Until very recently, “cutting edge” was a term not usually associated with American truck fleets. Even in the hallowed halls at the American Trucking Associations’ Technology & Maintenance Council, discussions on emerging technology are often sprinkled with a great deal of caution or even outright pessimism. The technology in and of itself is fascinating, its members will often tell you. But they get paid to make sure freight gets delivered and trucks keep running. And new technology can get really scary fast then you’re looking at things through that particular prism. So, it’s only natural that many fleet managers look upon electric trucks with skepticism.
Still, the trend lines are plainly visible. There is a lot happening in the electric commercial vehicle space right now, with Nikola to Tesla here in the States, Mitsubishi Fuso and Hino in Japan, Mercedes-Benz in Germany, and now Scania in Sweden.
Electric trucks are already here in small numbers, and several P&D fleets, FedEx, and UPS, in particular, are aggressively evaluating their performance today. At a minimum, it seems reasonable to assume that electric trucks will be attempting to break into the American market in an even bigger way soon — quite possibly within the next couple of years.
And interestingly, we’re now seeing electric drivetrains being combined with other alternative fuels to create new hybrid propulsion systems for trucks. Scania is the “other” Swedish truck manufacturer over in Europe: The one that doesn’t sell trucks here in the States. But its approach to electric trucks is interesting because the company is not limiting itself to one particular technology path. It has embraced a wide range of new EV technologies, including “conventional” battery-powered vehicles, buses that recharge wirelessly, tractors that connect to an overhead power line — even a new hybrid system that runs on a hydro-treated vegetable oil-electric drivetrain.
Nils-Gunnar Vågstedt is Scania’s chief researcher for vehicle electrification. He said that currently, there is tremendous momentum for electrified solutions and its environmental benefits, including a zero carbon footprint, quieter vehicles, and zero particle emissions. “A lot has happened just during the last year and a half,” Vågstedt noted. “We have gone from treating electrification primarily as a research area to having many discussions with customers who want to make the shift to sustainable transport.”
Vågstedt said Scania has identified several major global trends that point to increased interest in electric commercial vehicles:
- Interest in low-emission commercial vehicles from consumers in Europe is growing daily. As a result, the pressure on OEMs and suppliers in Europe to develop viable systems and vehicles is “intense.”
- China is the leading market for electric commercial vehicles today and accounts for 95% of the world’s stock of electric buses now in service with more than 100,000 units on the road.
- The price points on battery technology and associated technologies are falling rapidly.
- Acquisition costs remain high, but long-term operating costs are lower for fleets.
- Development of long-haul electric commercial vehicles currently lags behind buses and urban and regional vehicles, but market forces are already starting to ramp up work on these models.
So, the stage is set for some interesting developments in the coming years. And who’s to say? Maybe it will be the Americans who take the lead in terms of long-haul electric tractors, which would be ironic considering the current skepticism for the technology here in America on the fleet side of things.