Electric trucks dominated the conversation during a panel discussion on the state of alternative fuels in which the speakers presented a not-too-far-off future where nearly silent and emission-less vehicles will likely find a place in trucking.
The State of Alternative Fuels and Connected Tech panel held April 24 at the ACT Expo in Long Beach, California, with speakers from Penske Truck Leasing, NFI, Volvo Trucks North America, and Nikola Motor Company. The discussion featured a frank conversation about the viability of electric vehicles in commercial applications.
Natural gas, propane, and traditional diesel were still present at the annual event, but a cursory walk through the show floor suggested that a shift toward electric vehicle development is well under way.
On the Cusp of Transformation
That new focus was captured by Paul Rosa, senior vice president of procurement & fleet planning for Penske Truck Leasing, when he told the audience “we are on the cusp of the transformation of truck power.”
The truck leasing giant has made moves in recent months that would seem to indicate a real interest in electric truck power, however early the stage. On the same day as the panel, the company announced the addition of heavy-duty electric vehicle charging stations at four of its Southern California facilities.
Both Penske and trucking and 3PL services provider NFI are early adopters of electric trucks, agreeing to work with Daimler to operate heavy- and medium-duty electric trucks from Freightliner’s Innovation fleet. Ike Brown, vice chairman and co-owner of NFI, said that electric trucks make a lot of sense for his fleet because the average haul is no more than 300 miles.
Volvo Trucks North America president Peter Voorhoeve said that the demand for electric trucks was already apparent. Trevor Milton, chief executive officer of Nikola Motor Company, which recently unveiled the Nikola Two Class 8 truck in both battery and hydrogen-fueled versions, was so confident in the technology that he envisions his trucks as the iPhone of trucking, ushering in a new era of technology where there previously was none.
The Wild West of Electric Trucks
For fleets, the availability and viability of electric trucks is still a mystery. Even for early adopters with an interest, the options are few and the realities are unknown.
Penske is taking an experimental approach to electric trucks. It has already taken delivery of Freightliner eM2 and Mitsubishi Fuso eCanter vehicles, which it will then lease to interested fleets that might have a business-use case.
Because the technology is so new, Penske said it has to learn its limitations before it will even offer the trucks on a large scale. “We tell customers that they may not be able to handle some of these new technologies,” said Rosa.
This means that at first, Penske will take a slow approach to adoption, though that could change, he said. “As long as something is performing well, we’ll go faster.”
“I get emails every day about some new technology. We have to look at works best for us,” said NFI’s Brown. He also said that his company has a solid use case for electric vehicles. “Electric trucks make a lot of sense for us. I could very well see 30% of our fleet become electric trucks.”
For truck builders, too, there is a lot of uncertainty. Volvo has produced some electric vehicles, at first for European markets, but the company also announced plans for an electric version of the VNR for the North American regional-haul market.
Volvo’s Voorhoeve said that when Nikola and other up-and-comers started to announce electric trucks several years ago, it put pressure on the existing global truck OEMs to develop solutions of their own. “The path [to electric trucks] is clear and that’s where we’re going,” he said. If anything, he added that he was most concerned about continued efforts by the government to incentivize development efforts through grants and tax credits.
“If we don’t incentivize it, it’s going to be a long road,” Voorhoeve explained, challenging legislators to support more electric truck development.
Nikola was among the earliest to stake a claim in the electric vehicle Wild West, announcing the Nikola One truck in late 2016. But even with all of the money and effort it has spent to produce a truck, Nikola’s Milton expects there to be difficulties early on.
“We’re going to have a lot of problems, said Milton. “I guarantee you’re going to see a Nikola truck on the side of the road.”
What About Range?
While battery electric trucks were the focus of much of the discussion, Nikola’s hydrogen fuel-cell design highlights one of the key limitations of the technology – range. So far, nearly all of the electric trucks that have been announced or developed are strictly for regional and urban applications, leaving long-haul trucking with a lack of potential options.
Nikola’s solution is to equip its trucks with hydrogen fuel-cell stacks that can generate enough energy to keep the electric motor going for extended distances. And best of all, instead of hours of charging a battery, hydrogen can be refueled completely at a station like other fuels.
The hardest part for Nikola is building out a usable infrastructure for its customers so that hydrogen fuel is available where it is needed. The company claims to already have billions of dollars in orders from fleets.
When he was asked about the high upfront costs and risks his company was taking, Milton said that he wasn’t so worried about short-term risks because his vision for the company was for the long term.
“We’re in it for 50 years,” said Milton. “My entire life I have been around risk. The more people doubt us, the more I want to prove them wrong.”
The elephant in the room for the panel was the event’s most visibly absent player, Tesla. That OEM claims its Tesla Semi electric truck will be a combination of all options, short and long range, with the promise of a supportive infrastructure. Not only that, Tesla has been successfully producing consumer electric vehicles as long as anyone, increasing production levels and charging infrastructure the whole time.
“I’ve had a Tesla for four years now and I’ve never seen the inside of a Tesla service shop,” noted NFI’s Brown.
Most on the panel agreed that for the immediate future, electric trucks would exist as a niche offering, supported economically by government incentives and limited to specific, shorter range applications.
The demand for electric power is growing, the technology is improving, but it’s still a way from being a true competitor in commercial transportation. But if it ever reaches that point, the benefits promise to be unmatched – emissions-free operation, fewer moving parts to break, and more power and efficiency.
“People see the value in a clean environment,” said Voorhoeve. “If we are all serious about a cleaner environment, we should put our money where our mouth is.”