German engineering Daimler can’t wait to buy a Tesla truck and take it apart

Following a PR nightmare over a damaged Tesla car, the maker of Mercedes-Benz vehicles is now eager to buy and test two of Tesla’s electric rigs as soon as they hit the market.
Daimler is not the only one wanting to get its hands on Tesla's Semi.

Daimler is the world’s largest maker of trucks and luxury cars, and to keep it that way, it keeps a close eye on the competition -- all the way down to the latest screw and bolt. Now that rival Tesla, the US electric car pioneer, is preparing to sell its all-electric Semi over-the-road truck in 2019, Daimler hopes to be one of the first buyers: “We will buy two very quickly: one for dismantling and one for driving," Martin Daum, head of Daimler’s truck and bus business, said.

Speaking on the sidelines of a presentation of a new Mercedes-Benz electric rig, Mr. Daum said on Wednesday he was “highly curious” about Tesla’s new truck, which was unveiled last November. The 58-year old executive, who has worked at Daimler since 1987, isn't worried about the upstart. “We don't want to be the loudest but we do want to be the best everywhere," he said.

One can always learn from the competition and disassembling a rival's gear is a common practice in the car and electronics industries. Two years ago, Audi bought a Tesla Model X, an SUV, in the United States before it was sold in Europe to give it a test spin at home. And Daimler itself rented a Model X last year, test-driving and disassembling it before reportedly returning it damaged to rental agency Sixt, sparking a media feeding frenzy. Another German luxury carmaker also tested Tesla's new Model 3, a $35,000 mass market sedan, a few months ago, according to a report earlier this week.

If a diesel vehicle is out of gas, you can fill up the tank. With an electric vehicle, you have to call the tow truck. Martin Daum, executive, Daimler Trucks and Buses

Daimler, a Tesla investor from 2009 to 2014, isn't new to developing electric trucks. It announced an electric version of its mid-heavy truck Actros in 2016, and Mr. Daum said Wednesday the truck -- the eActros -- will enter serial production in 2021 with select customers testing it later this year. It will be offered in two different models -- gross weights of 18 and 25 metric tons (40,000 and 55,000 pounds), which compares to the Tesla Semi's maximum 80,000 pounds (36 metric tons).

In lighter trucks, Daimler is already ahead of Elon Musk. Its Japanese subsidiary Fuso launched the eCanter last year, supplying it to several New York-based not-for-profits, such as the Wildlife Conservation Society and the New York Botanical Garden. The eCanter can carry up to 3.5 metric tons and large scale production is planned for 2019. Last October, Daimler also unveiled its electric E-FUSO Vision One, with a cargo load of 11 metric tons, and a range of 350 kilometers (217 miles). It could hit the US and European markets in 2021 at the earliest.

Mr. Daum said Daimler, which also owns US brands such as Freightliner, Western Star and Thomas Built Buses, is approaching electric engines in the truck business with "realism and pragmatism." Although customers are becoming increasingly interested in alternative drives, e-trucks would have to be competitive with conventional vehicles, especially in terms of cost, range and reliability. "If a diesel vehicle is out of gas, you can fill up the tank. With an electric vehicle, you have to call the tow truck," he said.

The eActros will cost more than its conventional siblings and its efficiency depends on "how long the battery lasts," said Mr. Daum.

VW’s truck subsidiary MAN will also soon start testing a fleet of electric distribution trucks in cooperation with Austrian logistics companies. The vehicles will only be used for city deliveries and have a range of 200 kilometers (124 miles). At the end of this year, MAN wants to begin a limited production of electric trucks with large-scale manufacturing planned for 2021.

As with Mercedes-Benz, it will trail Tesla in product launch, but it will likely benefit from the US startup’s pioneering, with or without disassembling one of its Semis.

Markus Fasse specializes in aviation and automobile industry news and works from Handelsblatt’s Munich office. Gilbert Kreijger is an editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected]