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Are Electric Commercial Trucks Just A Fancy Thought?

Is it true? Are electric trucks likely to be a huge factor in the future of trucking? Perhaps, but if so, it likely won’t be a large, Class 8 heavy-duty commercial motor vehicle going all-electric anytime soon. Instead, you are more likely to see a service, local or regional route vehicle running as a quiet electric. The same could be said for panel vans, refuse or utility trucks.

The main reason these vehicles are more likely to be a candidate for electric conversion is because they have the type of power demands and manufacturing attributes that make them ideal for electrification. Those include limited daily ranges, easy access to a charging network and a duty cycle that allows for overnight charging.

Another differentiating factor is that OTR trucks are generally highly weight sensitive. When you can’t scale up the power because of battery limitations, it severely limits your ability to handle any number of weights within a load.

While heavy duty electric truck prototypes are currently undergoing proving at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, they can generally only make an 80-mile round trip before they must be recharged, and that’s only under a four to five thousand pound load.

Private Companies Fill the Breach

Still, that doesn’t mean companies aren’t actively filling the void to make heavy duty Class 8 electric trucks a reality. One such company, Motiv Power Systems, currently manages a refuse truck in Chicago. The route runs around 60 miles with an 18,000-pound payload and electronic garbage compactor. The company is also planning on testing an all-electric refuse truck in California.

Motiv’s design spec includes 10 battery backs equal up to 200 kilowatt hours of energy. For longer routes, the company works with modified chassis that can handle up to 12 battery packs. Still, this doesn’t represent enough power to get a full OTR load from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in one trip.

Where the company has seen greater success is in smaller vehicles. They have modified a Class 6 walk-in van which has seen the gasoline powertrain replaced by 127 killowatt hours of battery power. The van is rated to run up to 85 miles with up to 13,500 pounds of freight. The electric motor driving the vehicle gets up to 1,550 pounds feet of torque, claims the company. To put that in perspective, that kind of torque puts the van in 11-liter diesel engine territory.

Automotive Companies in the Game

This summer at the IAA commercial vehicle show in Germany, Mitsubishi unveiled the Fuso eCanter, which is slated to debut in North America in late October. According to the automotive giant, depending on how it’s loaded, the new eCanter will have a 60-mile range and can handle up to 5,000 pounds of freight.

When designing the truck, Mitsubishi admittedly focused more on being able to carry more weight than it did on the vehicle being able to travel greater distances. They based this decision on the preferences of the users of the previous iteration, the Fuso Canter E-Cell.

Just as traditionally different companies get into the electric car game (see: Dyson), startups are also getting in on the electric truck space. One small company, called Chanje, says it is developing a truck that can handle 6000 pounds over a 100-mile range before needing to be recharged.

According to the company’s head, who used to work for Smith Electric Vehicles, the prototype model has been designed as an all-electric vehicle, as opposed to a fossil fuel truck that has been retrofitted. Being that the vehicles was purpose-designed as a battery-electric vehicle, the technologies involved can be mass-produced on a global scale.

Even better, the company states that their electric truck will have up to 70% lower energy and maintenance costs. They will also offer battery leasing and energy supply service programs. They have also announced that they are designing a truck able to accommodate a greater range as opposed to a greater payload. Not surprisingly, Ryder has announced that it will partner with Chanje as an exclusive sales channel.

One of the reasons Ryder is getting into the game is due to them being a great insurance policy against fleet leasing options. Companies can gain exposure to new technologies through leasing vehicles in Ryder’s fleet, without being exposed to rapid depreciation should something change with the technology. Ryder assumes that responsibility.

Areas Suitable for Battery Power

Another area where battery power could be used is in yard shunting. Terminal trucks never travel far from their source of power and weight isn’t a consideration. This is where another company comes in.

Riverside, Missouri-based Orange EV builds electric truck terminals. According to their internal estimates, even moderate vehicle users could see savings of up to $30,000 per truck annually. Those savings are born out in lower fuel, maintenance and emissions-control costs.

Some estimates have put up to 8 million as the number of fossil fuel-based vehicles that would be ripe candidates for electrification. Represented in this number are vehicles that travel planned local routes amounting to less than 100 miles per-day. They also account for a lot of stops and starts along the route and expect the vehicle to be parked at an overnight depot with the stations required to recharge the vehicles before they hit the road the following day.

According to Mitsubishi, their new eCanter requires virtually no maintenance when compared to existing diesel trucks. E-motors require no oil changes and in the gear reduction boxes and rear axles, fluids can be kept for nearly 50,000 miles. Coolant for the motor and batteries need only be changed every 24 months or so.

Still, that raises the question – one that we keep coming back to – which is: What about linehaul applications? Will we ever see full-scale electrification? That answer remains murky.

Certainly, when it comes to electric commercial motor vehicles, fleet technicians will require a new level of training. Fortunately, due to already-changing considerations, many shop technicians already have a working knowledge of high-voltage systems, with electric refrigeration being one example.

It will be a lot easier since electric vehicles have far less moving parts than their conventional fossil fuel counterparts. Fleet trade cycles will also change dramatically since the typical lifecycle of an electric truck is going to be 10 – 15 years, as opposed to the 5 – 6 years currently for diesel-powered trucks.

Why Linehaul Electric Trucks Are a Ways Off

The fact is, current battery technology doesn’t support linehaul applications. In many of these situations, trucks can run up to 140,000 miles in a single year. Doing rough calculations, on a vehicle fully loaded to its 80,000-pound capacity, a 22,000-pound battery would be needed to complete one day’s worth of driving at normal highway speeds.

Driving this reality are the fundamental differences between internal combustion and electric-drive vehicles. Since many electric vehicles don’t have traditional powertrains, there is a different manufacturing paradigm at stake. Whether it be no engine, a gear-reduction drive device in place of the transmission or hub motors located in the wheel ends, these are certainly very different vehicles.

Batteries are the lynchpin in this entire discussion. They are still too expensive and heavy to pull the weight they need to for OTR applications. And although costs are coming down, they are not yet being produced to such a scale that prices are driven down even further.

Electric powertrains still have a way to go before full maturity. The cost efficiencies associates with 100 years of utilizing internal combustion vehicles still has not been realized in the electric category. Improvements in high-volume manufacturing must be realized before electric trucks see wide adoption.

Battery Prices Take a Tumble

Some say that the precipitous drop in lithium-ion battery prices will usher in this new age of electric vehicle adoption. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, lithium-ion battery packs have dropped from $1,000 per kilowatt/hour to around $275 per kilowatt/hour in 2016.

If prices continue to stabilize at that rate, expect to see electric vehicles surpass their internal combustion counterparts before 2040. Yet a recent report in Wired magazine poured a lot of cold water on the notion that OTR electric trucks are going to take over the roadways any time soon.

According to their analysis, to travel 600 miles without stopping to charge, the truck would require a battery weighing 14 tons. How much would a battery of that size and weight cost? Nearly half-a-million dollars. Although “next generation” batteries promise a 600-mile range for around $180,000, they still would not have reached the price point required to justify full-scale OTR adoption.

So, will we see freeways dominated by electric trucks in the near future? While the answer is still unknown, widespread approval and desired adoption of these vehicles means that development will only continue. As the world moves farther away from oil and fossil fuels, electric vehicle demand will continue to rise. Will your fleet be ready when the time comes? Legacy fossil fuel systems may still have some life in them, but their days could be numbered.

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