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Ian Wright takes delegates on a wild ride

When one of the world’s leading EV engineers tells you that the fifteen-litre diesel is here to stay – you know you’re in for a ride.

Tesla co-founder Ian Wright has taken a very different direction to his better known former partner Elon Musk. Where Elon has been a dynamic showman espousing a future based entirely on renewables, Ian Wright has been a rather more pragmatic workhorse, and his view of the world is quite compelling.

ComVec delegates were treated to a detailed look at Wright’s work with Wrightspeed on the opening day of the conference held in Melbourne last week.

Wright didn’t just invite or encourage the audience to get involved, he very deliberately baited them. It didn’t take long before the room packed with Australia’s leading heavy vehicle engineers earned Wright’s respect though.

The questions asked, and opinions expressed, were obviously those of very well-informed and sharp minds, so the interchange was entertaining and the insights were fast and furious.

In recent years, under the Wrightspeed banner, Ian Wright has been developing what he describes as range extended EV powertrains. The range extender is a multi-fuel turbine generator, the Wrightspeed Fulcrum; power is driven to each wheel exclusively through its own whisper-quiet electric motor – combustion power never drives the wheels.

Where this gets particularly interesting is when Wright talks about market share and application. He’s 100% convinced that his technology will take over within ten years – but only in very specific applications.

He’s been developing his powertrains to use with garbage trucks. It makes perfect sense when you hear his argument. These enormously heavy trucks start and stop continuously, and in urban environments. How wonderful to hear that with no engine noise to speak of, nor continuous braking, one of the big problems to contend with now is muffling the sound of glass breaking.

“For this narrow application of garbage trucks and urban pick-up, the diesel is going to go away, and I think that’s also going to be true for buses that operate in those locations and for delivery trucks.”

As for linehaul, and this blew the socks off many listening, he doesn’t believe electric trucks or fuel-cell trucks will play a significant role any time soon – if at all.

“For long haul trucking it’s going to be fifteen-litre diesels for as long as I can see,” he said.

“There will be enhancements to make them more efficient, but you’re not going to get rid of the diesel engine for long haul trucking anytime that I can see.”

He explains that the cost and weight of batteries on their own, let alone time and infrastructure for charging, make the fully battery operated linehaul vehicles completely impractical.

As for hydrogen fuel cells, the ultimate in clean fuels, the process of producing and transporting hydrogen is so unfortunately energy inefficient, it essentially kills the concept before it starts.

So it’s a mix but essentially the right technology for the right application, (and that theme pervaded the whole conference).

“There are already cities in the world that have curfews and others where you can’t run (diesel engines) at all. I think that trend will continue.”

Wright, as I said is a pragmatist. While the environmental impact is a crucial motivator, he knows that no innovation will fly if there’s no competitive advantage and the economics don’t support it.

“It’s the annual fuel consumption per annum that you can displace that makes this compelling,” he said. “It saves fuel and maintenance.”

“Everything has to have a payback life of less than four years. Powertrain life is about ten years so this is economically compelling.”