An Electrified Future for Trucking?

Electric Trucks – Could This Be the Future of Your Fleet?

This week photos of Elon Musk’s new Tesla semi-truck surfaced on Reddit.  The picture showed a silver truck with bluish streaks running from front to back and it looked very similar to an image that Musk tweeted earlier this year.  The vehicle is slated to be officially debuted on October 26th.  Nikola Motors unveiled an electric truck last year and both of these vehicles have a likely production date of 2020 or 2021.


So what do these mean for the future of the transportation industry? 

Initially these are likely going to be local or regional trucks as the newest technology claims to give the vehicles a range of only 200-300 miles.  So these will be good for short haul but anything longer will either require the use of relays, some form of intermodal transportation, or the use of diesel powered vehicles.  Some industry observers have speculated that a tractor solely run on electricity could have operating costs that are up to 70% less than diesel power due to the lower maintenance costs.  For example an electric truck will not need oil or many of the filters that add to the costs of a standard preventative maintenance program.

How does this stack up with current electric medium and heavy duty vehicles? 

The Tesla claimed range is double to triple the current single charge ranges of vehicles currently on the market.  Navistar is introducing a yet-to-be-named vehicle with a range of 112 miles.  This vehicle is being developed with its recent partner Volkwagen AG Truck and Bus, for the North American market and will possibly be based on models that Volkswagen is currently testing in Austria, that offer a payload of 39,000 lbs.  Cummins has announced the AEOS, a tractor solution with a 140kWh battery pack that is expected to have a 100 mile range.  Plans are for the AEOS to begin sales in 2019.  Finally Mercedes Benz is testing prototype fully electric trucks with a 125 mile range, and a payload of up to 57,000 lbs.  What makes the Mercedes option truly revolutionary is that the motors are directly adjacent to the wheel hubs on the rear axle.  This technology was developed for the Citaro hybrid bus sold in Europe.

Some limitations:

First of all charging is slow and stations may not be available where you need them.  As a result these vehicles will initially appeal mostly to fleets operating city trucks for either p&d, or final delivery operations into cities.  Daimler Trucks is currently working with a company called StoreDot to develop a quick charging solution similar to what Qualcomm has developed for cell phones  – if you have a recent Samsung phone you will have seen this in action.  As we all know, down time costs money so if a fast charging solution can be developed then these ranges may start to work for longer haul operation.  For example, if the Tesla actually can achieve a 300 mile range and a fast charger (ideally under 30 minutes to a full charge) a network (similar to or in addition to their current car charging network) can be created, then the industry may be able to make an electric vehicle work within the existing HOS framework.  Given that we are looking at a couple of years until these units hit production lines that is definitely within the range of possibility.  Just as I am writing this, Rolf Lockwood of Today’s Trucking and HDT is reporting that the Cummins prototype will have a charging time of only 20 minutes.

Another option is the way that Nikola Motors is handling this problem is with a hybrid hydrogen/electric power train.  This basically will give you a truck that will use a hydrogen fuel cell to recharge itself, giving the potential for a greatly increased range.  Nikola has teamed with Bosch to use its eAxle technology, that also puts the motors, the transmission and the power electronics in a single modular unit.  This is an existing technology and it will help Nikola get to market sooner than if they tried to develop it on their own.

So what still needs to happen?

First off, a charging network for commercial vehicles is pretty close to non-existent. It’s really going to require larger truck stop operators and/or state rest areas installing commercial vehicle charging stations.  For that to happen there will need to be a way to create a standardized charging cost or the development of some sort of card lock system that meters out the electricity needed.

Secondly, a standardized fast charging solution needs to be brought to market (and preferably done quickly).  For this to get widely adopted charge times need to be kept short so that there is no adverse impact on HOS compliance (unless the rules are modified to allow for charging delays).

Third, in many jurisdictions the price of electricity may hamper adoption of this technology in some areas.  Hydro Quebec publishes an annual survey of electricity prices in 25 major cities across North America.  Based on what this study presents, an electric option will be most profitable in cities like Calgary, Winnipeg, Houston, Chicago, Detroit or Miami, all of which had rates below 8 cents per kWh. Meanwhile the costs in cities like Boston, New York, San Francisco or Toronto are all above 13 cents per kWh, meaning that an electric option may be less attractive to fleets that operate in those centers.

Finally, these vehicles are not going to hit a commercialized stage for at least a couple of years.  A breakthrough in battery technology could render many of these concerns mute.  Tesla and Nikola have stated that they are working towards 1000 mile ranges – similar to what we get with a diesel powered unit.  If that happens, the perfect storm of reduced emissions, lower noise pollution and lower operating costs will create a real game changer.