The trade show floor at the Technology & Maintenance Council’s Annual Meeting in Orlando, Florida, this week was positively charged with the battery-electric vehicle vibe. Any supplier with a dog in the fight had electric stuff on display, but many of the yellow-badged fleet folks just walked right on by those booths.
Sure, there was some curiosity, even mild interest, but the opinion of a few dozen yellow badges I spoke with out in halls or around the coffee urns was, “Whatever. I won’t own one for at least a decade. I need help now with fuel economy and managing my tires and recruiting and retaining drivers and technicians.”
More than a few of the sessions at TMC were focused on technician training programs along with various aspects of the new high-voltage electric systems on those trucks. It’s good to set those wheels in motion early — no argument there — but we’re already challenged with recruiting and training techs to work on our humble diesels.
That’s a bit like planning where to put the fire escape when the house is already on fire.
I noticed, for example, some of the BEV sessions were modestly attended, but two sessions I attended on technician training were very well attended.
It could have been the timing of the sessions, but there might have been more behind the empty seats than just that.
Call them Luddites if you want (I don’t think that’s the case), but this great tech freight train is roaring right on by and leaving many fleets’ current needs and concerns swirling in the dust like empty candy bar wrappers on the platform of an abandoned train station.
A few of them indicated their friends and neighbors have started asking why there aren’t more battery-powered trucks on the road yet. The answer to that is complicated, but why should that even be a question except for the unrequited hype?
Are Investors Getting Impatient with Electric-Truck Progress?
It’s even making the investor community nervous.
A story emerged last week that incorrectly suggested tech innovator Locomation was closing its doors due to lack of investor interest. While that wasn’t entirely true (the company isn’t closing) CEO and co-founder Çetin Meriçli told me they had scaled back on some of the non-engineering efforts.
“We did reduce our non-engineering headcount in the face of economic headwinds,” he said, adding, “Unfortunately, we had an employee give an unauthorized and inaccurate quote [to a local paper], and despite providing further information, the original story ran anyway.”
(Incidents like that make me less than proud of my craft, but I digress.)
Back on the show floor at TMC, I also spoke with a couple of fellows from two legacy Tier 1 suppliers who said their shareholders were getting nervous, too. They aren’t seeing the big fat returns from the electric tidal wave they had been led to expect.
One of them explained how the cost of the development cycle is heavily loaded on the front end, and that it could take years before meaningful returns emerge. Some modern-day investors, it appears, aren’t as willing to play the long game as they once were.
I think investors who have seen quick returns from investments in other tech sectors expected much the same from start-ups in the ZEV space.
It turns out making zero-emission commercial vehicles work in the field is a little tougher than originally believed.
Silicon Valley may move fast and break things, but Detroit builds things that work and last. And that takes a little longer.
How many times have we heard startups referred to as disruptors? That term has taken on a new meaning today, I think.
I admit that a dozen or so naysayers doesn’t constitute a backlash, but it shows the seeds of discontent are already in the ground. Clearly, we shouldn’t go backwards or slow the progress we’re making on ZEVs, but I think we could stand to be a little more realistic about the timeline for these trucks.
Media’s Role in the ZEV Focus
And I think we in the press share a little of the blame for that. We want to write about what's shiny and new and generates exciting headlines so we can attract more page views, clicks, and likes. But we shouldn’t let that overwhelm the content that resonates with our readers by addressing their everyday struggles.
Stories about tire maintenance may not be as exciting as the next great tech wave, but readers with small fleets and smaller training budgets do take something away from those spec’ing and maintenance stories. I think they also keep us more firmly grounded, aware of the reality that BEVs may work well for a limited number of applications, but they don’t yet play well with the 10-truck OTR fleets in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin.
If that makes me look like a Luddite, too, fine. I accept that criticism. I firmly believe there’s a future for a variety of powertrains beyond diesel, and I’ll happily celebrate every little victory along the way. But I also believe there’s still a lot we can do to make our diesels even cleaner and more efficient, given the time and regulatory patience we need to get it right. And I don’t believe we’re doing industry any favors by focusing on a 5- to 10-year game at while ignoring our current irritants and challenges.
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