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Electric Trucks: Zap in the Pan?

September 2017, TruckingInfo.com - Feature

by Jim Park - Also by this author

You won’t hear it coming, but there is likely to be an electric truck in your future, and it will arrive sooner than you think. It won’t be an-all electric Class 8 over-the-road truck, at least for the foreseeable future. More likely it will be a yard tractor, a service vehicle, or a local or regional route vehicle such as a panel van or a refuse or utility truck.

These vehicles all have the type of power demands and operating attributes that make them ideal candidates for electrification, such as limited daily ranges, easy access to recharging or a duty cycle that allows for overnight charging — and for the most part, they are not highly weight-sensitive.

Weight is certainly a limiting factor with Class 8 trucks, but there are already fully electric ones working in this country. Several are proving viable, if just barely, at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Even with 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of batteries on board, they can make round trips of only 80 miles or so before they must be recharged.

One company that is making batteries work in the Class 8 space is Motiv Power Systems of Foster City, California. Motiv currently has one refuse truck on trial in Chicago, where it reportedly manages routes of about 60 miles with an 18,000-pound payload while running a hydraulic compactor. The company recently announced plans to put an all-electric automated left-side loader garbage truck into testing in Sacramento, California, for residential refuse and recycling routes.

Motiv’s electric refuse vehicle is equipped with 200 kilowatt-hours of energy in 10 battery packs. The chassis can accommodate up to 12 battery packs to handle longer routes if required.

The company has also had success on a smaller scale, a Class 6 walk-in van built by Morgan-Olsen Work Truck Bodies. Motiv says the traditional gasoline powertrain has been replaced with up to 127 kWh of battery power that will run a route of 85 miles with a 13,500-pound payload. It’s driven by a 180-kW/240-hp electric motor that the company says produces up to — get this — 1,550 lb-ft of torque. That’s 11L diesel territory.

Then there are the lighter medium-duty trucks, such as Mitsubishi Fuso’s eCanter, which premiered at the IAA commercial vehicle show in Hanover, Germany, last fall. It will make its North American debut in New York City this month. It’s a Class 4 with a battery capacity of 70 kWh and a 185 kW motor. Depending on the body, load and usage, it has a range of more than 60 miles with a payload of more than 5,000 pounds. The company says in designing the powertrain, it chose to favor higher payload rather than extend the potential range of the truck, based on the preferences of European customers who are already using the previous generation of the truck, the Fuso Canter E-Cell.

Meanwhile, a new mass-produced electric Class 5 van from a startup company called Chanje (pronounced Change) is on its way to America. It promises low initial cost, a leased battery pack, a 6,000-pound payload, and a 100-mile range. Chanje’s chief executive, Bryan Hansel, the head of Smith Electric Vehicles until 2015, says the model V8070 was conceived as an all-electric vehicle. It’s not a fossil-fuel van that’s been retrofitted.

“It was purpose-designed as a BEV (battery-electric vehicle) from the ground up,” he says. “We will be producing these on a global scale so they will be economically priced. In fact, the purchase price will be on par with a similar diesel vehicle but with 70% lower energy and maintenance costs. The pass-through savings will come from our battery leasing program and energy supply service.”

Ryder will be the exclusive sales channel and service provider for Chanje.

Another application that is extraordinarily well suited to battery power is yard shunting. Terminal trucks never travel far from their source of power, and weight doesn’t matter. Mike Saxton, chief commercial officer of Riverside, Missouri-based electric terminal truck maker Orange EV, says even moderate users can save more than $30,000 per truck annually in fuel, maintenance and emission-control related costs. Depending on the battery pack, some trucks can run up to 24 hours on a single eight-hour charge.

According to Motiv Power Systems, approximately a third of the 8 million fossil-fueled trucks and buses in the U.S. are ideal candidates for electrification. These vehicles drive planned local routes of fewer than 100 miles a day with a lot of starts and stops, and they usually park at a depot overnight, which typically has the infrastructure necessary to charge the vehicles.

What about Class 8 linehaul trucks? Not likely, says Julie Furber, executive director of electrification business development at Cummins. “The current battery technology just isn’t ready for the linehaul market, where trucks can run up to 140,000 miles annually,” she says. “We’ve done some rough calculations that show you’d need a battery that weighs 22,000 pounds to complete a full day’s driving at highway speeds.”

Toyota’s Project Portal concept truck, a H2 fuel-cell-powered electric powertrain in a modified Kenworth T660 chassis. (Kenworth had no stake in the project.) Photo: Toyota
Toyota’s Project Portal concept truck, a H2 fuel-cell-powered electric powertrain in a modified Kenworth T660 chassis. (Kenworth had no stake in the project.) Photo: Toyota

Benefits, challenges, batteries

There are several fundamental differences between an internal combustion engine (ICE) powered vehicle and an electric vehicle. First, many BEVs do not have conventional powertrains. Certainly no engine; some have a transmission of sorts that is really a gear-reduction device, and some use conventional drive axles with differential gears, but many are now incorporating hub motors located at the wheel ends. That means BEVs require much less maintenance than ICE vehicles, and of a different sort.

Bryan Allen, marketing manager for Mitsubishi Fuso Truck of America, describes the powertrain of the new eCanter as virtually maintenance-free compared to existing diesel trucks. “Most maintenance points consist of visual inspection of the electrical components,” he says. “The E-motor used does not need an oil change. The oil in the reduction gearbox and rear axle needs to be changed every 48,000 miles, and coolant for the motor and batteries needs to be changed every 24 months.”

However, there will be additional training requirements for technicians, “leveraging the skills they already have in high-voltage systems such as with electric refrigeration systems,” says Scott Perry, chief technology and procurement officer, Ryder Global Fleet Management Solutions. “Those systems are similar and we have experience with those now.”

Since BEVs have fewer moving parts and fewer parts that are prone to failure, the big question is, how long could they last? What’s the vehicle’s life-cycle going to look like? “The current useful life of a typical diesel is 5-6 years,” Perry says. “If these BEVs start going out 10, 12 or 15 years, what will that do to fleet trade cycles? And what will happen to the value of traditional trucks if electric vehicles gain sudden market acceptance?”

Under the hood, where the diesel engine usually goes, is the control system for Toyota’s electric drivetrain, powered by a stack of H2 fuel cells. Photo: Toyota
Under the hood, where the diesel engine usually goes, is the control system for Toyota’s electric drivetrain, powered by a stack of H2 fuel cells. Photo: Toyota

That’s a big question for companies such as Ryder. “We see customers using our lease offerings to gain exposure to the new technology, which mitigates any potential risks for them for uptime and reliability. Nor are they exposed to fluctuations in residual value. Ryder carries the risk of the asset rapidly depreciating,” Perry says. “We’re a great insurance policy in that respect.”

The undeniably greatest difference, however, is the batteries. They are expensive and heavy, although costs are coming down along with the weight — but they are not yet being produced at a scale that would drive prices down to an acceptable level for commercial vehicles.

“Electric powertrains, while mature, have not yet fully realized the cost efficiencies associated with 100 years of automotive internal combustion design at scale,” says Austin Hausmann, vice president of engineering at Chanje. “We have seen improvements over the last few years and will continue to see advantages as the industry moves from low-volume manufacturing to scale.”

In July, Bloomberg New Energy Finance Analyst Claire Curry reported that lithium-ion battery prices have tumbled since 2010, dropping from roughly $1,000 per kilowatt/hour then to about $275 in 2016. With prices stabilizing at some level close to this, Curry believes that BEVs will accelerate to 54% of new car sales by 2040. “Tumbling battery prices mean that BEVs will have lower lifetime costs, and will be cheaper to buy, than internal combustion engine cars in most countries by 2025-29,” she notes.

Heavy Duty Trucking made several attempts to contact Tesla Motors for this story, but they never returned our calls and email messages. We were seeking insight on their battery systems and how they would work in the “electric semi” the company plans to unveil this month.

However, a report in Wired magazine from June 2017 suggests the Tesla truck will run a lithium-ion battery system that generates 243 watt-hours per kilogram at the cell-level. To cover 600 miles without stopping to charge, the authors say, the truck would need a 14-ton battery. Based on current prices, those packs would cost between $290,000 and $450,000. The authors also note that a next-generation “beyond-lithium-ion battery-pack” could provide a 600-mile range at a cost of about $180,000, leaving enough room for a payload of about 16 tons.

Range-extended BEVs offer a bit of a compromise: batteries and an internal combustion engine. The batteries are the primary driver, while the engine is along to top up the batteries as needed. Of course, you’re adding weight and cost, and a modest greenhouse gas footprint, but the engine allows the cleaner batteries to operate over longer distances, and presumably, in areas where carbon emissions of any type are frowned upon.

As an example, UPS purchased 125 hybrid-electric delivery trucks manufactured by Workhorse Group in 2015 as part of a broader program to deploy electric-powered vehicles with greater range and performance.    

“UPS was specifically interested in vehicles that could offer significant fuel economy gains compared to gasoline-powered vehicles,” says Steve Burns, CEO of Workhorse Group. “Workhorse’s hybrid-electric delivery trucks can deliver up to 400% of the fuel economy of a gasoline-powered vehicle, compared to a 10- to 15% improvement with previous hybrid designs.”

The Workhorse truck is a Class 5 hybrid-electric delivery vehicle, featuring two 30kWh battery packs that provide power to the TM4 Sumo Electric motor/generator. Should the battery state of charge fall below a predetermined level, a 2.4L internal combustion engine automatically turns on and powers the motor to recharge the battery to its required level.

Falling Lithium-Ion Battery Prices Source: BNEF
Falling Lithium-Ion Battery Prices Source: BNEF

Lighter than air

Notwithstanding a miracle breakthrough in battery weight (and cost), few are betting that BEVs have a future in long-haul trucking. The door is wide open, however, for a hydrogen fuel-cell-powered truck. Somewhat like range-extended vehicles, the fuel cell is the power supply, while the batteries are short-term storage for load balancing and systems operation.

Craig Scott, the advanced technology vehicle senior manager at Toyota, says the batteries on its hydrogen fuel cell truck are analogous to a flywheel on a mechanical engine.

“Our batteries are not long-term storage,” he says. “In engineering terms, we think of them as a flywheel. The fuel cell produces a constant voltage and since you do not ‘throttle’ the fuel cell, you use the battery for that kind of load balancing.”

Scott says the Toyota demonstration truck, part of what the company calls Project Portal, is a T660 chassis that was bought outright from Kenworth (Kenworth doesn’t have a stake in project). It does not have a conventional powertrain, just a pair of electric hub motors at two of the drive wheels, the hydrogen storage, a stack of Mirai fuel cells, and the batteries. “The truck is a bit lighter than a comparably equipped diesel tractor with its current fuel capacity,” Scott says. Toyota has several demo trucks running now and about to enter field tests with a fleet operating out of the Port of Long Beach.

By this time next year, a startup company called Nikola will have hydrogen fuel-cell-powered trucks in tests with fleets as well. U.S. Xpress will be one of them.

Ryder System was among the first companies onboard with Nikola Motor Company’s H2 fuel-cell-powered highway tractor. Photo: Ryder
Ryder System was among the first companies onboard with Nikola Motor Company’s H2 fuel-cell-powered highway tractor. Photo: Ryder

Max Fuller, executive chairman and unofficial tech guru of the Tennessee-based truckload carrier, says he was attracted to the Nikola project by the potential reduction in emissions and the reduction in cost. Aside from being completely emissions-free (the “exhaust” is pure water), Nikola was offering a revolutionary new business model: one monthly or per-mile payment on the truck that covers everything from the tires to the windshield wipers, full maintenance and even the fuel itself.

“A lot of people looked at the cost of the truck and said it costs way too much,” Fuller says. “But if Nikola is going to include the fuel and maintenance, then it’s easy to see that maybe they are on to something.”

The big difference will be the electric motors. They do not require the kind of maintenance a diesel does. Fuller said the plan is to run the truck for at least 3 million miles without doing anything to the motor. “Look at all the oil changes and overhauls we would have to do to get a diesel to that point,” he notes. “The idea is to replace the cab and the batteries at 1 million miles, and then break up the battery packs and repurpose them to household use.”

Fuller says the trucks will go into long-haul service so he can get all the benefit from them that he can. “I have already talked with Nikola about where we’ll need to refuel when we start up, so Nikola is working on building refueling stations at eight strategic locations on some of our major corridors,” Fuller says.

Trevor Milton, CEO and founder of the Nikola Motor Company, tells HDT that after the December 2016 unveiling of the Nikola truck, his design team went back and literally redesigned the truck from the wheels up.

“We made a lot of improvement in that redesign and we’re in the final steps of that process now,” Milton says. “We’ll have trucks on the road in fleet tests in the third quarter of 2018.”

Milton says he has also changed the cost structure. “We had talked about offering a monthly lease rate, but fleets asked us for a per-mile rate on the lease, so we have re-jigged that too,” he says. “Per mile, we’re looking at 20% less than a diesel truck, all in, wiper blades, tires, warranty, fuel, everything.”

He also acknowledged Toyota’s efforts in developing a hydrogen-powered heavy truck. “It’s nice to know we’re on the same page as Toyota, because Toyota doesn’t make mistakes.” 

Mitsubishi Fuso Truck of America describes the powertrain of the new eCanter as virtually maintenance-free compared to existing diesel trucks. Photo: Mitsubishi Fuso
Mitsubishi Fuso Truck of America describes the powertrain of the new eCanter as virtually maintenance-free compared to existing diesel trucks. Photo: Mitsubishi Fuso

Voluntary or regulatory adoption

So what will it take to make all this talk of zero-emissions commercial vehicles a reality? Many fleets still struggle with the cost. Others see the limited range of some vehicles as too big a hurdle. But solutions are there: fuel cells, range extenders, more batteries, etc. Or just having a very close look at the route and service areas and deciding where they can work and where they won’t. Like anything in the trucking business, one-size-fits-all just doesn’t fly.

“There are four or five key factors that will drive adoption in the near term,” says Cummins’ Furber. “Regulation, technology readiness, technology cost, charging infrastructure, and finally the total cost of ownership calculation. Regulation could drive small-scale adoption in certain areas, such as California. We know that in trucking, TCO is going to be what plays out as the main driver.”

In Perry’s opinion, electric trucks are the next wave. “It will start in the light- and medium-duty classes where the technology is available today, and spread to the heavier classes as the technology proves itself,” he says. “Regulations will drive adoption as well. We’ve seen cities like London, Paris, Athens and others banning fossil fuel vehicles in city cores. Some U.S. cities are looking at that, too.”

And then there’s public opinion, which is leaning heavily in the electric direction.

“We held a customer summit event a few weeks ago, and we had Trevor [Milton] in to make a presentation,” Fuller says. “As a group of shippers, they were pretty excited. Some of them are now trying to lock in all the electric trucks they can get. They like ‘emissions-free.’ That’s the image the shippers want.”

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