the driver is, and the trailer, where the stuff goes. 

In an effort to clean up the relatively large emissions that come from this part of the transportation sector, some companies are working on electric tractors that can pull trailers: Freightliner has a model called the eCascadia, Tesla has its Semi, Volvo its VNR, and others are working on it, too. But a relatively new company called Range Energy is focusing on the trailer itself, equipping it with batteries, a motor, and other intelligence. The trailer can be paired with a tractor burning diesel, or an electric one, like one of those eCascadias. 

Currently, there are about 3.5 million trailers in the United States, according to a company called ACT Research.

Range Energy is led by Ali Javidan, an early Tesla employee and veteran of Google and Zoox, the autonomous car company now owned by Amazon. Javidan also brings something else to the table: experience towing things. “I’ve always been around equipment, cars, trucks, stuff like that,” he says. “A few of my uncles had car dealerships, mechanic shops, lots of land in Sacramento. And so growing up, one of my first experiences driving was towing cars from the dealership to the service center, or moving boats around the farm, or things like that.” 

So while he points out that he has “very, very limited time in a class-8 tractor trailer,” which is a big 18-wheeler, he adds that he has “lots of towing empathy.” 

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Range’s RA-01 product looks like a regular trailer—typically a big, boxy, and boring presence on the road—but has some key changes. There’s a motor that turns one of the axles at the back of the trailer. That motor gets the power it needs from an onboard battery pack, which isn’t inside the trailer (where it would interfere with cargo space) but is below it. There’s also what Javidan refers to as “smart kingpin.” A kingpin on a big 18-wheel truck is the point where the trailer connects to the tractor. What makes the Range Energy kingpin different from a regular kingpin is that it senses what the tractor is doing. “It’s a real-time measurement of how hard the tractor is pulling,” Javidan says.

Because it gathers this information, the trailer can be “kind of like an obedient dog on a leash,” he says, with the goal of making the trailer feel “essentially weightless” for the tractor. The trailer wouldn’t ever push the tractor, though. 

The result, according to Range, is that if this trailer is paired with a diesel-burning tractor, that tractor could get around 35 to 40 percent better fuel efficiency. And if it were paired with an electric tractor, it could add about 100 miles of range or more. 

Another benefit potentially arises from what happens when a truck towing a Range trailer goes downhill. That’s because of regenerative braking, which uses the motion from the wheels to charge the battery back up and simultaneously slow the whole rig down. That means that the truck’s brakes get less wear and tear, too. “The second-biggest maintenance item on a trailer is brakes,” he says. (Tires take the top slot.) Plus, Javidan says that the system has a stability boost going downhill, “because we’re dragging from the trailer.” 

The most obvious negative tradeoff that comes with electrifying the trailer is weight. “It adds about 4,000 pounds to the total system,” Javidan says. (A tractor-trailer rig has to stay below 80,000 pounds in total, although an electric tractor gets an additional 2,000 pound allowance.) For trucks hauling something heavy, like soda, this could affect the amount of goods they can transport in one load. But many trucks carrying stuff have “cubed out,” Javidan says—meaning that the truck’s interior space fills up before hitting the maximum weight limit. (Just think about an Amazon box filled packaging around something small, like toothpaste, and you get the idea.) 

Javidan says that they’ll start beta testing next year, with deliveries to customers planned for 2025. “You will start seeing these trailers on the roads in real volumes starting in 2026,” he predicts. 

There’s good reason for regulators and companies to work on cleaning up this transportation sector, both from a climate-change perspective and a public-health one. If you consider buses and medium- and heavy-duty trucks, those big rigs make up just 6 percent of vehicles on the roads in the US, but account for sizable portions of greenhouse gas emissions and nitrogen oxides (NOx). In other words, they are “disproportionately emitting emissions,” says Stephanie Ly, the senior manager of eMobility Strategy and Manufacturing Engagement at the World Resources Institute. 

The NOx emissions have “major public health impacts,” she says. Exposure to this diesel-heavy industry has serious ramifications for people, with repercussions like “years of life lost” as well as “asthma, cancer, infertility, and so many other negative effects, particularly for those that live nearest to high-traffic truck centers,” she says. And these groups, Ly adds, “are primarily communities of color, and communities that are lower income, or have less access to different types of employment, so they’re especially vulnerable.”

With Range Energy’s plan to electrify the trailer, Ly notes that “it’s absolutely fascinating what they are proposing.” That said, just as there are multiple companies working on creating electric tractors that do the pulling, other firms also are working on electrifying the trailer, too. ConMet eMobility, ZF, and Einride all represent potential competitors for Range. 

“I will say in the trucking sector, there’s quite a bit of brand loyalty within the supply chain,” Ly adds. In other words, any new player might have something of a long haul ahead of them as they try to pull onto the highway, get into the right gear, and travel down that open road.