While electric trucks are hardly new — battery-powered vehicles were among the very first powertrains used in the automotive age, and never truly went away — they have undergone a stunning transformation over the past decade. And it seems likely that very soon, they will step back into the spotlight and begin to make their case as a viable option for many 21st century fleets.
That said, we might as well get some obvious points out of the way right now: Electric trucks do not have the range capability that gasoline, diesel, or even natural gas trucks do. And they cannot currently be charged nearly as quickly as a diesel or gasoline truck can be filled up. There is nothing approaching a national charging infrastructure available to guarantee recharging a vehicle away from its home base. Battery systems are heavy and do, in fact, take up a lot of room on a truck chassis.
But electric trucks are not diesel trucks. They are a different type of vehicle that will require new ways of operation and maintenance. There will be a learning curve for first adopters that will doubtless include some hard, painful lessons. And fleets that attempt to force electric trucks to work like diesel trucks will likely fail where others succeed. But electric truck proponents say that very soon, electric trucks will prove their mettle in real-world fleet operations and return total cost of ownership numbers that will make them a slam-dunk option for progressive fleets in select operating environments.
Regulations all around
The first thing that has to be understood about the emergence of electric trucks is how they figure into the next round of the federal government’s heavy-duty fuel economy standards, which will become law in 2025. As with most federal regulations, the new standards will be multi-faceted and complex. But there is one aspect of them that figures greatly when it comes to electric trucks: Truck makers will be “graded,” for lack of a better term, on the overall fuel efficiency of their entire portfolio of vehicles for sale. They will have to hit an overall fuel efficiency rating for those combined vehicles to avoid being hit with penalties for noncompliance with the new standards.
“Battery-electric trucks are zero-emissions vehicles,” says Dakota Semler, CEO and co-founder of Thor Trucks, a startup company dedicated to developing and marketing medium-duty electric trucks. “Emissions standard compliance numbers always adjust upwards and get harder to meet with each new round of regulations,” he explains. “But for every electric truck an OEM produces, they get emissions credits that allow them to market and sell more conventional diesel trucks as well.”
There are also state and local regulations in play (although Trump administration efforts to roll back California’s emissions-regulation exemption could affect that; see page 10). The New York City Sanitation Department, with the support of Commissioner Garcia and Mack Trucks, will begin evaluating electric refuse trucks on routes throughout the Big Apple next year. DSNY Deputy Commissioner Rocky DiRico says the pressure is on his agency to come up with clean vehicle solutions for refuse collection.
“New York City’s Mayoral OneNYC plan requires the City to take bold steps to lead by example in the reduction of transportation-related emissions through NYC Clean Fleet, committing to introduce the largest municipal EV fleet in the U.S. and cut greenhouse gas emissions from its vehicle fleet in half by 2025 and 80 percent by 2035. This initiative will spur private fleets and other government fleets to follow its lead toward cleaner transportation systems,” DiRico explains. “DSNY feels that we operate one of the cleanest diesel fleets in the country but we’re going to need to further experiment and expand on all types technologies in order to meet that requirement.”
With electric refuse trucks, however, DSNY can take the next steps on evaluating the facilities to accommodate electrification infrastructure vs. the costs/space involved to convert them to natural gas.
“I have an 8-year cycle on most of my refuse fleet,” DiRico says. “My hope is I can get electric trucks into the fleet next year and pilot the technology. If successful, DSNY will have two entire life cycles to expand on those trucks to get down to the greenhouse gas emissions reductions required by the 2035 deadline. It’s certainly a stretch but DSNY must view all available technologies in order to meet those standards.”
Truck makers are feeling the pressure as well. Darren Gosbee is vice president, powertrain and advanced engineering, for Navistar, and he says that while electric vehicle technology is far from new, it is improving rapidly at a time when attitudes and conditions from all concerned players in trucking — government, fleets, OEMs, suppliers and shippers — are aligning.
“Navistar had an electric truck model available around 2011. But it was too early,” he says. “Since then, we’ve gained a lot of knowledge and picked up government support for the idea of battery-electric trucks. From the OEM perspective, we need electric vehicles to help comply with the next round of GHG standards coming in 2025. This will give us the ability to present a ‘corporate average’ of emissions put out by the trucks we’ll be selling them. So we’re going to push really hard to have electric trucks as part of our portfolio by then. Because in doing so, the offsetting capability those vehicles will have on our overall emissions number allow us to manufacture and sell more conventionally powered vehicles as well.”
Another key driver is the attitude of shippers and consumers, who are increasingly open to the idea of electric vehicles in their professional and personal lives. John Gerra, director of business development for electric truck maker BYD Motors, spoke to HDT while riding in one of his company’s tandem tractors hauling a load of trash to a local landfill. He says there is real enthusiasm to see electric trucks begin working in communities all over the country, because the benefits for those populations are immediate and obvious.
“These trucks are quiet, and they do not emit harmful pollutants into the air,” he says. “So right away, people can see the difference in overall health and environmental quality compared to diesel trucks — and they appreciate it.”
Gerra says BYD trucks will begin working on daily refuse routes in Seattle next year. But he rejects the notion that electric trucks are simply a “coastal elite” trend that may someday worm its way into the interior of North America. “At BYD, we’re seeing a lot of interest in electric trucks nationwide,” he says.
One big reason Gerra cites are the significant amounts of money available in many states thanks to the big payout Volkswagen had to make when it was found to have put “defeat” devices on its diesel-powered automobiles in 2015.
“Today, there are hundreds of millions of dollars available for fleets interested in electric trucks that have been allocated to states like Utah, Idaho and Colorado,” Gerra says. “This incentive money is available as a means to help reduce vehicle emissions. And when that money is used, it allows manufacturers like BYD to increase our production capacity and scale while driving costs down. So it’s a win-win situation that I believe will be increasingly important in the next several years.”
Richelle Carkin, a spokesperson for the new Electric Mobility Group at Daimler Trucks North America, believes electric trucks will be a game-changer for fleets in terms of ownership and operating costs. “While the share of e-vehicles in the market presently is still very low, and we are currently in the learning stage, there are major drivers that may cause the industry to shift to e-trucks and e-buses,” she says. “The first and main driver of adoption will be total cost of ownership. E-vehicles offer lower consumption/energy costs and maintenance. Once battery electric vehicles offer clearly lower operating cost over diesel-powered vehicles, customers will choose this technology over their current diesel-powered vehicles. However, improvements in battery technology and longevity, as well as reducing the cost of the batteries, play a key role in the business case for our customers.”
Helping along the TCO question is the fact that the cost of batteries and other specialized components for electric trucks is falling rapidly, says Thomas Healy, founder and CEO of Hyliion, a startup focused on hybrid electric technology for trucks. He says highly specialized automotive battery systems with fast charge/discharge rates have traditionally been prohibitively expense for both vehicle makers and potential customers.
“We don’t expect anyone to buy electric trucks because they’re worried about the environment or because they want to be nice,” says Gio Sordoni, co-founder and COO of Thor Trucks. “The beauty of these trucks is that fleets will be making the decision to deploy them based on bottom-line dollars and cents. There is a strong economic argument for the use of battery electric trucks today. And that’s why we’ve turned the corner in terms of growing interest and acceptance.”
‘Fantastic fit’ in certain applications
Battery electric trucks are reaping most of the headlines today, but it’s important to note that electrification is set to come into trucking in a variety of ways over the next few years.
It is highly likely, for example, that the next generation of GHG 2025-compliant diesel engines will use “mild” hybrid electric drive systems to boost torque at lower vehicle speeds while reducing emissions. And some companies, such as Nikola One, Toyota, and Kenworth, are looking to offset concerns about battery-electric vehicle range limitations by developing hydrogen-electric drivetrains they say will offer fleets zero GHG emissions with operational ranges much closer to diesel-powered rigs. (Nikola One already has orders from companies such as U.S. Xpress and Anheuser Busch, while Toyota and Kenworth are testing prototypes.)
Range limitations — and range anxiety — remain common talking points from opponents to electrification in trucking. If you’re used to thousand-mile runs in diesel trucks, electric truck range numbers tend to be underwhelming. And as yet, projected range numbers for battery electric trucks are all over the map, if you’ll pardon the pun.
Last fall, when Tesla Motors introduced its Semi electric truck, company founder and CEO Elon Musk boldly proclaimed that the Semi would have a 500-mile daily range — with a hour “top off” charge delivered via a high-capacity Tesla charging station. Nikola One has claimed that hydrogen fuel cells on its trucks will be able to replenish battery charges while on the highway, giving the truck a range of 1,200 miles.
Over the past year, however, it seems that several truck makers have been tamping down range expectations for the first generation of battery-electric vehicles.
Daimler Trucks North America recently unveiled an electric-powered eCascadia and an eM2 that are going through real-world tests at fleet partners this fall. The eCascadia focus is on port drayage and local and regional distribution, with a range of up to 250 miles, with the ability to charge up to 80% (providing another 200 miles) in about 90 minutes. The eM2 is designed for local distribution, pickup and delivery, food and beverage delivery, and last-mile logistics applications, with a range of up to 230 miles, and the ability to charge up to 80% (providing another 184 miles) in about 60 minutes. And Daimler’s Fuso eCanter is already available, a Class 4 truck with a 100-mile range, which can be quick-charged within an hour at a DC charging station or over eight hours using a 230-volt outlet.
“I don’t think the electric truck market is going to evolve any differently than the electric car market has,” says Shaun Skinner, vice president, sales, Isuzu Commercial Truck North America. “So in the beginning, I think we’ll see applications focused on short trips like inner city pickup and delivery routes.” (Isuzu showed a battery-electric N-Series cabover at the Work Truck Show earlier this year that’s now serving as a research vehicle.)
Additionally, Skinner says, electric trucks will require both fleets and drivers to adjust operational procedures and how they work, with the biggest initial challenge making sure the trucks can run the route without having to stop to recharge during the day, as well as developing procedures for checking that a truck is properly plugged in and charging when done with the route, so that it is fully charged before the next route begins.
“So initially, I think range anxiety is going to be a big concern for drivers and fleet managers,” Skinner says. “But, after learning how the trucks drive and learning the distance the truck will drive, the range anxiety will soon drop down to a minimal concern.”
“We don’t argue that electric trucks are a Holy Grail for everyone — they can’t solve every fleet’s problem,” says Thor Truck’s Semler. “But we do think they are going to be a fantastic fit in [certain] applications. We don’t need to go after long-haul fleets with 2,000-mile routes. Because, in reality, the majority of trucking applications today involve medium-duty vehicles in short-range duty cycles — which are a perfect fit for electric trucks.”
Daimler’s Carkin says that technically, an 80% charge in 30 minutes is possible, and some OEMs achieve this rate already in their passenger cars. “However, this rate of charging comes at a significant cost to the long-term health of the battery and requires a large investment in infrastructure. Range is a function of onboard battery capacity. Theoretically, with a long enough wheelbase and a tolerance for excessive curb weights, a 500-mile range is achievable today with current battery technology — if you are willing to sacrifice freight capacity.”
Or, as Semler says, “We could build a battery electric truck with a 2,000-mile range today. But you wouldn’t be able to carry much more than batteries on it.”
Scott Adams, senior vice president of the new eMobility business unit at Eaton, thinks electric trucks will be able to handle some heavy-duty hauling applications, but it will have to be on shorter distance routes — at least initially. “If you’re talking about daily routes ranging from [50 to 300 miles] a day, that’s where battery-electric trucks can make sense,” he says. “When you start talking about long-haul applications, we see that as a space that will be a better fit for mild hybrid electric drivetrains.”
Given those real-world operational parameters, Navistar’s Gosbee thinks the earlier adopters for electric commercial vehicles will be refuse and school bus fleets, since they have set routes and ample recharge times once the vehicles return to their shop at the end of their shift. In fact, he notes, Navistar’s joint electric truck venture with Volkswagen will initially focus on school bus models before concentrating on a Class 4 and 5 electric truck. “We’re demonstrating the benefits and capability of electric school buses now,” Gosbee notes. “And we’re looking to bring a battery-electric medium-duty vehicle online sometime in the 2020 timeframe.”
Likewise, Peterbilt has been working on electric truck drivetrains for two decades now, says Scott Newhouse, the company’s chief engineer, and today it has a working demonstrator model ready for evaluation. While he concedes there are legitimate, real-world applications that are an excellent fit for electric trucks, Newhouse says Peterbilt’s strategy at the moment is to hold off on full-blown deployment and production until an actual market materializes in North America. As Jason Skoog, Peterbilt general manager says, “Anything we do product-wise has to have solid, real-world applications with a timely return on investment for our customers.”
Magnus Koeck, vice president and brand manager for Volvo Trucks North America, notes that Volvo is currently testing two new electric truck models in Europe, as well as working with local municipalities on developing some sort of publicly accessible charging network. But long term, he has utterly no doubt electrics are coming. “I think that after the initial hype, electric trucks aren’t going to be a disruptive force at all,” he says. “Once fleets get their hands on them and see how familiar they are, they will quickly become just another option for fleet managers looking to move freight or get work done.”
Capabilities and limitations
At the end of the day, the race to get a viable electric truck to market that doesn’t have to come back to home base for charging every night boils down to battery technology and infrastructure. The first aspect of this challenge is progressing rapidly. The second, however, is hardly moving forward at all.
On the battery front, Hyliion’s Healy explains that lithium ion batteries are commonly used in electric vehicles because of how much energy they can store, as well as the rate at which they charge and discharge. This makes them preferable to lead acid batteries, which are not designed for high discharge and charge rates.
“If you took a lead acid battery and put it through the kinds of charge-recharge cycles electric trucks are going to require, it wouldn’t last a day,” he says. “With a fully electric truck, researchers now are trying to store as much energy as possible in a battery. Our approach, with a hybrid drive system, charges and recharges batteries very quickly. We work them very hard. And the batteries have undergone a huge evolution over the past several years. They’re getting more capable all the time.”
One major issue is heat management. Another is the robust electronic control system needed to manage energy discharge as well as kinetic energy captured when the vehicle is braking or coasting. “We have developed a full air conditioning system wholly dedicated to our batteries,” Healy says. “And we’ve been working nonstop for three years now on the algorithm side of the equation. These are highly complex energy management programs, and we’re just now getting ours to function at a level we’re happy with.”
Battery issues are a concern whether you’re talking about a hybrid like Hyliion’s or a full battery-electric vehicle. But for the latter, what about finding a charge when a truck is way from its base? That’s more problematic.
“The infrastructure issue is another area where we think it benefits us to be focused on commercial vehicles instead of passenger cars,” Thor’s Sordoni says.
Sordoni says Thor is actively working with state, local and the federal governments on infrastructure issues for electric trucks, but admits progress is slow. That said, he says Thor has a different outlook on charging commercial vehicles than most of his competitors and industry observers. “We don’t think fast charging — a 10- to 15-minute ‘topping off’ — is going to be relevant or particularly useful for trucks,” he says.
For one thing, Sordoni says, longer charging periods (at least two to three hours) greatly enhance battery life. “For another thing,” he says, “if 90% of the fleets using electric trucks are charging overnight at their own facilities with dwell times of six to eight hours, why worry about a problem that doesn’t exist?”
As with any emerging technology, there are going to be adjustments that fleets have to make, says Roy Horton, director of product strategy at Mack Trucks, who notes that electric trucks have far fewer moving parts than diesel ones, and are much quieter to operate.
“Fleets are simply going to have to educate themselves on electric trucks as they do with any new technology,” he says. “They’ll have to learn what their capabilities are. And what their limitations are — just like their forefathers had to do when diesel engines first became viable for trucking applications. Duty cycles will change. And there are going to be instances where fleets will either have to compromise or change how they operate. It’s just going to depend on the application in question.”
Electric trucks won’t be a fit for all North American fleets. But electric truck developers are increasingly confident they have a solution that will quickly be able to stand on its own merits and earn its own spot in today’s rapidly changing transportation sector.