The number of electric delivery trucks and vans displayed at the 2019 Work Truck Show might give the impression that electrification of the trucking industry is close at hand.
The exploration of near-silent, low-maintenance, battery-powered trucks and the infrastructure they need was a consistent theme at the annual National Truck Equipment Association trade show.
But experts agree that no tipping point is near.
“We’ve seen a huge pull and interest from industry on electrification.” Michael Berube, vehicle technologies director for the U.S. Department of Energy, told Trucks.com. “You’re not just hearing it theoretically. Major fleet customers are talking about it.”
Diesel power is still king in trucking and will be for long time. However, as California pushes to have 40,000 zero-emission trucks on its roads by 2030, purchasing managers must consider government mandates and the total cost of ownership of electric trucks.
Fewer than 200 electric trucks were delivered in the U.S. in 2018, according to Andrej Divis, automotive director at IHS Markit.
“It will probably be in the thousands by the mid-2020s,” Divis told Trucks.com. “But we don’t think it’s going to be a giant breakout because it’s an industry that has to get used to the technology before it really takes off.”
That includes overcoming range anxiety, the fear of being stranded if the charge runs out. Unlike walking to the nearest freeway exit to fill a can of gasoline or diesel, charging an electric vehicle takes hours – if a charger is available. A business relying on electricity powering its trucks risks missing deliveries and losing money.
“There’s a lot more range anxiety with the chassis we play in, the 400- to 600-horsepower diesel engines,” said Daryl Adams, chief executive of speciality vehicle manufacturer Spartan Motors.
For now, the use of gas or diesel with some electric boost in a hybrid is gaining traction.
Unlike the Chevrolet Volt hybrid sedan that uses an electric charge for the first 50 miles of driving before switching to a gas-powered electric generator, the Ford F150 light duty and F-250 heavy-duty pickups modified by Boston-based startup XL Fleet Electrification spread the charge across the full range of a trip.
“We started with customer data and backed into a solution that could leverage the existing infrastructure,” said Tod Hynes, XL founder and chief executive.
The Utilimaster division of Spartan Motors is betting on several electrification strategies. One is an F59 Ford Class 5 chassis retroffited by Motiv Power Systems with its lithium-ion battery system. The other is an electric chassis developed by Cummins Inc. for a Class 3 package delivery van. Both were on display at the Work Truck Show in Indianapolis.
“We like to say we are agnostic to the electric vehicle system,” Adams said. “Our objective is to be able to sell all our products to each of our customers.”
Spartan sells trucks as small as the Class 1 Ford Transit Connect to a Class 6 medium-duty chassis. Truck makers like Ford and Daimler Trucks North America’s Freightliner unit are going to make their own electric vehicles in coming years, according to Adams. Freightliner, for example, displayed its eM2 Class 6 van at the commercial trade show even though it won’t take orders until at least 2021.
“We’re trying to bridge that gap until those vehicles come to the market,” Adams said. It will take bigger companies placing larger orders to drive battery costs down, he said.
BATTERY COSTS DROPPING
The cost of a kilowatt hour of energy for a lithium-ion battery pack has fallen to $197 from $500 in 2013, Berube said.
The magic number to make electricity cost-effective for a medium-duty truck battery system is $200 a kilowatt hour, said Jim Castelaz, chief technical officer and founder of Motiv.
“Electric can be competitive with diesel in some applications,” Divis said, pointing to less wear and tear and regenerative braking that captures energy and returns it to the battery as examples.
“The business case is shifting,” he said, adding that IHS tracks every announcement of a new electric truck offering.
For companies creating electric concepts, the cost can be subsidized.
“There’s some pretty crazy incentives out there, including covering 100 percent of the incremental cost,” said Hynes, whose hybrid strategy at XL doesn’t attract much free money. “We are getting to scale with solutions that don’t rely on incentives. But we want an even playing field.”
Freightliner, the industry leader in heavy-duty truck sales, is using $16 million from the South Coast Air Quality Management District in Southern California as part of its electrification of the M2 and the heavy-duty eCascadia. At $400,000, the eM2 costs four times as much as the diesel-powered version.
California’s Air Resources Board is considering a mandate that requires 2.5 percent of trucks run on electricity by 2024, with an increase to 15 percent by 2030. But it is offering incentives to encourage truck makers to invest.
Startup Thor Trucks, which is making battery systems for medium- and heavy-duty trucks, said it would be profitable from the start of production because of incentives it has received.
The Air Resources Board offers up to $315,000 on purchases and leases of fuel cell zero-emission trucks and buses.
The Department of Energy on March 1 announced $51.5 million in grants for heavy-duty and off-road truck technology research, including up to $18 million for projects aimed at battery-electric vehicles and up to $6 million for hydrogen-fueling technologies.