Don’t expect autonomous trucking to suddenly displace millions of drivers.
Expect some form of electrification to be part of every new commercial vehicle drivetrain within a decade, but the spent batteries from those vehicles will need to be recycled. They won’t have a useful life in proposed battery farms.
Those are just a couple of the conclusions in a recent report to investors about advanced technology and commercial vehicles from Alexander Potter, an analyst at Piper Jaffray & Co.
His opinions provide a sometimes-contrarian road map for how technology coming into play now will roll out in freight, logistics and other commercial applications.
“Arguably, it’s irrelevant to talk about whether robot drivers will replace humans,” Potter wrote. “Many drivers cannot be displaced. They do much more than just drive.”
How autonomy can help
Instead of eliminating drivers, automation should be used to ease the driver shortage, he said. But If drivers can’t be removed, then full autonomy offers less compelling savings.
How will operators of giant fleets such as PepsiCo and Ryder exact savings from automation?
One potential application is platooning, in which digitally tethered trucks travel closely together to reduce drag and save fuel, Potter said.
Platooning creates about a 4 percent saving. But to date it has been cleared for commercial deployment only in Texas.
Other potential savings from automation could come from its use in supporting less skilled and lower paid workers to drive quasi-automated segments, Potter said.
It could also be used to extend driving time limits. The federal hours-of-service rule restricts a driver to 11 hours behind the wheel in a 14-hour period. Several other restrictions are also part of the rule. Allowing drivers more hours would improve freight productivity.
“Workers will be needed no matter what, and automation can help address this problem,” Potter said.
Electricity is key
While Potter doesn’t see a massive replacement of truckers with robots, he does predict significant change in the industry – especially in drivetrain technology.
“We remain believers in the superiority of electric drivetrains,” Potter said.
While fuel economy for trucks, even in the heaviest Class 8 weight segment, continues to improve and is approaching 8 mpg, fleets are not reaping all of the expected savings, Potter said. Fuel costs drop, but the savings are partly offset by spending on maintenance for emissions systems. Moreover, problems with emissions treatment components frequently take vehicles out of service, and that costs fleets money.
This is all happening at time when the cost of diesel engines is rising while battery prices are falling, Potter wrote.
“And even if truck makers don’t believe in electric vehicles, regulation is forcing their hand,” he said. “If urban areas become ‘zero emission’ zones, nobody can afford to ignore electric trucks.”
And some of the obstacles to electric truck adoption aren’t the hurdles the industry expects. Fleets, for example, will find that installing charging infrastructure is not as costly, time-consuming or complex as they might think.
New electricity generation is not generally required. Fleets will only need new substations and transformers, Potter said.
“Even in Manhattan, where empty space is limited, grid upgrades are performed routinely. For a bus fleet that wants to charge 300 vehicles at a time, that’s a multimegawatt load, about the same power demand as a new skyscraper. People build new skyscrapers all the time.”
Problems will occur when fleets convert to electricity without notifying utilities about their plans. They have to provide some lead time for utilities to make upgrades to support charging. In many cases, fleets don’t even need to cover the full cost of infrastructure upgrades, Potter said. They will get support from utilities and regulatory agencies.
But one concept thought to support the commercialization of electric trucks – using partially spent batteries in industrial farms to supplement electricity supply – will likely turn out to be impractical, Potter said.
“Pepsi was told years ago that EV batteries could be repurposed; this hasn’t panned out. Nobody wants these used batteries, and it costs thousands to dispose of them,” Potter said.
Battery costs are declining so quickly that, if you want storage, it’s cheaper to buy new. Luckily, as recycling processes mature, fleets shouldn’t have to pay so much for disposal, Potter said.