Research Group Sees Electric Truck Technology Advancing Rapidly

May 01, 2018 by Jerry Hirsch, @Jerryhirsch

Electric vehicle technology is advancing rapidly and will make battery electric trucks a viable freight and logistics tool in the near future.

That’s the assessment of a technology analysis by the North American Council for Freight Efficiency, or NACFE. The group has previously examined how to squeeze more miles out of fossil fuels. But the organization is expanding its mission to encompass emerging trucking technologies.

“We could not think of a better place to start than with electric trucks,” said Mike Roeth, executive director of NACFE. “No subject is more fraught with confusion than commercial battery electric vehicles, and changes and developments in this space are happening at a rapid pace.”

But like other technologies, electric trucks will have the most utility for certain uses, such as local package delivery, short-haul operations and transporting goods on a 200- to 300-mile route with charging infrastructure at each. At the Waste Expo in Las Vegas last month, Peterbilt displayed an electric garbage truck that can drive 80 miles and pick up 900 cans on a single charge.

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And some truck manufacturers are still looking at the technology cautiously.

An “electric truck is going to be about twice as expensive as a normal diesel vehicle,” Ron Armstrong, chief executive of Paccar Inc., Peterbilt’s corporate parent, said on an investor call in April. “So as long as there’s subsidies and as long as maybe the regulations dictate zero emission vehicles in certain zones in large cities, that’s going to create some demand. But until it’s economically feasible, there won’t be widespread demand. That could be five-plus years.”

NACFE will present its findings at ACT Expo, a green transportation conference, this week in Long Beach, Calif.

The freight and logistics industry is rife with assumptions and myths about battery electric trucks that are incorrect, Roeth said.

At the top of the list is the idea that electric trucks can’t haul the same weight as their diesel counterparts. Diesel vehicles require a slew of heavy components — including engines, transmissions, emissions systems, exhaust systems, cooling systems, fluids and mountings — that electric trucks don’t have. Removing them helps level the playing field, even with the heavy weight of the batteries required for electric transport, he said. Diesel and electric trucks have equivalent freight-carrying capacity in many applications.

Although it is still undergoing development, electric truck technology is rapidly approaching practical application. New companies, including Workhorse Group, Tesla and Thor as well as legacy truck makers such as Daimler, Volvo and Navistar, plan models across the full range of commercial vehicle weight classes and are currently developing trucks, Roeth said.

Tesla electric semi truck on road

Tesla debuted an electric semi last November. (Photo: Tesla)

The technology is approaching maturity as automotive and bus battery electric vehicle manufacturers have produced electric vehicles for several years now, “advancing their learning curves in real world use,” he said.

“Battery capacities are expected to increase with time, cost and weight to decrease,” Roeth said. “The technology is on the steep part of the development S-Curve, where big improvements are regularly expected.”

Charging remains a challenge. Electric trucks work for local delivery where they can return to a depot for off-shift charging. But fleets with variable routes and no guaranteed return trip will need growth in remote charging infrastructure before they can replace diesels with battery electric trucks.

“The challenge is high-speed charging,” Roeth said. What’s needed is sub-30-minute charging speed, still largely in the conceptual stage for heavy vehicles.

The proliferation of electric vehicles likely won’t be a problem for the electric grid, the report said.

“The market penetration rate of battery electric commercial vehicles will be on a decades time scale. The U.S. has energy production capacity for significant volumes of electric cars and trucks,” Roeth said.

He compared adding vehicle charging stations to connecting a new warehouse or factory, a process that utilities regularly perform for commercial sites.

Pricing looks like an issue for now, but will become competitive with diesel trucks, especially when total cost of ownership is calculated. Getting beyond prototype and low volume production also should make battery electric truck pricing more attractive. For now, potential buyers have to consider factors such as grants, tax breaks and incentives and a largely unknown residual or salvage value.

But the “trend over the last decade is expected to continue, with large reductions in cost and significant gains in performance,” Roeth said. “Diesel performance, in contrast, is unlikely to yield large gains in performance with reduced costs.”

Fleet managers should also expect that electric trucks will be less costly to operate. The lack of a combustion engine and mechanical systems such as pumps, valves, transmissions and belts should reduce the cost of maintenance and servicing, Roeth said.

The electric drives are more energy efficient than diesels,” he said.

The resale value — an important consideration in purchases of diesel trucks — is unknown for electric vehicles because “the used electric vehicle is in its infancy,” Roeth said.

But there are some encouraging trends.

“The value of electric motors and batteries in salvage may prove an advantage as they can be repurposed for non-vehicle uses and may have significant life left. Mechanical systems at the end of vehicle life require reconditioning, which can reduce their net value in salvage,” he said.

The full “Guidance Report: Electric Trucks — Where They Make Sense” can be accessed at nacfe.org.

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