Daimler Trucks North America President and CEO Roger Nielsen recently sat down with HDT to discuss the future of electric trucks in the trucking industry and explain why he thinks it is the end game that everyone is pushing towards. After addressing the crowd at this year’s ACT Expo, Nielsen went into more detail on how DTNA is not only riding the new wave of truck electrification, but planning for the changes and challenges that lie ahead.
Electric vs. CNG/Hydrogen
At the end of the day, Nielsen and DTNA have a realistic outlook on how long it will take to get to an all-electric future. But to not every step will be necessary to make it to the end of the road. In terms of other alternative fuel choices, namely hydrogen fuel cells and compressed natural gas, while he would “love to do all those things, they’re just interim steps along the way.”
“When we say the future is electric, this is the end game,” said Nielsen. “And no matter if we do a plug-in hybrid on it or put a fuel cell on it, the base core vehicle architecture remains relatively the same. So our investment right now in getting the core vehicle correct is what’s key.”
While these other systems can be viable, manufacturers can only put so many things on a vehicle, which is why Nielsen said that manufacturers need to get the battery packaging size down and increase the power density.
“These are key things that I want the industry to focus on. Companies put a lot of money into CNG, which is an interim technology, which could mean it might last for 25 or 30 years, but it’s not the end game,” he added.
In terms of the need for a robust and universal electric charging infrastructure, DTNA is working with Charging Interface Initiative e. V. (CharIN), a global group that has focused on the development and establishment of a combined charging system that will be used as the global standard for charging battery powered electric vehicles.
“CharIN is well on their way to collecting proposals for a common interface and I would expect in the next month or so they start making some decisions on what that standard would look like and take it to the standardization authorities to get it officially recognized,” said Nielsen.
Aside from DTNA and other OEMs, the group includes utilities, industry “disruptors,” and many of the shared suppliers that are working with truck makers like DTNA to bring electrification to the industry.
“The table was big and we invited everyone to sit,” said Nielsen, adding that many came with opinions from the end users on what they want when it comes to charging options. “They’ve said: ‘Don’t make me have two charging systems. Don’t make me have pigtails for a driver to run over and get lost. Just come back with a standard interface.’ When you get unleaded fuel, you don’t want the Shell station to have a different nozzle than the Exxon station. To get the industry to cooperate on a universal charger is not easy, but I think we’re well on our way.”
Co-Creation Process with Fleets
During past truck development phases, DTNA would developed a truck for seven years, showing customers little hints here and there.
“With diesel and the smaller steps in evolution that we’ve made in the past, that might have been possible, but now there is such a big change – electrics, fueling structure, the trucks driving differently – we think it’s important that companies and their drivers experience it up front so there are no surprises,” explained Nielsen. “And in that co-creation process they come to us. We’re meeting every three months with 30 customers in a group, we call them our electric vehicle council, and they get to hear from the customers driving the trucks – what was their experience, what did you think here – it’s a real honest exchange, and they’re coming back and giving us advice from standard charging interfaces to packaging to not letting the truck accelerate too fast.”
When DTNA developed the original Cascadia, the OEM put 24 million miles on its own trucks before putting them in the marketplace. DTNA will now “share” those miles with its customers, allowing them a chance to give their input upfront, not just on paper, but by actually driving the trucks and coming back and telling the company what they think.
A Slew of New Electric Vehicle Companies
While a number of new companies have unveiled their own electric vehicles into the marketplace, the process is more than “just putting batteries on a truck,” said Nielsen.
“A vehicle is more than a powertrain. A customer wants his truck to be safe, dependable, reliable, which means everything from brake pads to the safety systems, to advance cruise control/adaptive cruise control, analog brakes, and even how does the truck handle different road conditions. Through hours experience we’ve been able to gather all that, like what’s the road like in the outback of Australia, to what’s it like to have to start up a truck when its minus 40 degrees Celsius or Fahrenheit in upper Canada – we have that kind of experience and we know what test conditions we are going to have to put these trucks through before a customer will be happy.”
Nielsen added that DTNA has “learned the hard way” and other companies will need to experience the same growing pains before putting their vehicles out to market. To assist in any bumps along this new road, DTNA’s network of service providers will be there to help ensure that customers will be experiencing as little downtime as possible. But the door is open to collaboration, as Nielsen sees the pros to bringing new minds and new ideas to this space.
“We’re learning from them and they’re definitely learning from us. We’re excited about what some of the disruptors are bringing to the marketplace,” said Nielsen.
Electric Truck Resale Value
As fleets begin to put miles on these new electric trucks, resale value will be one of then considerations when pulling the trigger on a purchase. With many fleets still experiencing issues related to driver retention and driver recruitment, the promise of driving a new vehicle, albeit an electric one, might have an effect on how well they can find and keep drivers.
“This has become a serious part of the business model,” said Nielsen. “There has to be a market at the end of the first life cycle and after the second life cycle to make the equation work. The fleets want predictability. They don’t want to have to guess whether it’s worth X, Y or Z five years from now.”
The big expense question in terms of reselling these trucks will be the need to replace the batteries before they sell the truck. Fleets will want to know how much life is left in the batteries, and whether or not they will have to spend $30,000 or $40,000 on a battery pack after purchasing a used electric truck.
“Nobody can answer that question yet, we have to get there,” he concluded.