Sexy Tesla sports cars aren’t the only vehicles that deserve the battery treatment – drayage vehicles, school buses, garbage trucks and cargo haulers are also going electric.

And the ranks of those medium- and heavy-duty electric vehicles are swelling, according to a panel discussion at the Advanced Clean Transportation Expo in Long Beach, Calif., on Thursday.

Through various partnerships, battery-electric technology company TransPower has 12 battery-electric trucks – built on the Peterbilt 579 chassis – deploying as demonstration drayage vehicles in 2018 and 2019.

The company, which helps adapt large vehicles to electric powertrains, unveiled its electric Kalmar T2 tractor this week and is sending it to work next week at Grimmway Farms in Bakersfield, Calif., with eight more coming on board in 2017. In addition to the two Blue Bird International school buses TransPower fixed to operate at the Torrance, Calif. school district, four more buses will go into rotation this year.

There’s also the eHighway project currently testing in Carson, Calif., that the South Coast Air Quality Management District is working on with German engineering giant Siemens and several other partners. The venture features a catenary system to help charge electric trucks faster.

In a TED talk in late April, Tesla Inc. chief executive Elon Musk teased the company’s upcoming electric big rig, saying that the “spry,” single-speed vehicle will be able to “out-torque any diesel semi.” The truck is set to debut in September.

Daimler Trucks unveiled the Mercedes-Benz Urban e-Truck last year and has already begin building a small batch of the vehicles, which can haul up to 26 tons. The company will go into full production by 2020 if demand allows.

“The technology is real and the technology works,” said ACT panelist Michael Simon, TransPower’s chief executive.

It's just taking off faster in some places than others.

Norway, where battery electric vehicles have the largest market share out of any other country, saw a  surge in from 2.5 percent in 2011 to more than a third of all sales in 2016, said Andy Swanton, the Los Angeles-based vice president of truck sales for electric vehicle manufacturer BYD.

In China – where BYD is headquartered – roughly 120,000 zero-emission battery-electric buses are running, making up more than 20 percent of the domestic market share.

That’s compared with some 10,000 similar buses in the U.S., Swanton said.

Currently, vehicles that travel 50 to 200 miles in a single-duty cycle are the best candidates for electrification here, he said.

During a panel earlier in the week, Steve Gilligan, vice president of product and vocational marketing for Navistar’s North American business unit, said something similar: that today’s batteries are best suited to lighter vehicles that only need to operate eight to 10 hours a day and can then be returned a centralized hub to be recharged overnight.

“Class 8 over-the-road long haul is the most difficult scenario for electrification,” he said. “It’s application-critical.”

The battery-electric economics are also tough, panelists said.

norway china success stories

(Source: BYD)

For passenger cars, the purchase price before incentives is 85 percent higher on average for an electric vehicle, Swanton said. The differential ranges from 19 percent between a Mercedes Benz C Class and an electric B250e to a whopping 163 percent between Nissan’s Versa and its electric Leaf model.

For a 40-foot transit bus, that’s a jump from $450,000 for a diesel vehicle to $750,000 for an electric version. Electric trucks, meanwhile, cost two to three times more than conventional ones, Swanton said.

So if fleets are going to adopt battery-electric vehicles, it won’t be in one fell swoop, said Tim Reeser, co-founder of fuel-efficiency solutions provider Lightning Systems in Loveland, Colo.

“There’s no panacea,” he said. “We have to ask what’s realistic, what can I do on my retrofit fleets today, because I’m not going to buy all-new electric tomorrow.

Still, some experts said electrification poses a threat to traditional cargo-carrying trucks.

Soon after Musk first announced Tesla’s electric semi-truck in April, Piper Jaffray analyst Alexander Potter downgraded engine and truck manufacturers Cummins and Paccar. In a research note, he cited lower maintenance expenses, dropping battery costs and an fundamentally more efficient propulsion system among the reasons why electric truck payback times could soon decline to less than two years –“short enough to generate interest among fleets.”

The North American Class 8 market is “clearly large enough to matter,” representing at least $30 billion in revenue off of 250,000 unit sales a year at $120,000 apiece, he wrote.

“Tesla’s presence looms large,” Potter wrote. “Laugh all you want, but this trend cannot be ignored.”

Panelists at ACT agreed, proposing several strategies to make battery-electric vehicles more appealing to fleet managers.

Abas Goodarzi, chief executive of US Hybrid Corp., suggested customizing electrification technology already in place for monorails and other applications, rather than starting development from scratch.

Reeser promoted an analytics system that can track driver style, vehicle health and other factors external to the technology itself that might affect how electrification performs. For a fleet with a few hundred buses, collecting and analyzing data manually could cost millions of dollars in lost fuel efficiency, he said.

If fleets had access to creative financing – such as partial leases – or dedicated utility rates for commercial vehicle charging, they might be more inclined to electrify their inventory, panelists said.

Converting gas stations to battery swapping outlets could lessen long plug-in charging times. And electric vehicles in the states can benefit from the same kind of incentives, toll road waivers, special bus lane access and preferential parking that helped boost numbers abroad.

“A big piece of this is education from the manufacturers, who need to say that, yes, electricity is expensive, but we can prove how they’re more cost-effective in the long-term,” Swanton said. “And we need to be investing ahead of the curve to prove that this stuff works.”

Related: Elon Musk Explains Why Tesla Wants Electric Semi Truck

About The Author

Tiffany Hsu

Tiffany Hsu is a Manhattan-based journalist and former Trucks.com contributing editor. Hsu now works for the New York Times. She can be found on Twitter: @tiffkhsu.

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