Electric trucks: The next thing?

While self-driving truck technology is far from ready, electric trucks have been on the market for several years.

June 2020

Tyson Fisher

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When discussing the distant future of the trucking industry, autonomous vehicles drive the conversation. But what about the near future?

What we should be talking about right now is electric trucks.

There is a lot of debate about when trucks will become fully self-driving. Federal, state and local governments are scrambling to get ahead of the technology with new legislation and regulations. Behind the chaos of self-driving trucks, another form of vehicle technology is silently creeping up: electric trucks.

I mean “silent” both figuratively and literally. Electric trucks are relatively quiet compared to their diesel counterparts.

Electric trucks are nothing new. The industry has been talking about them for quite some time. Manufacturers have been building them for several years, especially overseas in Europe and Japan. Over there, the technology is more feasible with shorter ranges for hauls.

Meanwhile in the United States, electric trucks have taken a backseat. However, they are about to sit shotgun and possibly in the driver’s seat.

While self-driving truck technology is far from ready, electric trucks have been on the market for several years. For the most part, these trucks are best suited for local and regional hauls. However, the competition to improve the mileage range is getting fierce.

Volvo

In February, Volvo Trucks North America announced its pilot all-electric VNR trucks. Part of Volvo’s Low Impact Green Heavy Transport Solutions (LIGHTS) project that was launched in 2018, 15 public and private collaborators developed an electric truck ideal for “high-density traffic and urban areas,” according to a news release.

After a $90 million investment, the electric trucks have a range up to 250 miles. A real-world pilot testing will take place in California with Dependable Supply Chain Services and NFI. Serial production is scheduled for later this year.

“In North America, the Volvo VNR Electric will become the ideal truck model for short- and regional-haul applications like heavy urban distribution, drayage and other applications where electric trucks will first have the greatest impact,” Volvo said.

Paccar

Also in February, Kenworth announced a collaboration with Meritor to develop an electric powertrain for its Class 8 T680E battery-electric vehicles.

The range on this truck is even more limited at

100-150 miles. The T680E will be a short-hood day cab in tractor configurations of 4×2 and 6×4 axles and as a 6×4 axle straight truck.

A similar announcement was made earlier this year regarding Kenworth’s medium-duty K270 trucks. Kenworth has partnered with Dana Inc. to build an electric powertrain for its K270E trucks that were on display at the Consumer Electronics Show.

Meanwhile, Peterbilt has three electric trucks: 579EV, 220EV and 520EV. The Class 8 579EV has a range of

133 miles and a charging time of one hour with a fast-charging system. Both the 220EV and 520EV medium-duty electric trucks have a range of 100 miles. The 220EV has a charging time of one hour, while the 520EV takes four hours.

Daimler

Daimler Trucks North America’s focus is on its Freightliner trucks. In June 2018, DTNA unveiled the medium-duty Freightliner eM2 and the heavy-duty Freightliner eCascadia.

Freightliner markets its eCascadia as a truck “for local and regional distribution and drayage.” The eCascadia’s range is 250 miles with an 80% recharge time of 90 minutes. The eM2 106 is mostly for local distribution, pickup and delivery; food and beverage delivery; and last mile logistics applications. Its range is 230 miles and takes one hour for an 80% recharge.

According to a news release from October, there are nearly 200 electrified trucks and buses from Daimler Trucks & Buses on the road globally.

Electric truck tech nearly there

So far, no one has developed an electric truck that is ideal for long-haul, interstate trucking.

Tesla claims its Semi has a range of up to 500 miles. However, it hasn’t been put to a real-world test yet. Meanwhile, startup company Neuron EV’s TORQ is trying to compete with Tesla. Specs are not available.

For the most part, tech companies are driving the autonomous truck market. When it comes to electric trucks, the big hitters like Daimler, Volvo and Paccar are also involved. This competition is pushing innovation faster. Involvement of traditional original equipment manufacturers is also indicative of where the industry is likely heading in the near term.

While Silicon Valley angel investors are gambling on self-driving trucks, the major OEMs always play the smart money, which appears to be electrification.

Infrastructure and regulation

It makes perfect sense how electric trucks will be the transitional technology between what we have now and the futuristic, Jetson-like self-driving tech that is making headlines.

One factor holding electric trucks back is the infrastructure – specifically, the lack of charging stations across the country. Sure, there are a ton of stations along the coasts, but what about everywhere in between?

That may no longer be a problem. Charging station company ChargePoint recently announced a partnership with Natso (formerly the National Association of Truck Stop Operators). The collaboration will build high-speed charging stations at literally thousands of truck stops and travel plazas across the nation within 10 years. Big, if true.

“This significant expansion will link America’s drivers to a vast and growing charging network in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, significantly increasing access to charging as EV adoption accelerates,” ChargePoint said in a statement. “The effort will not only enable long distance electric travel along major routes but will also provide vital access to charging in rural communities.”

What about regulatory hurdles? That appears to be one of the biggest struggles for self-driving trucks outside of the technology itself. Not a problem for electric trucks.

Not only are there no regulations that prevent the deployment of electric trucks, but laws in some states may make them more feasible by default.

Take California for example. The California Air Resources Board is making progress in turning diesel-powered trucks into a financial burden. Same with the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

In fact, CARB and South Coast AQMD were investors in Volvo’s LIGHTS project. South Coast AQMD gave Daimler its 2019 Clean Air Technology award for its line of Freightliner electric trucks.

Eight states and the District of Columbia signed a memorandum of understanding that states “nearly all new motor vehicles need to be electric by 2050 to achieve the necessary reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.” Also, 11 states and D.C. are part of the Transportation and Climate Initiative.

If anything, laws and regulations are expediting electric trucks.

Electric trucks will be the transitional technology

Nikola Motors claims it has developed game-changing improvements to the lithium-ion battery.

According to the MIT Technology Review, “There are still limits to what lithium-ion batteries can do, and ongoing issues with safety. Their costs still need to fall further to narrow the price difference between EVs and gas-powered vehicles, and they’re still not light or powerful enough to electrify most of the trucking, shipping, and aviation industries.”

Nikola will not release the details yet, but more info is expected to come out sometime this year. Meanwhile, the geniuses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are working on solid-state lithium-ion batteries. Without getting deep in the tech nerd weeds, these batteries would replace liquid electrolytes with solid material, resulting in a much more powerful and safer battery.

If these technologies pan out, it could dramatically lower the price tag of electric trucks. At the same time, it could increase the range and be more feasible for long-haul trucking.

Mega fleets are battling two main expenses: drivers and fuel. Drivers will remain for the foreseeable future. Fuel, on the other hand, can be replaced in the near future. Expect fleets to make that transition. Also expect self-driving trucks to run electric, not diesel.

A driverless truck that requires no fossil fuels? Cha-ching!

“EV technologies are here now and ready to be fitted to new models rolling off production lines, while self-driving cars still feel like science fiction,” GlobalData Automotive Analyst Mike Vousden said in a statement. “As the switch to electric powertrains gathers pace, we are adjusting our forecasts to account for this more rapid rollout.”

Longer ranges, more charging stations, potential to be cheaper than diesel trucks and no regulatory hurdles. Electric trucks will be here relatively soon. LL

Tyson Fisher

Tyson Fisher joined Land Line Magazine in March 2014. An award-winning journalist and tireless researcher, his news reports, features and blogs bring depth to our editorial content, backed with solid detail. Tyson is a lifelong Kansas Citian.