Wolfgang Bernard, the head of Daimler Trucks, was skeptical at first. Investing in electrically powered passenger cars might make business sense, he thought, but trucks would continue to run on diesel.
Yet as the cost of batteries has dropped, Mr. Bernhard has gone from skeptic to advocate. Starting in 2020, Daimler plans to introduce an e-powered truck that can transport 26 tons of cargo 200 kilometers a day.
"The payload isn't much less than diesel trucks," Mr. Bernhard told Handelsblatt in an exclusive interview.
Daimler, which owns the Mercedes Benz brand, sees a market for e-powered, heavy-duty trucks as cities such as London, Paris and Beijing move toward limiting access for diesel vehicles in city centers.
"We've already received inquiries that we could turn into production numbers relatively quickly," Mr. Bernhard said. "In Europe, 10 percent of heavy distribution is done by trucks. This segment could be switched completely to electric power over the long term."
By 2025, the transport of goods will have fundamentally changed. Goods will be transported by highly efficient, autonomously driven trucks over long distances. Wolfgang Bernhard, CEO, Daimler Trucks
Though Mr. Bernhard admits building the infrastructure to support e-powered trucks is costly, he claims the cost of operating them is much less than diesel. E-power trucks have fewer moving parts that can wear out and they don't need oil or air filters, he said.
Daimler also plans to develop autonomous driving technology for heavy trucks.
"By 2025, the transport of goods will have fundamentally changed," Mr. Bernhard said. "Goods will be transported by highly efficient, autonomously driven trucks over long distances."
Autonomous driving technology is well suited for trucks that travel long distances on Germany's high-speed autobahns, Mr. Bernhard said, but adapting this technology to guide large trucks through Europe's busy city centers is a more difficult task.
"Goods will be dropped off in central points outside of the city and then loaded into smaller, electric-powered vehicles that make runs to the city center day and night," Mr. Bernard said.
The automaker is also developing a digital logistics network that connects customers with real-time information about the truck's location, the goods it's carrying and how much space is left on board.
"Beginning in 2017, all new trucks will have a mobile data center built in – our universal Internet interface for trucks," Mr. Bernhard said.
Called "Mercedes Uptime," the trucks will also send a continuous stream of data to Daimler, which will monitor the vehicles for error and repair messages. If an issue arises, Daimler will tell the driver where the next garage is with the right replacement parts.
"We already have 1,400 trucks on the road with this service and the customers are enthusiastic," Mr. Bernhard said.