Written by Paul Sernia, chief product officer and cofounder of Tritium, which makes charging equipment for electric vehicles. This is one in a series of periodic guest columns by industry thought leaders.
Electric trucks are suddenly no longer a speck on a far-off horizon.
Light- and medium-duty electric trucks are in service now. California-based Thor is demonstrating heavy- and medium-duty trucks. Tesla’s Semi tractors are supposed to hit the roads this year. Big companies such as Pepsi, Walmart and UPS are among those placing orders. Cummins unveiled its battery-powered Class 7 Aeos tractor in 2017.
Most major manufacturers are working on electric trucks, and global annual sales are expected to reach 332,000 by 2026 – a huge leap from 31,000 in 2016.
The question for fleet owners isn’t whether to electrify, it’s when. The transition to a zero-emission fleet isn’t only about choosing vehicles. It also requires figuring out which charging solution will best serve their needs.
Why electrify now?
A UPS/GreenBiz survey of fleet owners found that a lower total cost of vehicle ownership is a primary motivator for going electric, second to meeting sustainability goals. Electric trucks are less expensive to fuel, and their engines cost less to maintain, than combustion engines. Battery costs are falling fast, and the majority of electric trucks will reach cost parity with diesel by 2025. Government incentives and utility investments are bringing down purchase costs for vehicles and charging infrastructure.
However, the vast majority of fleet owners in the UPS survey said their organizations are not well-equipped for charging commercial vehicles. But charging solutions are here, and they are continually improving. Below is what to consider in evaluating the options.
What to look for: charging as an ecosystem
At the most basic level, an EV charging solution should meet your fleet’s needs today, be able to grow with you and serve your bottom line. Choosing what will work for you requires considering the entire charging ecosystem.
- Go with the highest power possible. DC fast chargers are best for fleets and run from 50kW to 150-475kW (the high-powered charging range). Get the highest-powered technology you can.
- A light footprint. You want charger heads that will fit conveniently into the facility and expand to serve more vehicles. You need to plan for more than chargers, though: Don’t forget about electrical cabinets and where you might place them. Do you need to make more space? You want to be able to expand power capabilities without expanding your footprint.
- Long-term cost savings. Don’t overlook cost savings over the life of the solution. Highly efficient chargers lose less energy, and that can translate to significant savings over time. High-power chargers also need to perform at their best in all kinds of weather and temperatures, so make sure cooling is adequate. Liquid-cooled, sealed units will save money because they keep out dirt and rain, reducing maintenance costs.
- Speedy return on investment. You may also be able to add a revenue stream and get a faster payback on your charger investment by serving the public or other fleet vehicles if you’re not using your chargers all the time.
- Scalability. Think about the long-term vision for your business – charging infrastructure should be able to grow with you. Does the solution allow you to add charging power or more chargers easily and relatively inexpensively? Upgrading infrastructure can be very expensive, especially if you don’t plan for it.
- Flexibility. Since fleets typically include multiple vehicle classes, makes and models, your charging system should able to power all of them and work with any charging standard. (Auto and charger manufacturers are working to simplify this; Tritium is a member of the CharIn alliance, which is working to create a global fast-charging standard.) You also want to ensure your provider can customize both hardware and software for your needs.
- Utility needs and benefits. You’ll need to work with your utility to install new lines and determine what demands your facility may place on the grid when your fleet is fully electrified. Get in touch with the utility ahead of time so there are no surprises and you’re not waiting months for needed connectivity. You can also talk with your utility about taking advantage of demand-response pricing that will enable you and the utility to save money by charging during off-peak periods.
- A strong support team. Support is not only about fixing technical problems. Does your provider monitor the technology to spot problems before they arise and prevent or fix them before they become an issue? You will also want a provider that will help you through the installation process – advising you on working with your utility, for example – and give you honest advice based on its past experience.
Meet challenges now
This is a challenging time for the industry. There are many uncertainties, and this new technology is disruptive and an added expense. But it’s also an inspiring time. Because they are concerned with both vehicles and the systems that power them, fleet owners are uniquely positioned to help the industry make the transition to zero-emission transportation. They can help spur the development of new solutions and reduce climate-changing emissions, and ultimately may boost their bottom line.
Editor’s note: Paul Sernia is chief product officer and co-founder of Tritium, which designs and manufactures advanced DC fast-charging equipment for electric vehicles. He has worked extensively in the commercial development of early-stage technologies across a wide range of industries and applications.