Written by Roger Bedell, former chief executive and founder of Opbrid Fast Charge, a company that provides high-power bus-charging stations, now part of Furrer+Frey AG, Bern, Switzerland. This is one in a series of periodic guest columns by industry thought leaders. 

Roger Bedell Obrid Fast Charge headshot

Roger Bedell

With the price of gas so low in the U.S., it could take more than a decade to recoup the higher cost of an electric car through the price savings of electricity over gasoline. Since a person rarely keeps a car that long, this will be almost impossible to achieve.

This demonstrates how we are looking at vehicle electrification upside down. Why are we focusing on electrifying smaller vehicles like cars and delivery trucks when electrifying really big trucks makes the most economic sense? Electricity is about half the cost of diesel or gasoline. This means the more fuel you burn, the more money you save.

Heavy long-haul trucks are the kings of fuel consumption. That’s why they are the best target for electrification from an economic standpoint. A 40-ton long-haul truck driving at 60 mph uses eight to 13 gallons of diesel per hour, according to a comprehensive survey from Sweden. This is $20 to $30 per hour, or in places like Britain, where the cost of diesel is higher, $40 to $60 per hour. This makes fuel costs higher than a driver’s salary on a per-hour basis, and is the largest percentage cost item for trucking companies on a monthly basis. If fuel costs can be cut in half by switching to electricity, electrification can be very interesting indeed for a truck operator.

This chart shows operational costs on an hourly basis in the U.S. from the American Transportation Research Institute, which says “fuel now consistently represents the largest share of total average marginal cost for motor carriers.”

average cost of gas

(Graph: An Analysis of the Operational Costs of Trucking: 2015 Update. American Transportation Research Institute)

In other countries where diesel prices are double that of the U.S., hourly fuel costs are much higher and the economic benefits of electrification correspondingly greater.

For the past eight years I’ve been heavily involved in the electrification of urban buses as founder of Opbrid, maker of the Bůsbaar fast-charging stations. Europe is starting to experiment with fast-charging technology for large electric vehicles. For example, Volvo’s electric bus uses overhead charging in Gothenburg, Sweden; Hamburg, Germany; Stockholm; and now in Luxembourg. Meanwhile in the U.S., Proterra uses similar overhead fast-charging technology in a number of cities.

Originally, I thought that political pressure from a public concerned about global warming would drive politicians to choose electric buses even if the cost was higher. However, I’ve been wrong. To date, electric buses have made only minimal inroads into bus fleets. But I’ve seen a host of presentations showing that electric buses are “almost” equal to diesel buses considering Total Cost of Ownership, or TCO. Even though the upfront cost of the bus is high, enough savings in fuel costs offset this by the end of the life of the bus, about 10 years. Unfortunately, just being equal to diesel doesn’t provide a big enough incentive to change from diesel to electricity.

But the savings for long-haul trucks — which devour even more fuel — should be even higher, potentially high enough to be economically attractive. If the economic benefits are high enough, then “the invisible hand of the market” should step in to cause electrification of trucks without any governmental or political intervention, and the environmental benefits simply come along for the ride.

The key is to look for situations in which fuel usage is the highest — for example, running big rigs at highway speeds for long distances. Although giant trucks are far from the easiest vehicles to electrify, they have the most potential profit possibilities for electrification. Several technologies have been proposed for long-haul trucks, including the Siemens EHighway, which relies on a catenary system — named for the U-shaped curve caused by a chain hanging from its ends — to charge electric and hybrid trucks. Air-quality officials in California are readying a test of the system — used for more than 100 years to power street cars, buses and light rail systems — at the Port of Los Angeles.

But such a solution requires huge infrastructure projects and the corresponding investment to string overhead catenary lines on major highways, which will take many years. Fortunately, there’s another more than 100-year-old business model to electrify trucking: the Pony Express mail service from the 1860s Wild West. The riders of the Pony Express would ride their horse to exhaustion and then switch to a fresh horse and continue on their route. This made it possible to take a letter from coast to coast in only 10 days – a miracle in those days. Applying this principle to electric long-haul trucks, the idea is to run an electric tractor-trailer until the battery is exhausted (about 120 miles, or 2 hours), then swap the tractor for a fresh, fully charged tractor and continue on. While drivers will likely balk at stopping so often, their bosses might not care so much if it makes them money. And as automated trucks come online, stopping frequently to swap out a depleted tractor won’t draw any objections from the computers running the individual trucks and the carrier’s freight system.

Fortunately, the technology for this is already available. Battery trucks with a 120-mile range also exist. Automated charging stations like the Opbrid Trůkbaar are proven.

Like a catenary system, our technology charges vehicles from their rooftops. We use an ultra-fast charging system that can push 400kWh of electricity into the batteries in just one hour. This frees the transportation system from having to string miles of expensive overhead wiring. The system is now in use in a number of cities worldwide for electric buses.

You can pair this technology with a fast swap system for tractor-trailers that already exists. The Jost KKS system allows the driver to connect and disconnect a trailer in seconds by simply pushing a button inside the cab. So, if electrifying long-haul trucks is so profitable and technically easy to do, what’s the holdup? Change is always hard, but if profitability is at stake, it always arrives sooner rather than later.

Editor’s note: Roger Bedell is now the product director of Opbrid Fast Charge.