While there is a great deal of light-duty electric vehicles (EVs) now available in the marketplace, many vocational fleets are starting to wonder when it will be medium-duty’s time to shine. It’s becoming readily apparent there’s a need for more EV options in the Class 4-6 vehicle department, and manufacturers are racing to create their own.
Having learned of the recent team-up between Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) and Zeus, as well as EAVX’s interest in working with Zeus’ for future projects, Work Truck caught up with representatives from all three companies to discover how other vocational fleets can follow suit, what they can do to better prepare themselves for an electric future, and why collaboration is a must when trying to meet environmental goals.
Feeling a Spark
SMUD is aiming to eliminate all carbon emissions from its power mix by 2030. Paul Lau, CEO and GM of SMUD, said he thinks the utility’s zero-carbon plan is one of the biggest challenges it’s taken on in its 75-year history of service.
“I think we can’t leave any stone unturned on our pathway toward a clean energy future. Our fleet team has already done a great job of moving SMUD’s light-duty fleet to EVs; now, as we started to look to electrify trucks and other vocational work units, we were underwhelmed with what was currently available in the market,” he explained. Lau was pleased with Zeus’ design because it was created to be electric from the start, not just a conversion.
He believes the electrification of SMUD’s work fleet is only one piece of a larger puzzle.
“As we focus on the commercialization of new clean mobility solutions, we're putting more EVs on the road, advancing a new industry that will drive good-paying jobs and economic growth, and creating workforce development and training opportunities that reach deep into underserved communities,” he said.
Aware of Zeus CRO Bill Brandt’s relationship with SMUD, Mark Hope, COO and GM at EAVX, believed Zeus and EAVX’s mission of meeting climate action goals would be amplified by combining Zeus’ chassis designs and EAVX’s vehicle bodies.
“EAVX was formed as an innovation and design center, and we were always meant to collaborate with advanced chassis manufacturers, especially in the EV space. Zeus’ products are right in line with what we hope to achieve,” said Hope.
SMUD has placed orders for five trucks, each with unique configurations. These include one box truck, one dump truck, one flatbed, one open-body service truck, and one closed-body service truck, with bodies built by Knapheide and Monroe on Zeus’ EV chassis. Lau said SMUD will be using them in a variety of applications, from facility management to line asset groups to substation work.
“The Zeus trucks will replace existing equipment, so we’ll start seeing carbon emission savings from day one,” he elaborated. He hopes the business will be a use case for how these kinds of vehicles can be applied across the industry.
Brandt said Zeus was able to work with SMUD on its existing specifications for the bodies of the trucks. It took what could have been a 26-page spec around the body, lighting, and other auxiliary functions, but was able to use the same bodies and integrate them onto Zeus’ electric chassis.
“We're creating this architecture that keeps the standard operating procedures for these crews. It's enough to shift from a diesel to an EV. Some of the crews might experience anxiety because they then have to use different tools and operating procedures - it just becomes too much,” explained Brandt.
Zeus designed the chassis to accept the body and existing tools, and then integrated upfitting work mechanically, hydraulically, and electrically so it was seamless, safe, and reliable.
“Eventually we'll be able to train upfitters so we can go to additional fleets and scale up,” he stated. “We’re trying to create plug-and-play upfitting solutions, which is going to streamline things significantly.”
Hope said discovering the ability to take a Zeus chassis and mount different types of bodies and upfit them with different equipment was key to triggering EAVX’s interest in collaborating in the future.
“There's a little bit more when it comes to refrigeration and dry freight. We’re well-positioned from a box standpoint, so there are some other areas we can get into with Zeus when it comes to looking at cab chassis applications for say, small delivery or package delivery,” he explained.
How Versatility, Benefits Lead to Wider Adoption
From an emissions standpoint, there's mounting social pressure being placed on utilities to help “be the change” when it comes to reducing greenhouse gases. Hope said the emergence of medium-duty EVs is making this easier to achieve than ever. Utility fleets make the perfect guinea pig for the power generation features of these trucks.
“Being able to meet the demands of the use case or duty cycle without the need for an ancillary engine, diesel, or gasoline provides many opportunities for utility and service companies to use and leverage the power a battery pack provides to do other things,” stated Hope.
He believes it'll change how vocational fleets see the day-to-day worksite because it gives them the ability to get into locations where idle restrictions are a problem, as well as access different types of tools and techniques because they don't have to run a diesel engine for the power system.
Brandt echoed this and thinks eventually electric work trucks are going to outperform diesel trucks.
“The first time somebody gets in a Tesla and takes off and their head hits the back of the seat, they realize how much power the vehicle actually has. You look at [Zeus’] truck with the amount of torque we have, and it's a workhorse. This chassis is designed to last 10 to 12 years in the harshest conditions because they have to,” he explained.
He also mentioned electric trucks will help crews work together better because the noise factor will be eliminated. This improves communication and helps create a healthier work environment. Lau seconded this, and noted noise reduction is a safety improvement for jobsites and the general public. In addition, during night work in residential areas, the reduced noise will cause less disruption to customers.
“If you're in a bucket truck and have fumes running continuously into your workspace year over year, that's going to do some damage. I'm convinced the added productivity, the simplicity of the vehicles, and the health and safety factor will lead to a return on investment for these fleets in so many ways,” Brandt said.
Factors to Keep in Mind
When it comes to other vocational fleets making the move to adopt EV trucks, Lau said he understands money is always a factor. However, when SMUD viewed the cost through the lens of its zero-carbon plan, it also considered the price of not taking meaningful steps toward decarbonization.
“It’s important to consider total cost of ownership when thinking about a transition to electric vehicles,” he explained. “In SMUD’s analysis, the reduced cost of maintenance and fuel provides significant operation cost reductions compared to traditional diesel engines.”
Lau urges those looking to electrify to identify grants and incentive programs to help cover initial costs. Naturally, this is a little easier to do when one operates in a state like California, but state and federal elected officials across the country are now paying more attention to climate issues than ever before.
“We also want to address the need for more charging hubs, especially in communities that haven't had the resources to even begin to think about EVs and related technologies. It's invaluable to partner with various local jurisdictions to align resources for maximum community benefit. Think a little bigger when you're considering deploying medium-duty EVs; who in your area can also use similar trucks? How do you create a partnership with them to help cut costs?,” he said.
The Time is Now
SMUD has a fleet totaling 950 vehicles. Therefore, it’s going to take a lot of effort to go all-electric by 2030, which is only eight years away. Lau knows that means there’s no time to spare, and the utility is using every possible resource it can to meet the goal. SMUD has spearheaded the California Mobility Center (CMC), a private and public partnership led by thought leaders in the clean technology innovation space. The center was founded to serve as an innovation hub of policy, funding, and commercialization of clean transportation technologies.
Hope said in addition to the CMC, CALSTART is another good place to look for fleets looking to better understand what's available in the marketplace. EAVX and Zeus are both agnostic, and the two companies want to see fleets move forward and are happy to serve as yet another resource if vocational fleet managers don’t know where to start.
Brandt feels the SMUD model is a wonderful example of what can be achieved by utility fleets.
“They want to be able to work with us on the specification of their vehicles, put them in five different crews, and receive a cross-section of different applications. They kept it simple by using trucks that are hydraulic- and auxiliary function-lite. They're doing the fleet adoption for the chassis, and then we can move into heavier applications to get their crews more comfortable with it,” he said.
SMUD wanted to remain an integral part of the design process and provided current specs written around diesel trucks. They worked with Zeus to collaboratively rewrite them to fit EVs.
The Future of EV Work Trucks
Hope emphasized success for one company is success for many EV manufacturers. There's a wide variety of cab chassis solution sets in the space, and more choices are never a bad thing.
“Those choices will allow fleet managers to tailor solutions to meet their precise needs,” he said. “There are going to be multiple solution sets and pathways forward.”
Brandt said as you get the fleets, bodybuilders, and chassis manufacturers together, the building process starts to become easier.
“You're brainstorming and I think that makes for an emergence of more versatile solutions. For example, there are trucks in northern climates that are only dedicated to the wintertime and are parked all summer. You don't want that with an asset like an EV truck,” he explained.
Zeus is already having conversations with bodybuilders and fleets about the possibility of converting a truck from, say, a snowplow and/or salt spreader in the wintertime to a dump truck and/or flatbed in the warmer months.
“I think there's going to be additional standardization that's going to take place and the emergence of standard operating procedures around charging infrastructure for when fleets bring vehicles in for charging and rotation,” he said.