In theory, adopting electric trucks sounds relatively simple: Find a truck, plug it in and run it, right? In reality, electrifying a fleet involves a lengthy process that requires a great deal of research and planning implement successfully. That’s according to a panel of industry experts speaking Sept. 14 at the Technology & Maintenance Council Fall Meeting in Cleveland.
Mike Roeth, executive director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency, opened the session by pointing to his organization’s Run on Less Electric fleet evaluation trials, which are being held concurrently with TMC. Roeth said Run on Less Electric will help the industry differentiate “hype from reality” when it comes to electric trucks. He also said NACFE is already gaining deep insights as to the realities of adopting and operating them.
Run on Less Electric is made up of four vehicle segments, Roeth said, from yard tractors all the way up to Class 8 trucks in regional-haul applications. “What we’re learning is that small vans and step vans, with smaller battery packs and daily range requirements ranging from 5 to 50 miles are already making a lot of sense for fleets in those applications,” he said. “The business case for those vehicles is developing very quickly.”
Just behind those small trucks, Roeth said NACFE has found that electric medium-duty straight trucks also do well, despite having a different duty cycle with daily ranges of 50 to 60 miles.
Electric yard goats
But perhaps the biggest surprise to the NACFE team has been the evaluation of terminal tractors. “These yard trucks are a really good early opportunity for fleets to learn about electric trucks,” Roeth noted. “They’re typically towing empty trailers on flat ground, so the state of charge is easy to manage.”
Interestingly, Roeth said that although spotter trucks typically work around the clock, recharging them has not been an issue thanks to the ability to “opportunity charge” and to benefit from regenerative brakes.
“What we’ve learned is that it’s important to place charging stations around bathrooms and lunchrooms — anywhere a driver takes a break,” he said. “And charging the trucks during those breaks, combined with the brake system putting electricity back into the batteries, is enough to run the truck around the clock with the battery system maintaining a 50% state of charge most of the time.”
Coming at the issue from the OEM side of the equation was Alexander Voets, sales and marketing manager, Freightliner eMobility, who cautioned attendees that there was “a lot to think through” when it comes to deploying electric trucks.
“There is a lot to learn about charging infrastructure,” Voets said. “And it’s absolutely necessary that you do so, because today, there is no charging station infrastructure for commercial vehicles anywhere in the country. So, it’s going be entirely up to you in the beginning.”
Charging is not a one-size-fits-all solution either,” he added. “You need to learn about the details of different charging systems. Because they are not all the same.”
An AC 120-volt domestic charger, Voets noted, is a normal domestic power outlet that is sufficient for slowly charging a single electric passenger car — usually overnight. A Level 2 AC outlet is the type of outlet a washing or welding machine plugs into — and it can also be used for faster charging of a couple of passenger cars. “But DC Fast charging systems are what trucks really need,” he said. “Because their batteries are so large compared to passenger cars.”
Looking ahead, Voets said work is being done now on megawatt charging systems, with a goal of giving trucks very fast charging times of around 20 to 30 minutes.
George Miller, director of truck sales, BYD, advised fleet managers to think about the routes they need to run and the payloads they need to carry before switching to electric trucks.
“Payload is a challenge because the weight of current battlers is greater than a diesel powertrain package,” Miller said. “So, you need larger batteries for power density and range. Which means you’ll need to start with routes running lighter payloads to see if electric trucks will work for you.”
Environment also plays a role, he added. Extreme temperatures are not only hard on battery packs, keeping cabs heated and cooled also creates a significant drain on battery capacity.
Miller also addressed the infrastructure issue, saying that most fleet operations will require 480-volt, three-phase, commercial power with circuit breaker capacity close to where trucks will be charged.
He noted that it can take up to three years to get such infrastructure installed. “Electricity does cost less than diesel. But there are many different facets to charging you’ll need to learn. To control costs, you want to avoid charging at maximum speeds during peak demand times. So, managing your charging will be an important part of your overall operation.”
Still, Miller said, electric trucks can deliver fleets real savings in operational costs. “Obviously, there are significant savings on fuel costs. And preventive maintenance costs can go down by as much as 80%. For many fleets, PMs will come down to just checking fluids and greasing the chassis of the trucks. Beyond that, the bulk of your maintenance work will be focused on software, mainly.”
The range factor
Mark Jamieson, Cummins’ business development manager, new power, said how you use electric trucks will dictate the cost of and weight of the battery systems you spec. But, he added, if range is your primary concern, then batteries are the primary driver to meet that need.
“Aerodynamics is a good way to reduce the number of batteries you need,” Jamieson said. “But driver operation of the truck, including in-cab cooling and heating, as well as getting the most from the regenerative braking system, can quickly degrade state of charge as well. That’s why training drivers on power management is critical.”
Jamieson said that, luckily, drivers really like regenerative braking systems, which, in the right duty cycles, can significantly extend vehicle range. “Make sure your drivers understand regenerative braking and how it affects performance,” he advised. “And plan routes so that you avoid steep grades as much as possible, since they take much more energy out of the system when the truck is climbing them.”
PepsiCo has been a leader in moving its fleet to low emissions vehicles for some time now. Ken Marko, fleet sustainability manager for the company, noted that PepsiCo recently revised its commitment to reducing greenhouses gas emissions (GHG) to even more aggressive levels earlier this year.
Previously, PepsiCo said it would reduce GHG emissions 20% by 2030. But now, the company has committed to reducing them by 75% by 2030. “Obviously, this is going to be difficult to do,” Marko said. “Which means that we’re focusing even more on zero emissions vehicles to achieve that goal.
“To be successful with electric vehicles, you have to plan a lot in advance,” Marko continued. “You need to get educated on site planning, incentive programs, and charging station locations. You also need to begin talking with utility companies about support equipment and infrastructure. It can take anywhere from 12 to 18 months to get infrastructure installed. So, you need to start early.”
Additionally, Marko said fleets will need to study up on the routes they run, how batteries are sized, review general operational procedures across the board, and start training technicians.
Beware data overload
“There will be a lot of data coming off of these vehicles,” Marko added. “There are a lot of sensors on them. And the data that comes off them can be overwhelming at times.”
The biggest focus, Marko said, should be on energy management. “You’ll need to negotiate rate plans with your power utility,” he said. “And you’ll need to understand when you should charge trucks and what the right charging cycle will be. Peak demand charges can have a big impact on your bottom line. I wasn’t clear on that early on. But I learned very quickly how big an impact that could be and made adjustments immediately.”
You don’t necessarily need to charge every vehicle in your fleet at the maximum rate, Marko added. “Dwell time” will be a primary indicator as to how fast you’ll need to charge, with lower rates over a longer period of time being the most cost-effective way of doing so.
“Our drivers really like electric trucks,” Marko said. “But they tell us they’d like to have more operational data to help them behind the wheel. They need more than just the electric version of a fuel gauge. They want information on range capacity and estimated miles to discharged batteries as well, so they can make the right decisions to get back home at night.”
To help smooth over a transition to electric trucks, Marko advised involving drivers early on by telling them why you’re making the change. Point out that it is good for both the community and the environment. Also, find creative solutions to engage them. “Early on,” he said, “we purchased some electric passenger cars and let the drivers take them home for a few days. That allowed them to get some experience with electric vehicles before we had the trucks in the fleet and have some awareness about how to operate them.”
Don’t forget the techs
Michael McDonald, director of sustainability and government affairs for UPS, closed out the session by pointing out that technician training on electric vehicles seemed to be lagging. “I notice that nobody is talking about training technicians to work on these vehicles,” he said. “And training and support are critical. “
“When UPS began running compressed natural gas (CNG) powered trucks, we once had a vehicle sit idle for weeks because it was so new that nobody at the dealership knew how to repair it,” McDonald continued.
A positive point McDonald noted is that electric trucks tend to complement advanced safety systems very well. “They are data-driven vehicles,” he said. “So, they support systems such as vehicle communications as well as predictive and real-time maintenance, AI, and machine learning very well.”