Doubters who think the advent of electric trucks is nothing more than the freight industry’s nod to corporate sustainability should have peeked in at the Advanced Clean Transportation Expo held in Long Beach, Calif., last month.
The biggest truck names including Daimler, Volvo, Peterbilt and Kenworth all pitched electric trucks.
ACT Expo proved that “electric trucks have moved beyond the purview of small-scale retrofitters. Importantly, the range of products has broadened to include high-volume segments in the truck market, such as day-cab Class 8 tractors, refuse vehicles and Class 6/7 urban delivery trucks,” Alexander Potter, an analyst at Piper Jaffray & Co., said after attending the conference.
Roger Nielsen, the U.S. chief executive of Freightliner-owner Daimler Trucks, outlined an electric truck future in his keynote address. Volvo Trucks’ U.S. Chief Executive Peter Voorhoeve was an ACT Expo panelist. Other senior Volvo sales and technical executives attended.
Nielsen and Voorhoeve carved out time for ACT, a conference few in the trucking industry attend. Meanwhile, they skipped bigger confabs such as the Mid-America Trucking Show held earlier this year in Louisville, Ky.
The conventional answer is regulation. California is pushing ahead with huge purchase subsidies coupled with regulations that will ultimately outlaw diesel trucks. Other states will likely follow. Daimler, Volvo and other mainline manufacturers need to get their products into the market quickly. The don’t want to leave space for upstarts such as Xos, Tesla, Lion Electric and Orange EV.
All that plays a role, but it’s not where the story ends.
CLEAN DIESEL COMES AT A COST
While it’s still the earliest days for electric trucks, many in the industry see a solid business case for the technology. Diesel trucks aren’t the be-all and end-all.
Chris Kemmer, a consultant who heads CK Commercial Vehicle Research, surveys motor carriers periodically. Her last effort captured 57 fleets that, combined, operate more than 36,000 medium- and heavy-duty trucks and 85,000 trailers.
Many of her respondents complained about the high maintenance cost and out-of-service time of diesel trucks. Asked what are the primary factors negatively affecting the uptime of your equipment, 50 percent of those surveyed pointed to the emissions and after-treatment systems designed to meet current environmental regulations.
“Diesel engine technology, past and present, continues to negatively impact the productivity of trucking fleets,” Kemmer said. “Clearly going back to dirtier-emission engines is not an option, but to me, there should be a strong incentive to embrace electric trucks as an option to really address this issue.”
Other industry data echo Kemmer’s findings.
INCREASED REPAIR, MAINTENANCE COSTS
The average cost of truck repair and maintenance for motor carriers soared nearly 50 percent from 12 cents a mile to almost 17 cents in 2017, the latest period for which the American Transportation Research Institute has data.
Emissions equipment is a contributor but nowhere near the sole source of this increase.
Newer trucks, and even trailers, are more expensive to repair and maintain due to their growing technological sophistication, the research arm of the American Trucking Associations said in a recent report.
Moreover, ATRI says the industry is struggling to recruit enough diesel technicians to offset the growing demand for their labor.
“This shortage is exacerbated by new training requirements needed to address the proliferation of new systems and sensors. This requires more diagnostics and expensive parts to ensure proper operations,” the trade group reported.
Electric trucks are expected to be far easier to repair and maintain. Technicians will manage over-the-air software updates and plug and unplug parts like a sophisticated Lego set. But they won’t have to maintain finicky and complex diesel engines. Repairing electric vehicles also will look more attractive to younger adults who have grown up in a digital, rather than industrial, era.
As motor carriers know, the economics of out of service, or downtime, are compelling.
Intu Mobility, a diesel emission equipment and mobility consulting firm, offers this calculation. Let’s say a truck needs an unscheduled cleaning of its diesel particulate filter system. It’s only a $300 charge but could take up to three days to complete. If the truck has average daily revenue of $750, the service cost plus the loss of revenue adds up to $2,550 for that truck.
Electric passenger car owners are discovering it’s far less expensive to charge their vehicles than it was to fuel their previous rides.
There are various estimates based on routes and driving cycles, and regional variations in electricity rates and diesel prices. Georgia Tech researchers estimate electric trucks provide at least a 20 percent energy-cost savings.
“Over the life of the truck, there are many situations in which the total cost of operating an electric vehicle is less than operating a diesel vehicle,” said Marilyn Brown, a co-author of one study comparing the two powertrains and a professor in the university’s school of public policy. “We found that particularly in urban settings and in locations with relatively low greenhouse-gas emissions from electricity, electric delivery trucks both save money and have environmental benefits.”
To be sure, there are still problems to be solved before electric trucks can fully replace diesels. The batteries need to carry more energy at less weight to extend range. They will work on local and regional routes where they could be charged at central depots, but there’s no national charging infrastructure for long-haul trucking.
And with only a handful of electric trucks in service, fleets need more information about how electric trucks perform in real-world applications. Not many will purchase based on sales hype and paper estimates.
Potter is one of many analysts who believe in the supremacy of electric drivetrains. But he cautions that “no two fleets are alike, and the exact same vehicle may have a range of possible return on investment profiles” depending on routes, payload, weather and other factors.
Fleets will take at least another two years of testing before they start to consider abandoning diesel trucks, Potter said. But the drawbacks of diesel aren’t likely to ease. And the major brands will do serious electric truck marketing to recoup their research and development investments. The transformation to electric trucking could happen far faster than anyone expects.
Editor’s note: Jerry Hirsch is editor-in-chief of Trucks.com.
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