Telo bets U.S. is ready for tiny electric pickup trucks

Most trucks today are headed in the wrong direction, metaphorically speaking. They’re far too big and heavy, with shrinking beds and expanding cabins that reflect their turn from a classic workhorse into a status symbol-meets-family car.

This is my take, but I’m not just here to blab about aesthetics and my weird love of teeny-tiny cars. Huge vehicles are uniquely deadly for pedestrians and cyclists and counterproductive to decarbonization work. They demand more raw materials and ultimately bigger batteries, and they stir fears that compact cars can’t hack it alongside them on roads today. In other words, they’re bad for people and the planet.

The switch to electric vehicles offers an opportunity to shake things up, sizewise. Yet in the U.S., most automakers won’t risk it, and there’s a financial basis for that. Trucks like the F-150 and Silverado are more popular than ever, giving little incentive for companies to carve out a new path. Still, a young startup called Telo Trucks is taking an alternate route anyway. It’s betting that lots of Americans actually want a petite pickup — one with the “footprint of a two-door Mini Cooper” and the “same interior and bed space as a Toyota Tacoma,” Telo CEO Jason Marks told TechCrunch. Do you believe him?

Marks argues there’s an untapped market of city dwellers who could use a cargo utility vehicle — gardeners, surfers, snowboarders, hikers and so on — “but they can’t have a big truck because it’s way too big for the city.” That’s who Telo is targeting, at least on the consumer side. The company kicked off preorders — really, paid reservations — for its first vehicle this week, charging folks $152 for the chance to one day buy a 152-inch truck that’s slated to cost $50,000 at launch before government incentives.

So far, there’s interest: Telo “received more than 500 preorders within the first 12 hours of the launch,” a representative for the company told TechCrunch.

Last week, Telo showcased a full-size model of the vehicle at its office in San Francisco. In theory, the truck it highlighted will seat five adults and go from 0 to 60 mph in four seconds. It’s also supposed to pack a 350-mile range. Renders of the truck are sleek as heck, too — with hardly any hood, texture on the front that evokes a handsome, stubbly chin and a goofy swipe across the doors for airflow. Just imagine loading surfboards into this puppy.

Image Credits: Telo

According to Marks, Telo is now working toward getting its first prototype on the road by year’s end. In the following years, the plan (as I understand it) is to navigate some government red tape, hand-build some vehicles and then work with contract manufacturers to make mini trucks en masse. But remember: EV startups usually launch with cool ideas (see: Arrival and Canoo). Delivering these vehicles to lots of drivers while turning a profit? That’s a lot rarer in this business.

Telo has lots of work ahead of it no matter how much demand there is for pint-sized pickups.

The backstory

Before Telo, Marks worked on autonomous driving and driver-assistance features at National Instruments, while co-founder Forrest North worked on Tesla’s Roadster team. “Funny story is that one of those vehicles that I worked on is now in space, which is so random and weird,” North told TechCrunch.

The pair met through a mutual friend and later realized they were “both pole vaulters at the same high school in Washington state, but 10 years apart from each other,” Marks said. “And if you’ve never met a pole vaulter, we’re all the same kind of crazy.”

Marks originally wanted to build an electric motorcycle, but the co-founders said they pivoted to focus on a mini truck about a year ago after sharing ideas with friends and interviewing 100 people on the street in San Francisco. “Investment and a lot more interest” followed the pivot, Marks said.

Telo cofounders Forrest North and Jason Marks stand beside head of design Yves Behar.

Telo co-founders Forrest North and Jason Marks stand beside head of design Yves Behar. Image Credits: Telo

Telo tells TechCrunch that it has raised $1.4 million so far at a $10 million post-money valuation. GoAhead Ventures led the startup’s pre-seed round, while Underdog Labs, WorkPlay Ventures, industrial designer Yves Behar and other angel investors also chipped in. Curiously, a representative for the startup said the co-founders first linked up with GoAhead at the gym before going through the firm’s “video pitch process.” [I’m not sure how gym banter led to funding teeny trucks, but I guess that’s just San Francisco for ya.]

As for Yves Behar, the prominent designer known for his work with Jawbone, XO laptop and Jimmyjane also joined Telo as its head of design. Behar is prolific, and through his firm he’s worked on some really neat projects as well as some stinkers — such as the Vessyl smart cup and Juicero juicer. Anyhow, Behar kindly shared his take on the li’l truck in a call with TechCrunch last week.

“It’s a pickup truck without that aggressive look, and I believe that this urban customer will really like both the design signature as well as the more fluid, we’d say, aesthetic that we have on the truck,” said Behar. [This man is really speaking my language.]

The head of design added that the vehicle is “really meant as an expression of what an EV can do and what users are looking for, which is a family vehicle that’s highly functional, in this case.”

“Distinct advantages”

Marks argues Telo has some “distinct advantages” because it’s getting started today instead of a decade or so ago. “Contract manufacturing is a big one but also the supply chain,” Marks said. “I know that everyone’s talking about how bad the supply chain is, but the truth of the matter is that we can buy a motor off the shelf that fits into our packaging requirements, and it comes with software pre-populated.”

Marks says this wasn’t something Tesla could do 10 years ago. The Elon Musk-led company instead had to develop “motors from scratch in order to get them even close to the requirements that they need to be in. Same with, you know, most of the other products — inverter, battery management system, but a lot of those are largely close to the commoditization stage,” according to Marks.

The CEO said that these changes make it so Telo can limit costs and “focus on just the parts of the vehicle that we are really bringing to the table around the safety, the batteries and the packaging.” Telo is primarily showcasing the packaging right now, but in a statement it said its “patent-pending battery packs” are “smaller and lighter than any other electric vehicle battery on the market.”

Crucially, decarbonizing transportation isn’t just about making things smaller or all-electric — those are just two pieces of a greater puzzle. Large EV trucks still pump less carbon pollution into the atmosphere than their gas-powered counterparts, so maybe they’re not worth writing off entirely. Public transit is also vastly more efficient and better for the environment than personal cars, trucks and SUVs of virtually any size.

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