Automakers are exploring many solutions for electrifying the sort of trucks that Americans can’t get enough of. In terms of conventional manufacturers, Ford is arguably out in front. Credit the already available Ford F-150 PowerBoost gasoline-electric hybrid pickup, as well as the upcoming F-150 electric. Heck, even Ram’s eTorque “mild hybrid” system is a fuel-saving step in the right direction. Upstarts like Bollinger, Lordstown, Rivian, and now Canoo want a piece of the pie, too, but aren’t reliant on “legacy” truck platforms. But for more traditional pickups, like the sort already running around your town as work or lifestyle vehicles, Magna has an interim solution called eBeam.
We’re talking about an application for trucks with a traditional ladder-frame chassis and live rear axle. The eBeam drops right in, in theory, utilizing all the original mounts, suspension, and so forth. But there wouldn’t be an input for the driveshaft, as the eBeam is an integrated e-motor axle that comes in 120- and 250-kW power ranges. Magna says one- and two-motor versions are in development, with the two-motor version offering torque vectoring across the axle. The single-motor version presumably incorporates a differential, taking the place of a conventional truck’s “pumpkin.”
What’s the advantage of this over, say, developing a dedicated skateboard chassis with independent rear suspension, as newer competitors are doing? The answer is traditional truck capabilities: the ride height, payload, towing, and so forth that traditional trucks provide. And the way that the aftermarket (both for personal vehicles, and say, for up-fitting commercial and recreational vehicles) interfaces with traditional truck suspension and chassis systems. Also, it should be said, it doesn’t require the engineering or manufacturing of a dedicated chassis.
A leaf- or coil-sprung live rear axle is a rugged, proven, and perhaps most importantly, a cost-effective setup, which is why light trucks have stuck with this setup for so long. For regular truck owners, it comes down to what the truck can do, and what you can do with it. For fleet operators, it’s a cheap, proven solution.
But fleet operators, in particular, are always amenable to lower running costs. An electrified eBeam rear axle promises, theoretically, less maintenance without being wildly divergent in other respects from similar fleet vehicles. By leaving suspension and brake systems intact, towing and payload are also unaffected (notwithstanding any additional vehicle mass from batteries). Magna claims the mass is equivalent to a (heavy) live axle, all other things being equal—the rough equivalence is almost certainly due to the heavy utilization of lightweight aluminum in the eBeam axle.
Those buying an eBeam-equipped truck (and it should be noted that Magna says there are several manufacturers who are interested) will discover the big advantage is that this technology serves as a simple transitional step to getting more hybrid and battery-electric powertrains into “normal” trucks. There are few trade-offs from an engineering standpoint, and a few lifestyle or workstyle adjustments needed to use such a truck just like you would a conventional live-axle setup.
Or course, an eBeam installation doesn’t address how power would get to the rear axle. The manufacturer would need to find a place to mount batteries, power inverters, cabling, and so forth. Some existing electrified trucks stow them under the rear seat or between the frame rails. Likewise, the space otherwise occupied by a conventional driveshaft can certainly be utilized in an eBeam installation.
But it’s early days yet for the eBeam. We don’t know any manufacturer who’s selected the system for a truck—yet. We should note that Magna has already developed front axle e-motor solutions, so a fully all-wheel-drive electrified pickup, using a conventional chassis and suspension could be achievable as an off-the-shelf solution. Time will tell which automakers, if any, bring this system to a dealer lot near you.