Firm drives into e-truck niche

Russ Mitchell
Los Angeles Times

San Francisco — Chanje’s vision sounds a lot like Tesla’s: electric vehicles recharged via clean rooftop solar power.

But the new company has no interest in the automobile market. Instead, it’s entering what it believes to be a lucrative niche in medium-duty electric trucks.

Few such trucks exist. Most medium-duty electric trucks are internal-combustion vehicles hand-converted to run on electric motors and batteries.

Chanje’s trucks are not concept vehicles or prototypes. They’re ready for sale, and the Los Angeles company plans to begin selling or leasing them within weeks.

“We decided, let’s show up when we’re ready to go to market,” said Bryan Hansel, founder and chief executive.

He wouldn’t get specific on pricing, but contends that monthly lease amounts will be “at parity” with leases for diesel-engine competitors once lower maintenance costs and net fuel savings are figured in. He said buyers of such trucks consider price and financial return above all other considerations.

The firm’s plans got a boost this week with the announcement of a deal with Ryder, one of the nation’s largest medium-duty truck fleet management companies. Ryder will buy trucks from Chanje, then lease and service them through its extensive network. Leases will include fleet deals and one-off rentals to customers who want to try out the electric trucks.

There are about 7 million medium-duty trucks in the United States, including UPS step vans and snack-food delivery trucks, and about 500,000 are sold each year, said Antti Lindstrom, an analyst at IHS Markit.

Chanje intends to ride what it sees as the increasing popularity of electric powertrains. The big risk for the company, Hansel acknowledges, is “how fast people will make that transition.”

The company’s future depends not only on the U.S. market, but the market for electric trucks in China. Chanje is 49 percent owned by Hong Kong-based FDG, a maker of battery cells, battery packs and vehicles in China. Already, FDG has sold a couple of thousand Chanje vehicles in China, Hansel said, under the brand name Chang Jiang.

Those vehicles, built in a 4 million-square-foot factory in Hangzhou, China, are shuttle buses. But the underlying platform on all Chanje vehicles was designed to be easily lengthened or shortened to accommodate vehicles of different lengths and body styles.

The trucks Chanje plans to sell in the U.S. are smaller than the big-rig, semitruck cabs that Tesla intends to build. Those trucks, which Tesla is expected to announce next month, will reportedly come with some self-driving capability and will encounter skepticism in trucking circles that batteries can efficiently power trucks that big.

Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk has also hinted at a pickup in Tesla’s future, but nothing about a medium-duty entry.

The first few hundred trucks Chanje sells will be imported from the Hangzhou plant. But the company eventually plans to important kits from China and assemble them in the U.S., first in the West and, if things go well, then in the Midwest and the East Coast. Chanje is now combing Western states for a manufacturing site.

Although a startup, Chanje’s roots go back to a company called Smith Electric, which began building electric trams in the 1920s. It later supplied electric ice cream trucks, electric milk trucks and other delivery vehicles, but not in large numbers.

In 2009, under Hansel, the company was consolidated and based in Kansas City, where it tried to commercialize medium-size electric trucks. By 2015, it had ceased operations.

“This is a real interesting evolution for this company,” said Mike Ramsey, auto industry analyst at Gartner. “They broke into this market a bit too soon. But they had a model that really makes sense.”

That model is to sell into the delivery market, where routes typically run 50-70 miles a day, well within an electric battery’s range. Range on current Chanje vehicles is about 100 miles.