Battery-electric vehicles are the key to zero-emission commercial transportation in North America, according to Daimler Trucks North America, which is moving forward with battery-electric vehicle commercialization, contending that hydrogen fuel cells aren’t ready for prime time.
“The road to emissions-free transportation is going to be driven with battery-electric vehicles. I believe the future is electric,” said Roger Nielsen, president and CEO of DTNA, speaking to a crowd assembled in Long Beach for the ACT Expo April 24.
The company announced it will begin converting its Portland manufacturing plant to produce electric Freightliners, “to enable rapid scale-up of thoroughly tested and validated electric vehicles,” it said in a release.
The company sees potential for hydrogen fuel cells to extend battery-electric truck range, but does not see it as viable in the near term, Nielsen explained. Although DTNA’s vision of electric vehicles does not exclude fuel cells, he said, “I can see a glimpse of it over the horizon, but it will not be this generation of engineers who will be delivering it.”
Nielsen’s view on hydrogen fuel cell trucks contrasts with that of Trevor Milton, founder and CEO of Nikola, who says the company can deliver hydrogen fuel cell heavy-duty trucks in just a few years. And Toyota and Kenworth just two days previous unveiled their joint fuel-cell project truck designed for port drayage.
Nielsen also told the audience that the road to emissions-free driving, for DTNA at least, does not include plug-in hybrids. Near-zero-emissions natural gas medium- and heavy-duty vehicles are currently available and will continue from Freightliner as an interim solution until full commercialization of the battery-electric Freightliner eM2 and eCascadia.
DTNA unveiled the eM2 and eCascadia last summer. The Freightliner eM2 truck is an electrified solution for local distribution, pickup and delivery, food and beverage delivery, and last-mile logistics applications. The Freightliner eCascadia is a Class 8 tractor designed for local and regional distribution and drayage. Both trucks enter series production in 2021. The Freightliner eCascadia and eM2 are part of Daimler Trucks’ global electrified truck initiative, joining the company’s Thomas Built Buses all-electric Saf-T-Liner eC2 school bus, the FUSO eCanter, and the Mercedes-Benz eActros.
How do we get there?
To hasten the arrival of zero-emission commercial transport, three goals must first be achieved, Nielsen said. First, the industry must work together to establish a common battery-electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Daimler AG is a founding member of CharIN, an organization whose aim is to standardize charging requirements for electric vehicles, including commercial vehicles.
Second, batteries must become cheaper, lighter, and more powerful. DTNA is leveraging its global network to develop proprietary batteries for its commercial vehicles that meet the standards of quality, durability, and integration that customers demand.
Finally, he said, the real cost of ownership for customers must be strengthened through increased incentives, decreased maintenance costs, and cheaper energy costs. Organizations like the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) will be instrumental in creating a viable business case for electric trucks. A $16M grant from SCAQMD partially funds the Freightliner Electric Innovation Fleet.
The key to ensuring electric vehicles are ready for commercialization is testing, Nielsen noted. With its first electric truck already in customer hands, DTNA plans to put nearly 50 on the road by the end of the year. This includes a test fleet and the Freightliner Electric Innovation Fleet shared between Penske and NFI. (Penske took delivery of its first eM2 in December.)
Affiliated brands Fuso and Mercedes-Benz trucks have already begun deliveries of the battery-electric eCanter and eActros in Asia, Europe, and North America. By the end of 2019, over 150 battery-electric vehicles powered by Daimler will be deployed for testing, co-creation and collaboration worldwide.
“For our engineers, these early customer partners are our test drivers. We want them to test these vehicles to their extremes. We want to see the failures so we can engineer solutions,” said Nielsen.
Last year DTNA formed the Freightliner Electric Vehicle Council composed of 30 customers with strong use-cases for electric trucks to further drive its sustainable transportation program. The company is working with the council members to ensure a holistic approach to launching electric trucks. Members of the customer council benefit from co-development of deployment strategies for battery electric vehicles including applicable use cases, current legislation and requirements for facilities, charging infrastructure, and service support
Readying for electric truck production
To enable rapid scale-up of thoroughly tested and validated electric vehicles, DTNA announced it will convert the Portland manufacturing plant to produce electric Freightliners. The plant lies just blocks from DTNA’s headquarters. The plant renovations begin next year, with series production scheduled to begin in 2021.
The company’s decision to bring electric vehicle production to Portland was based on multiple factors, including Portland’s proximity to the huge demand for electric vehicles in California. In addition to production, the Portland manufacturing facility will also host a battery storage facility and an electric vehicle co-creation center, where the e-consulting team will collaborate with customers. Here they will integrate electric trucks into their fleets from order intake through the second life of the truck.
DTNA’s school bus division, Thomas Built Buses (TBB), is nearly ready to begin producing Proterra-powered Saf-T-Liner eC2s. The buses will be assembled at TBB’s school bus manufacturing plant in High Point, North Carolina.