By Jane Marsh
Currently, the off-highway industry has a clear, unmet need for electric vehicles. While Caterpillar is one of several construction equipment manufacturers developing a solution, it stands out as the trendsetter. What makes it different from the rest?
Caterpillar launched the Early Learner program in 2021 to accelerate the development of its all-electric, zero-emission fleet. It aimed to supply battery-powered machinery for use at its customers’ sites. Since then, it has made substantial progress with designs and trials.
Its current all-electric prototype lineup includes a 301.9 mini excavator, a 906 compact wheel loader, a 320 medium excavator and a 950 GC medium wheel loader. The 906 and 301.9 will likely be the first commercially available models in North America and Europe.
Caterpillar addresses the off-highway sector’s need for sustainability. Carbon dioxide emissions directly contribute to climate change, so a no-exhaust alternative is essential. Construction and mining organizations will rely on an all-electric fleet as compliance laws intensify.
While Caterpillar is not the only construction equipment manufacturer developing a zero-emission fleet, it is leading the way. While others focus on small machinery like electric skid-steer loaders, Caterpillar prioritizes large equipment like the 320.
Moreover, Caterpillar’s prototypes revolve around a fully electric lineup. While construction equipment manufacturers like Bobcat and John Deere are electrifying, they prioritize hybrid-electric instead — meaning they will not have a zero-exhaust fleet.
Caterpillar has even reduced indirect carbon emissions by reusing and retrofitting older machinery. Since reutilizing used equipment enables sustainable business growth and minimizes waste, they have outperformed many similar companies in the journey for a true zero-emission fleet.
In 2022, Caterpillar signed an agreement with Artemis Gold — a gold development company invested in the construction of the Blackwater Mine — for a fleet transition. It agreed to provide zero-emission haul trucks in 2029 when development concludes.
While Caterpillar could have stopped once it secured future orders, it did not. In 2023, it invested in Lithos Energy — a domestic battery company — to obtain a lithium-ion battery supplier. Its all-electric fleet needed specially-built, shock-resistant power sources for off-highway use.
In the same year, Caterpillar signed an offtake agreement with Nouveau Monde Graphite (NMG) to secure carbon-neutral materials for prototype development. In return, NMG will receive an all-electric fleet for its Matawinie Mine sooner. This collaboration establishes a sustainable supply chain and expedites development.
Caterpillar entered into another agreement in early 2024 with Cement Roadstone Holdings (CRH). The aim is to fast-track trials and validate the 70-100 ton-class electric trucks at the company’s North American sites. The no-exhaust fleet will help CRH achieve its aspiration to reduce carbon emissions and progress toward net zero.
Caterpillar currently has four battery electric prototypes and is continuing to develop more. Its current lineup — the 301.9, 906, 320 and 950 — can continuously run for almost an entire workday on a single charge.
In 2022, Caterpillar successfully demonstrated its battery-powered 793 mining truck prototype to stakeholders. The vehicle reached a top speed of 37 miles per hour and drove over half a mile up a 10% grade while fully loaded. This display proved the technology’s on-site viability.
A little over one year later, it unveiled its first underground mining truck for the Newmont Corporation. This company has progressed from prototyping to successful demonstrations in only a handful of years.
Caterpillar will continue developing, testing, validating and demonstrating its lineup of zero-exhaust machinery and electric charging solutions. In all likelihood, it will expand its commercially available offerings in the coming years after it meets its contractual obligations with its current customers.
There is also a strong possibility Caterpillar will enable DC charging for most of its full electric fleet. While each vehicle has AC charging capabilities, extending the option for fast recharging will benefit its customers and enhance sustainability efforts.
Caterpillar has made strides toward a zero-exhaust fleet, proving itself to be a trendsetter. If it continues to progress at its current rate, construction companies will likely be able to choose from an extensive lineup of commercially available battery electric machinery.
Author Bio: Jane Marsh is the editor-in-chief of Environment.co where she covers green technology, sustainable building and environmental news.