FIRST DRIVE: Australian-made electric SEA300

By: Cobey Bartels, Photography by: Sean Lander


We take the first Australian-made electric truck, the SEA300, for a zero-emissions journey through the Dandenong ranges.

 

The buzz around electric vehicles continues to intensify, introduced to the masses by the likes of Tesla and now catapulted to the forefront of political-economic interest as traditional vehicle manufactures race to snag a piece of the pie.

Truck makers have only dipped their toes in the burgeoning electric market until now, with Fuso’s light-duty eCanter doing the rounds, while light through to heavy manufacturers are forming electric-focused alliances in a bid to hasten progress.

There’s a new kid on the block, though, who’s beaten the big players to the party, in global e-Mobility outfit SEA Electric - headquartered in Los Angeles but building trucks locally out of Dandenong in Victoria.

While the manufacturer has been making moves on the scene since 2013, it’s not until recently that they’ve offered a production-ready SEA-branded electric truck for the Australian market.

After seeing SEA Electric’s latest offerings at the Brisbane Truck Show we shot down to their factory in Dandenong for a look at how these trucks come together, managing to score the keys to a freshly built SEA300 for the day.

Enter the build

The in-house developed powertrain dubbed SEA-Drive has been retrofitted to a variety of commercial vehicles in recent years, but now powers the latest range of locally-built light and medium-duty trucks.

A smart partnership with Hino has allowed SEA Electric to import Semi-Knocked-Down (SKD) kits to Australia, which form the backbone of the SEA-branded trucks.

Another perk of the SEA Electric partnership with Hino is a country-wide network of 15 Hino dealers offering sales, servicing and support to SEA Electric customers.

The SEA Electric production line, free of fossil fuels and spotless across all six work bays

For those questioning whether these are just a drivetrain-swapped Hino, the SEA Electric trucks are badged ‘SEA’ with their own unique VIN numbers.

Both Hino 300 and 500 chassis and cabs arrive straight from Japan in SKD form, where they’re swiftly assembled into the end product, the SEA300 and SEA500.

Battery packs sit where the engine and gearbox would normally take up space, feeding juice to an electric motor that supplies drive straight to the diff. It’s a simple, direct-drive system with no gearbox needed.

The complete Hino cabs arrive from Japan, before they’re attached to a chassis during the 120-hour build process

The facility operates like any modern factory, with six production bays and three finishing bays that spit out an Australian-made electric truck every 120 hours.

However, within the factory there is also the capacity to develop and test new products and components - an efficient use of a relatively small space.

"We have marketing, sales, design, research and development, procurement, material handling, fabrication, assembly and testing all done in-house", explains SEA Electric Vice President, Operations – Asia Pacific, Glen Walker.

How’s it drive?

Before we pulled out from the factory, with a plan to hit the Dandenong Ranges for a strap, we were given a rundown of the truck from the SEA Electric team.

Firing it up is no different to any truck, with a turn of the key and an unfamiliar whir as the electric motor prepares to spin up.

The existing Hino 300 interior remains largely unchanged, although some of the factory gauges like fuel and temperature have been disconnected - something we’re told will be removed altogether from future models.

All battery range and power use data is displayed on the centre infotainment screen, but can still be switched over to radio or other multimedia displays.

Selecting ‘drive’ is done using the same button pad those familiar with this truck’s Hino cousin will be familiar with, and from there it’s just matter of ‘go and stop’.

SEA Electric interface displays speed, range, charge, and power both expended and regenerated as you drive.

Why the Dandenong Ranges? Why not. We were only able to get our hands on a freshly assembled cab-chassis so, without a load on the back, urban testing seemed no more appropriate than a scenic drive.

The SEA-Drive Power System ranges in output depending on truck configuration from 4,500kg to 22,500kg GVM, but the medium wheelbase SEA 300-85 we tested produced 125kW and 1545Nm out of a 100kWh battery setup, offering an unladen range of up to 250km.

Tare weight on the medium wheelbase SEA 300-85 is 3062kg. With a GVM rating of 7.995kg, this allows a fairly competitive payload of 4,993kg depending of course on the body fitted.

Make no mistake, this SEA300 steers, rides and feels identical to a Hino 300, which is hardly shocking given the underlying architecture used.

However from the moment you take off, there are two distinct differences; Acceleration and braking.

It’s an odd feeling, really, having to remind yourself you’re in a truck. The acceleration is car-like, effortless and the lack of momentary drive loss associated with gear shifts makes for butter-smooth power delivery.

SEA Electric didn’t set out to build a performance vehicle and it won’t be used as such, but by truck standards this sets a new benchmark in terms of acceleration from a standstill.

Speaking of outperforming a diesel counterpart, the regenerative braking made up for improvements in acceleration all while refilling the figurative fuel tank.

Like a traditional exhaust brake, flick the left hand stalk down and you’ve got a two-stage regenerative braking system.

The braking was probably the biggest departure from combustion engine normality when first driving this truck, as it pulls up with phenomenal force.

Beyond seldom having to use the service brakes we were having to actually accelerate up to stop signs and red lights downhill, it was that good.

You’ve got every reason to want to use the regenerative braking on an electric vehicle, too, as it feeds energy back into the batteries - which is all displayed on the infotainment display and becomes quite addictive to watch.

"Under braking, a diesel doesn’t produce more fuel, it disperses energy by generating heat. What we do with regenerative braking is if the motor is able to produce 1500Nm of torque back into the diff, it’s able to produce up to that same torque to slow the vehicle down," Walker says.

The heart of a SEA300 – motor up back, fed by battery packs where the motor and gearbox would ordinarily sit

"Instead of generating heat, we generate energy back into the batteries to offer additional range and it also doesn’t make any noise at all.

"We’ve built a lot of trucks now, and we can confidently say it extends the brake life by at least a factor of three."

When discussing the on-road differences between the SEA300 and the Hino 300 it’s based off, Walker points out the difference is all in the powertrain and it’s aim is to do the same job more efficiently.

"The truck is designed to perform the job that any truck does, so we’ve tried to make this vehicle perform as well as, if not better than the diesel," Walker says.

"We already know they’re quieter, there’s less vibration, there’s less fatigue and we know the power delivery is much smoother than a diesel.

"We’ve proven they efficiently cart freight, all 5 tonnes of it, just like a diesel. And the same spritely performance evident at the 3.1 tonne tare is also evident at the full 8 tonne GVM."

Arguably the biggest drawcard for the SEA300, over conventional diesel truck options, is the complete lack of noise.

To think that the absence of noise is more of a draw card than braking and acceleration, surprised us too. Simply put, It’s a relaxing place to be and produces no noise pollution - two things not traditionally associated with running a truck.

"There’s a lot of curfews placed on certain applications, you can’t deliver your freight to a suburban facility between certain times of night," Walker says.

"If it’s being delivered in an EV, there’s no reason those curfews can’t change, so quite frankly you get a more efficient transport task."

What’s the damage?

At this stage, SEA Electric isn’t willing to disclose specific pricing due to the countless build specifications being delivered, though these trucks are unsurprisingly rumoured to come in at a higher price-point than the diesel equivalents they’re based off.

SEA Electric offers a three year/150,000km warranty period and SEA Assist 24-hour roadside assistance for the life of the warranty, provided by NTI.

Servicing is undertaken at intervals in-line with those of the Hino 300, although that’s more to take care of periodic maintenance of brakes, suspension and chassis.

"Much of our vehicle servicing is standard suspension, you can’t avoid that," says Walker.

"The benefit of the dealer network is it makes servicing and support function closer to home for our clients."

The electric motor and batteries are relatively maintenance-free when looking at the servicing of these trucks, estimated to be good for a decade or more of daily use.

"An easier question to answer is, ‘how much servicing isn’t done’, when compared to a diesel," says Walker

"If you start with a diesel you’ve got fluids and filters, oils and the like. You’ve got adjustments and belts, you’ve got exhaust systems and cooling systems.

"Apart from checking electrical connections and making sure the fluid is circulating the motor, there isn’t much more to do - you don’t pull it apart to replace rings or rebuild one of our motors," says Walker.

"It’s mainly looking at high and low voltage cabling. Checking routing and connections. And there is a treasure trove of data available for our technicians to enquire upon."

sea 300 hero.jpg

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