A bright future for electric trucking in America
Trucks. We sure do love them in America. We’ve all heard passionately loyal truck owners say they would never consider switching brands. And, looking around, we can easily see the love people have for their trucks by the thousands of dollars in customizations they make to them. Deeper-sounding exhaust systems, lift kits that raise common light-duty trucks to monster-truck levels, larger wheel and tire combinations for crawling over boulders and through the deepest of mud bogs. There’s no mistaking it, American truck owners revel in driving trucks that not only get the job done with ease but look amazing doing it.
The question is, what do the current attitudes surrounding truck ownership, both passenger and commercial, mean for the receptiveness to the clean, quiet, and often elegantly designed electric trucks currently being conceptualized by new startups and legacy brands? Not to mention acceptance of worlds-apart styling like Tesla’s Cybertruck?
No doubt, the use-case benefits of electric trucks are glaringly obvious if well-executed. Despite the potential long-term benefits though, there are many challenges for electric, and the first is the mental shift necessary for truck owners to switch from the proven performance of their diesel trucks to smaller, silent, emission-free trucks that appear less capable. And that’s just for personal light-duty trucks. Commercial light-duty trucks and larger Class 8 semis pose much bigger problems for the adoption of electrified drivetrains when considering the impact higher payloads and longer distances have on battery systems and charging infrastructure.
Personal truck purists may be a hard sell
The electric truck and SUV concepts we’ve recently seen from Rivian certainly look like electric vehicles both on the outside and the inside. Then there is the polarizing design of the Tesla Cybertruck that in no way resembles anything we’ve ever seen. This might not be a good thing when attempting to maximize the adoption of new technology. It’s not easy convincing salt of the earth, hard-working diesel dually drivers that turning on the heat will now require taking their leather work gloves off so they don’t mar up the pretty touchscreen control system. Some may say it’s not really a truck if you have to be that gentle with it, and understandably so. There is work to be done, after all.
Considering the light truck market is the darling of the automotive industry with dominant annual sales numbers when compared with other vehicles in auto-maker lineups, some legacy brands are cautiously contemplating anything that may turn off their intensely brand-loyal buyers. Daimler Trucks North America CEO Roger Nielsen believes the focus at this stage shouldn’t be on rushing to market, but on acquiring knowledge and building customers’ confidence in this technology. “I don’t want to get caught in some kind of race,” Nielsen said during a media roundtable in October. “What we’re trying to do is get the most experience that we can.”
Trucks with electric powertrains certainly possess the potential to displace fossil-fuel trucks when it comes to utility. The incredible low-end torque capabilities of electric motors can make doing hard-working truck things easier without the fossil fuel costs, air pollution, and mechanical malfunctions of diesel and gas motors. Additionally, when building a vehicle from the ground-up, there is more room for adding benefits such as onboard pneumatic systems that can both run tools and adapt the suspension to varying needs. Indeed, if the Tri-Motor Cybertruck features and performance stats are legitimate, buyers will have some real reasons to overcome any qualms they may have about the styling.
Perhaps some brands will serve truck buyers who prefer a more classic truck style by finding ways to simply swap out the powertrains, leaving the rest of the truck visibly identical or only slightly modified. In fact, Ford is developing an electric version of its F-150, rumored to roll out as early as 2021. They even made a publicity video of the truck pulling a train full of fossil-fuel-powered F-150’s. That’s at least one legacy brand going the traditional-style route. If there’s one thing the legacy truck brands know, it’s how to make trucks that scratch the style itch of people who prefer a truck that looks more brawny than graceful. It will be exciting to see how they introduce EV trucks into their lineups with styling that doesn’t discourage purists from giving them a chance.
Commercial trucks are a much bigger challenge
Challenging as it may be for electric to gain acceptance in the personal light-duty truck market, the big commercial Class 8 semis that play an integral roll in our country’s economy pose even greater challenges for electric implementation, but much less due to aesthetics or perceptions of weakness. It’s a no-brainer for any fleet to switch from diesel to a powertrain made up of electric motors and batteries if it can crank out the same miles in the same amount of time. Currently, that’s the main hurdle to overcome for companies working on electric technology for commercial trucks. “The coast-to-coast Class 8 sleeper, I think, is a long way from being electrified purely as a battery-electric vehicle,” said Darren Gosbee, Vice President of Engineering at Navistar, Inc. “The battery technology, we believe, has to go through another revolution of development to be able to get to a point where the energy density of the battery is there.”
Beyond the engineering struggles with long-haul trucks, there are still infrastructure considerations that can make electrifying even a local-only fleet cost-prohibitive or too disruptive to the organization. The massive batteries of EV trucks require staggeringly large amp loads to recharge, and the electrical service necessary to deliver the amount of power needed to recharge even a few EV rigs can totally max out the electrical capabilities of the building. Upgrading existing buildings might be too costly, or worse, it may be necessary to completely move operations to facilities in an area with more adequate support from local electric utilities. This, keep in mind, is the major challenge companies are having that operate local route trucks that are back in the depot each night. For long-haul fleets, the infrastructure complications go much further.
Most obviously, the biggest challenge for OTR fleets is that there needs to be significant charging infrastructure put in place along the routes that long-haul trucks frequent. Just think about all of the trucks filling up the lots and ramps at rest areas every single night. Most idle all night long to maintain power supplies for the comforts of sleeper cab living. What if instead, they needed to charge up? That’s a real problem.
Trillium, which was acquired by Love’s Travel Stops & Country Stores in 2016, is working on solutions for long-haul charging that go beyond reliance on the local electric utilities. The company, best known for its more than 200 public and private CNG fueling stations, is expanding into electrification through a partnership with EV Connect, an electric vehicle charging firm, to establish light-duty charging sites at four Love’s locations in California. Trillium’s managing director, Bill Cashmareck said the company is developing a vehicle charging system that would produce on-site power from generators, turbines, and potentially solar energy, giving customers the ability to take power-generation into their own hands and reduce or even eliminate utility charges. That concept could work at a public truck stop or even a customer’s private lot, Cashmareck said. “We think we’re coming up with some innovative solutions for the EV market if fleets choose to go that way.
It seems most of the talk about transitioning Class 8 semis to clean power is about going fully electric and not so much about developing diesel-electric hybrids. One reason is that diesel-electric hybrids still have to navigate the regulations required for diesel. “To me, a hybrid gives you the worst of both worlds,” said Martin Daum, head of Daimler’s global truck and bus division, “You still have to fulfill all the regulations on exhaust for any given diesel truck,” and then you add the challenges of introducing battery-electric technology. That said, there’s a compelling argument for having a powertrain configuration where diesel produces power for most of the trip and then switches to electric power for local deliveries in more sensitive areas where noise and pollution are a stronger concern. Johannes-Joerg Rueger, president of Bosch’s global commercial vehicles business, said in an interview at IAA, “For the last mile, being able to drive fully electric would certainly be a plus. It comes with a cost but would offer some additional options.” It seems that at least for now, the viability of hybrid powertrains in long-haul trucks is still up for debate.
While electrification for OTR fleets isn’t quite here en-masse yet, there is some near-term good news for commercial EV viability when it comes to light and medium-duty local fleets. With shorter trips, lower payloads, and trucks that are back in the local depot nightly, the light and medium-duty local commercial truck segments face far fewer challenges than the OTR Class 8 segment currently does, making them an ideal candidate for developing the technology further for their larger truck counterparts.
One example is the new Peterbilt Model 220EV delivered to PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay division in October of this year. Frito-Lay is starting off their Zero- and Near-Zero-Emission Freight Facility Project with six of the battery-electric medium-duty trucks in its Modesto, Calif. fleet. The zero-emission 220EV is powered by two battery packs for a total capacity of 148kWh, coupled with a Meritor Blue-Horizon two-speed drive eAxle. It boasts a range of more than 100 miles and only one hour needed to recharge, making it ideal for local pick-up and delivery routes.
Many more applications are in the works, too. “Peterbilt continues to lead the charge in electric commercial vehicle development. With Frito-Lay’s Model 220EV, Peterbilt will have 15 battery-electric trucks in three applications — city delivery, regional haul, and refuse — in customers’ hands running real routes and collecting real-world validation data,” said Jason Skoog, Paccar vice president and Peterbilt general manager.
This is exciting news for local delivery, refuse collection, and even tradecraft businesses with fleets, especially considering fuel consumption and maintenance costs are higher for city than highway driving, offering even greater returns on investment in electric fleets. Better yet, these companies will have even fewer barriers to adoption once localized power generation options become more prevalent in the marketplace. All this adds up to higher rates of adoption for light-duty and medium-duty electric trucks, paving the way for technological advances that will offer greater viability for electric in the Class 8 market.
One thing is for sure, and that is trucks of all sizes have an exciting new future ahead of them. Battery technology is only getting better, and the stakes for companies working on electric truck technologies are tremendous, creating huge incentives to invest in the research and development of electric truck tech. This means it’s only a matter of time until we enjoy remarkable new ways to love the trucks we drive and that drive the growth of our country.