We have spent a lot of time lately talking about electric trucks, but there is a good reason for that. Many are expecting electric vehicles to overtake internal combustion vehicles on our nation’s roads and highways within the next decade. And here at the QuickTSI blog, we pride ourselves on focusing on industry-leading topics. We want to be the source, so we bring you all the relevant and cutting-edge trucking news. Electric tractor/trailers fit right into that wheelhouse.
Let’s start with the problem. Many trucking companies – no matter their size – struggle with setting up procedures to properly handle and maintain new technology. Fleet managers find themselves running into problems as they try to integrate electric commercial motor vehicles into diesel internal combustion fleets. The main problems they face are related to maintenance transitions.
So, as OEMs and suppliers write the maintenance manuals and diagnostics procedures, technicians are groping in the dark trying to set up maintenance policies and procedures for electric vehicles. From parts procurement to charging needs, setting up your fleet for an electric future is not easy. Let’s dig into the best way to approach it.
A Matter of Moving Parts
One of the biggest differences between hybrid and all-electric vehicles is in the moving parts. Electric motors typically have one moving part. You don’t have to worry about fluids, greasing parts, getting parts installed correctly, or parts failing on each other. Essentially far fewer things can go wrong when working with electric trucks. Still, most of the periodic maintenance will be similar to the procedures for internal combustion vehicles. The only difference is the number of new components that needs to be inspected.
Having far fewer moving parts is part of the design intent for electric vehicles. Whether it be for the motors, inverters, cables, and so on, these parts are meant to last a lifetime with only periodic inspections required. The main concern for shop technicians should be ensuring that cables are not rubbing together, and connectors are not failing or falling apart.
Considerations must also be made for components that are ubiquitous for both internal combustion and electric vehicles. These components include, but are not limited to conditioning compressors, power steering pumps, and coolant pumps. And since electric vehicles are not belt-driven, shop technicians will need to set up entirely new maintenance protocols to deal with the ancillary devices required on big rigs.
What Should You Inspect?
So, the question remains: If electric rigs must undergo a different maintenance regime, what components should you inspect and how should you inspect them? Consider the following:
- Motor/Inverter: Your motor is the most important part of an electric vehicle. It is analogous to the engine in a diesel truck. And one similarity between internal combustion and electric motors is that they both use oil and wires. Inspect your motor to ensure there is no oil leakage or loose connections.
- Battery: Your battery is your fuel on an electric semi. When inspecting it, look for damage or loose connections. Battery overheating is a problem all OEMs try to avoid, but when it happens, heat damage will be visible on the battery. Look for it.
- Cables and Wiring Connectors: Your cables and wiring connectors are responsible for shuttling the energy your rigs needs to run through to the wheels. Look for damage, corrosion, or loose connections.
- Tires: Electric rigs tend to deliver higher levels of torque to the wheels. Acceleration comes quicker, so you want to make sure you inspect your tires due to the higher torque your wheels experience.
- Manual Service Disconnect: The manual service disconnect is the component responsible for de-energizing the system when it is not in use. You want to verify it is doing its job by testing it during your inspection.
There are other components you may need to examine as well, from controllers to e-axles if they are equipped. But the components listed above are by far the most important.
Brake Maintenance Changes
Another area that technicians will need to adjust to is braking. Brake maintenance will change dramatically for electric and hybrid-electric vehicles. The good news is that brake maintenance is reduced dramatically on an electric vehicle. Why? Because regenerative braking will do most of the work.
Cooling fluid maintenance will also change. In an electric vehicle, the cooling fluid is used for the batteries and controllers. Establishing a proper change interval for your cooling fluid will be important. This is where an effective electric fleet maintenance schedule must be implemented.
Today, fleet maintenance schedules are built around specific component services. These may include things like oil drop or belt change intervals. On electric vehicles, those intervals will change. Trucking companies will have to develop their own timelines and be disciplined to ensure inspections are happening at the same frequency as they were before.
A Primer on Battery Maintenance
The batteries are one of the most important parts of an electric vehicle. Without the power they supply, nothing works. They are the fuel. And while batteries are not expected to require physical maintenance outside of inspections, the cells within a battery can become misaligned or out of balance over time. Technicians will need to set up processes by which the batteries are balanced and maintained. This will ensure you get a full charge and a full discharge. It also ensures your original battery capacity remains level.
Some OEMs are developing software-driven algorithms that detect when a battery is out of balance. Once balancing issues are detected, the system then sends alerts to technicians who then go in and fix it. In many cases, the key will be to leave the truck plugged in and on a charge for a few hours after each charging cycle. Not doing so could cause the battery to lose balance.
OEM software solutions that have an auto-balancing function can take care of this problem without any human intervention. As a result, fleets who invest in this technology will hardly ever need to perform out of balance battery maintenance. Fleets without auto balancing will likely need to recalibrate the battery once every three months.
New Shop Tools for Electric Trucks
Working on electric rigs will also require a re-thinking of your shop tools and layout. Fortunately, it doesn’t need to be a huge shift. Unlike with natural gas and hydrogen fuel cell, shop changes will remain minimal for electric and hybrid-electric trucks. You won’t have to install insulated flooring or complex fire suppression systems. There are no volatile gases that could cause a dangerous situation in the shop.
Still, you will need to create extra space in the tool crib for the special tools technicians need to work on electric rigs. Specifically, electric vehicles require the use of insulated tools. You may also need special lift equipment to move the battery around the shop. Batteries on electric vehicles are the heaviest and most volatile component on those vehicles.
Obviously, you need to charge electric rigs, so a fast charger should immediately be a consideration. Charging infrastructure is critical to a successful electric CMV operation. And you need to be strategic about where you place your chargers. You may want to have one both in the shop and in the yard. Most trucking companies in North America should be fine using a Level 2 charger. Fortunately, chargers are not outrageously expensive, so even smaller fleets should be able to afford them.
Tweak Your Training Methods
The most important thing in the end will be training. There is going to be a learning curve around electric vehicle maintenance. Basic maintenance will require less elbow crease and tool use. Instead, much of maintenance, both preventative and reactive, will happen on a computer using specialized software and diagnostic tools.
The good news is there are enough parallels between the systems that the transition should be smooth. Class A technicians with experience on internal combustion maintenance and fuel management should be able to adapt fairly easily. The area that will require the most re-training and new safety protocols will be on the high-voltage equipment.
But even the low-voltage side will also seem a bit different. 12-volt connectors for electric vehicles are quite different from those on standard diesel or natural gas systems. Technicians will need to know how to recognize the new components and read new schematic types. Service tools will also look quite different.
Fortunately, OEMs, vendors, trucking companies, and others within the sector are working towards making electric truck adoption easier. With California setting mandates on the matter, many simply have no choice. But with all the work going into setting up standards and training, fleet managers should have what they need for a smooth transition.