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Trucking’s long haul to electrification

The electric truck has a bright future, but also one that is riddled with challenges, learns Freddie Holmes

‘The electric truck – it’ll never work’: a phrase many may have heard, or thought, over the past few years. But the announcements for new products and investments keep on coming, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to dispute the concept of zero-emissions trucking.

Commercial vehicles are highly cost driven, with the overall price of running and maintaining a fleet the deciding factor when it comes to purchasing new trucks. Higher unit costs can generally be offset by lower total cost of ownership (TCO), and both established and new entrants in the market see this as an opportunity to explore new technologies. OEMs also need to consider tightening emissions regulations in key markets of the US, Europe and China, and a growing contingent deem electric trucks an answer to both trends.

Rachel Muncrief, Program Director, Heavy Duty Vehicles and Compliance & Enforcement at the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), told Megatrends that “the pathway to decarbonising the freight industry has really begun to come into focus over the past few years.” The commercialisation of technologies such as battery-electric trucks, electrified highways and fuel cell trucks is increasing as a result, “and the time until their costs are on par with traditional diesels is getting closer,” she suggested. “I believe that governments can play an important role in accelerating the deployment of these technologies by showing clear signs of their determination to invest in the required infrastructure, supporting demonstration programmes, vehicle efficiency regulations, and more,” Muncrief added.

Nikola Two

“In five or ten years’ time, I believe it will be hard to find a diesel [truck] model on the road…you won’t see people buying new diesels” – Trevor Milton, Nikola Motor

Varied approaches

Some OEMs such as Scania have investigated the viability of connecting trucks to overhead power lines, while others have pursued battery-electric models. For example, the Mercedes-Benz Urban eTruck, a concept launched in 2016, has a reported electric driving range of up to 200 kilometres (124 miles), with a load capacity comparable to that of a diesel distribution truck. Renault Trucks, too, has been investigating how to use an electric range extender on delivery trucks, and in 2015 partnered with French haulage firm Deret. The French truck brand’s parent, Volvo Group, has also been pursuing similar initiatives, and Lars Stenqvist, Chief Technology Officer at Volvo Group, sees scope for electrified delivery trucks. “We will definitely see a lot of electric vehicles when it comes to city distribution of goods,” he told Megatrends. The OEM has already tested various hybrid delivery trucks for city applications, and in May 2016 revealed the Volvo Concept Truck – a hybrid CV designed for long haul applications.

And it is long-haul trucking that has most interested, although questions remain as to whether a battery electric vehicle will be able to go the distance whilst weighing up to 80,000lbs (36,287kg). Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCVs) appear a more attractive proposition based on current approaches. Kenworth is currently developing a prototype Class 8 tractor that uses a hydrogen fuel cell to recharge lithium-ion batteries to provide full-electric power. The OEM is also investigating a CNG hybrid on the same platform, which uses a ‘near zero-emissions’ CNG engine to generate electrical power.

A world of hurt…

Then there is Nikola Motor Company, which burst onto the scene in 2016 with ambitions of overthrowing normal order within the trucking industry. Trevor Milton, Chief Executive and Founder of Nikola, explained that the ideology behind this electric truck stemmed from successes seen in the rail freight industry.

Cummins Aeos electric Class 7 truck concept_side

Cummins unveiled the Aeos electric Class 7 concept truck in August 2017

“I grew up driving locomotives, and that’s where I got the idea that the truck is practically a locomotive,” he told Megatrends. “It was all about using the efficiencies of electric motors, which have been used on trains for over 50 years, and I knew that I wanted to build a truck that was based on the same thing.”

Enter the Nikola One, a zero emissions Class 8 semi-truck that can travel 800-1,200 miles (1,287-1,930km) between stops, depending on factors such as geography and weather. Milton says it can be refilled with hydrogen within 15 minutes, and believes it outperforms a diesel competitor in “every aspect” because “it is lighter, stronger, faster and safer.”

Speaking to Megatrends back in May 2017, he noted that the established industry players, not only on the OEM side but also within the supply base, need to consider e-mobility as part of their product line or risk becoming obsolete. “In five or ten years’ time, I believe it will be hard to find a diesel [truck] model on the road any more,” he mused. Elaborating, he admitted that while diesel trucks will still be in operation, “you won’t see people buying new diesels,” he said. “If you look into the diesel world, they are in for a world of hurt.”

Today, established truck suppliers such as Cummins would argue otherwise, particularly since the announcement of its Aeos electric Class 7 concept truck in August 2017. This truck has a range of around 100 miles on a single charge for city driving, but can be extended to 300 miles with the help of additional battery packs. This is a prototype by all means, but also an indication that electric trucks need to be taken seriously.

“Similar to natural gas-powered vehicles, range of operation and incremental cost are two of the biggest hurdles to broader adoption of EV trucks. Driving down the cost per kWh will be the Holy Grail of the industry” – Steve Tam, ACT Research

Cummins has been making diesel engines for about a century, and for it to diverge so strongly from what has made it a success suggests the electric powertrain is more than just a hedged bet. Cummins does not plan to build trucks itself, however, and instead will focus on producing full electric powertrains.

Pros and cons

Generally speaking, electric vehicles (EVs) are less complex to manufacture than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, with AlixPartners estimating that EVs require 40% fewer production hours. This is good news for those looking to shake things up – particularly in a market that will be difficult to budge.

Indeed, Mike Roeth, Executive Director at the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE), suggests that this could be a key advantage held by the electric truck over its diesel competitor. “Benefits might be a much simpler powertrain, lowering complexity and costs, and lower maintenance costs overall,” he told Megatrends. Quieter operation and ease of driving for new truck drivers entering the industry would be an added , considering the nature of the role can be extremely tiring. With that in mind, Roeth muses that this could also tie in with plans to launch highly automated trucks in future. “There might be a benefit of these newer electric trucks with respect to connectivity and automated operation,” he notes.

Nikola Motor’s Milton agreed that the electric truck heralds benefits not just for the environment, but also for the operator. Because of this, diesel truck sales will plummet, he suggested. “They’re too expensive to maintain, too expensive to drive, and diesel fuel is too expensive,” he said. “With our truck, the driver doesn’t have to deal with any of that. Servicing, maintenance, warranty and fuel – everything is included in our truck. So why would a driver ever buy a diesel again?”

“We will definitely see a lot of electric vehicles when it comes to city distribution of goods” – Lars Stenqvist, Volvo Group

While producing and running the electric truck may be simpler, it will not be cheap. In addition to the high initial costs of batteries and associated power electronics, Roeth suggests there will be a raft of other challenges to consider. “Costs will also include a need for charging infrastructure, unknown costs of replacement parts or resale values, costs to ensure high reliability and durability and unique features for drivers and maintenance to understand,” he explains. The industry will need to consider how to offer additional battery capacity for longer hauls and to counter ‘range anxiety’.

Déjà vu

Experts have drawn parallels to challenges already seen in the CNG truck segment, which too suffered initial growing pains in terms of infrastructure and demand. “The challenges that natural gas trucks had with respect to changing the industry might be small compared to those for electric trucks hauling large weights, but the benefits might have fleet leaders jumping to this [electric] technology,” observes Roeth.

Tesla Semi

Elon Musk unveiled the Tesla Semi all-electric Class 8 truck at an event in California in November 2017

Steve Tam, Vice President of Columbus, Indiana-based ACT Research, told Megatrends that “similar to natural gas powered vehicles, range of operation and incremental cost are two of the biggest hurdles to broader adoption of EV trucks. Driving down the cost per kWh will be the Holy Grail of the industry.” But the ability to do so will vary from market to market, he suggests. “Unlike natural gas, North America is not awash with the raw materials necessary for the production of batteries. Rather, China enjoys that luxury, so energy security remains very much in play as an adoption consideration.”

Battery electrics

But what about plug-in variants? Tesla, which has arguably proven that electric cars are possible with the launch of the Roadster, Model S, Model X and Model 3, is now set to ply its trade with electric HD trucks.

Peterbilt electric truck

In May 2017, Peterbilt revealed its battery-electric heavy refuse truck based on the 520 platform

Speaking during the company’s Annual Shareholders Meeting Conference in June 2017, Chief Executive Elon Musk announced that development of its electric Class 8 semi-truck was gaining traction. “We have shown it to a number of the organisations that buy heavy-duty trucks, and they all love it,” he told shareholders. “They just want to know how many can they buy and how soon, and we are getting them closely involved in the design process.”

He also disputed suggestions that an electric powertrain is poorly suited to long-haul applications. In fact, Musk described the use of diesel trucks in future as ‘economical suicide’ during the unveiling in Los Angeles. However, a reported 500-mile range under maximum 80,000lb (36,000kg) load and at highway speeds would suggest the truck is aimed at line-hauling rather than long-haul applications. Details are vague at the time of writing; little is known about costs, for example, and questions have been raised about the ‘megacharger’ that will reportedly restore 400 miles to the battery in just 30 minutes. Production of the Semi is pencilled in for 2019.

Peterbilt has also been pushing for a battery-electric system, and in May 2017 revealed its battery-electric heavy refuse truck based on the 520 platform. A 300 kWh battery pack allows the truck to operate for up to 65 miles – or eight hours – on a single charge.

Christian Levin, Scania’s Executive Vice President and Head of Sales & Marketing, added a dose of reality and caution to the debate, telling Megatrends prior to the unveiling of the Tesla Semi in November: “We are all curious to see what our friends in California will do – Tesla – and what they will launch, but we at Scania know the cost of batteries and the required energy densities, as we produce battery electric vehicles ourselves. It is a very tough equation right now, but we do it anyway. [Battery electric trucks] will be in the future, but it will not happen overnight.”

“We are curious to see what our friends in California will do – Tesla – and what they will launch, but we at Scania know the cost of batteries and the required energy densities. It is a very tough equation right now…[battery electric trucks] will be in the future, but it will not happen overnight” – Christian Levin, Scania

Diesel to become a fossil?

All things considered, the electric truck looks mightily appealing on paper, if executed well, and ACT Research’s Tam is confident that truck electrification shows promise. “We are going to experience revolutionary change at an evolutionary pace,” he said. “Currently, there are more than 50 electric or electric hybrid commercial vehicle models available, half of which are buses.” However, he conceded that while there are numerous models available, volumes remain extremely low, with “only a few hundred in operation today.”

NACFE’s Roeth is similarly optimistic for the segment. “As an example of how we see this emerging, NACFE plans to launch an expert team soon to analyse these many benefits and challenges to help the industry consider these new opportunities,” he noted. Roeth agrees that EV truck developers will likely have to work with lower sales volumes, particularly in the first decade of sales.

Concluding, Tam suggests that there will remain strong competition from diesel trucking, which will want to retain top spot for a long as possible. “Given the frenetic level of interest in EVs, it is safe to assume that the petroleum industry will not stand idly by and watch their share of transportation fuel erode,” he concluded, “making competition another challenge.” As such, ACT Research expects a “slow progression” of US electric truck take rates, potentially achieving as little as 1% of annual sales by 2023.

This article appeared in the Q4 2017 issue of Automotive Megatrends Magazine. 

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