The Cummins name is synonymous with diesel. Buy a Peterbilt semi-tractor – get a Cummins engine. Want a Ram heavy-duty pickup truck? There’s a Cummins option. Cummins diesel engines power locomotives, boats, buses, RVs and dump trucks.
So why is Cummins developing vehicles such as the prototype Class 7 “urban hauler” electric tractor unveiled last week at the company’s technical center in Columbus, Ind.?
It’s a matter of keeping up with customer demands and a changing marketplace, said Julie Furber, executive director of electrification business development for Cummins. Furber sat down with Trucks.com at the company’s nearby headquarters and explained how customer demand, the threat of diesel bans and a push for cleaner air are fueling the company’s push into electric trucks.
Here’s an edited version of the conversation:
Britain and France plan to ban the sale of diesel-powered cars by 2040. Will we see similar bans for diesel-powered heavy-duty trucks as well?
There will be a push eventually. It’s most likely that it will be the cities that start off by saying no diesel within city limits. So then you start to look at things like range extenders, where maybe the vehicle can run on battery power for maybe 20 miles while it’s in city limits. I think it’s hard to say that if they’ve done it for cars, they won’t extend that out to trucks.
California has already said in the ports they are going to move to zero emissions.
Are we about to see the start of a long-term decline in the use of diesel as a transport fuel?
If regulation comes to play, I think you will see a decrease. But I think it’s going to be over a long period. We definitely see diesel and natural gas as having a place for many decades to come. We will see definite changes in the cities. It’s going to be hard to beat a diesel powertrain for quite a long time to come in terms of cost and productivity and effectiveness.
Maybe that’s why at Cummins we feel well-positioned because we can offer the full portfolio of products. We can offer the customer a choice of what you want and what you need rather than I am going to make you have what I have because it’s the only thing I’ve got. The customer gets what is the best thing for them to do their job.
For a long time, I think you are going to see companies that have a mixture of products in their fleets. If you are a truck fleet and you’ve got trucks operating in the inner cities, then a fully electric powertrain may be exactly what you need and you may have to because regulations force you. If you are not in the city, then some kind of hybrid range-extended product might be right. If you run state to state, probably a diesel or a natural gas vehicle will be the right thing for you.
Do you see a market for heavy-duty electric trucks, and if so, how will it develop?
Absolutely. If you analyze the Class 8 market, there are some applications where we are very close. We are almost, or even, there from a total cost of ownership perspective. There would be applications where the truck perhaps goes 100 miles per day. The obvious one that comes to mind is port trucks, those drayage trucks, where they are not running long distances, they are returning to a fixed point so the charging infrastructure isn’t an issue, and also the size and weight of the batteries given today’s technology is suitable for them to carry their payload.
I think it will be a while before we see an electric line-haul truck that’s going 600 miles a day. The battery and power density isn't quite there because you have to have a huge battery, the cost is still somewhat prohibitive and the charging infrastructure’s not ready.
Over time, there’s no doubt that the technology is going to get cheaper, the energy density will improve and charging infrastructure will get established. It will then make more regional haul routes more viable. We are years away from viability in the line-haul application.
What is Cummins’ electric powertrain strategy?
We are trying to establish Cummins as the leading provider of electrified power in all of the markets we serve. We go from anything from on-highway, off-highway, power generation, really, we have been working on electrification for many years, but it’s only just now – this year – that we’ve made it a commercial enterprise in its own right.
We are trying to figure out what products we need to commercialize and how quickly and when. We are trying to get a really good grasp of this part of the [electrification] market and how quickly it will move and what the key tipping points are for the different markets.
We are trying to develop capabilities in different technologies, and we are doing that by organic development, but also inorganically, so we are actively looking for the right acquisitions and partnerships to enhance that and speed up how quickly we can get to market. We have some programs underway already that are going to launch product by 2019. And we are actively trying to sign up customers.
Do you have a customer base yet?
We will launch our first fully electric powertrain in 2019. That’s going to be predominately aimed at the bus market – for urban transit. But quite quickly we will be able to modify it to service other markets. One that’s coming out really quickly is the terminal tractor market. In a fixed environment, loading trailers around, that’s another market we see developing quite quickly.
We have interest, but we aren’t selling today. We have customers that we are working with but aren’t public with them. We are still working through some of the details with them.
The whole market’s in a position today where customers are out there just trying out the new technology. Nobody’s ordering thousands of units yet. Some of the bus transit authorities are starting to put electric vehicles into their bids, but right up to now, people have been adding one or two vehicles they can test out as prototypes.
People want to touch and smell and feel it and get a feel for what it’s like.