Battery-electric trucks charging ahead

If you ever doubted that an electric truck or two would soon be in your yard, better revise your thinking. Whether using batteries or a hydrogen fuel cell, they’re coming on stronger than anyone thought they would. And at the moment it’s the plug-in battery variant that’s roaring to the forefront, which isn’t to say that fuel cell enthusiasm is waning. It’s just that the hydrogen idea is a more difficult and so far more expensive option, though it remains my longer-term pick to replace diesel for longhaul work. But don’t hold your breath – it’s not coming soon.

That’s clearly not the case for battery-driven trucks in local delivery and on up to regional hauls. They’re already with us to some limited extent, of course, though it seems that every week some new player emerges, an outfit we’ve never heard of, offering what always sounds like a viable vehicle on the face of it. But the big boys are mighty busy too, and their chances are obviously better if only because of scale advantages.

electric trucks
(Illustration: istock)

Sometimes they’re better positioned not because of technology, rather because of strategy and just plain good thinking. The Volvo Group is a good example of that, in Europe anyway. I’m impressed by the Swedish company’s recent creation of a separate enterprise that “will help accelerate the adoption of zero-emissions vehicles” by focusing not on electrification itself but on charging systems, batteries, and what happens to those batteries once they’re too tired to power trucks or buses or excavators or what have you. It’s a lifecycle approach.

“A new business unit called Volvo Energy will strengthen the Volvo Group’s business flow of batteries for electric vehicles over their life cycle, as well as working on charging infrastructure for battery-electric and fuel-cell electric vehicles,” the company announced in late January.

“Giving used batteries a second life in different applications will reduce the environmental impact from electric and hybrid electric commercial vehicles and machines,” Volvo said. “With Volvo Energy, we are taking a holistic view.”

The idea of batteries having a second life is hardly a new one, and Tesla has talked about it many times, as have others. But as far as I’m aware, no company has formally created a pathway to do it. Kudos, then, to Volvo.

Tesla, as an aside, has yet again delayed the introduction of their electric Semi, claiming an inability to ramp up battery production quickly enough to get trucks on the market this year. First introduced back in 2017, the truck now looks like being available very late this year or more likely in 2022.

Back to Volvo Energy, it will have both internal and external roles. It will produce batteries and charging systems for the company’s truck, bus, and construction equipment manufacturing wings while also offering used and remanufactured batteries to customers for use in other applications like energy storage. They’ll still have considerable life left to offer, says Volvo.

The new business will also have responsibility for hydrogen infrastructure technologies used with fuel cell electric vehicles.

Volvo’s North American footprint is less broad than it is in Scandinavia and Europe so it remains to be seen if an equivalent enterprise would be possible here.

And if you wanted real, tangible proof that electric vehicles are well and truly ready to enter the mainstream, look no further than NACFE’s latest Run on Less event.

The North American Council for Freight Efficiency will be conducting a Run on Less – Electric technology demonstration in September. Initial results will be reported at our North American Commercial Vehicle Show in Atlanta late that month.

The demonstration aims to validate the progress that’s been made in battery-electric trucks over the past several years.

We’ll see up to 10 trucks in Classes 3 through 8, operating in duty cycles appropriate for their class, and they will include panel vans, medium-duty box trucks in urban and P&D operations, Class 7 and 8 trucks and tractors in drayage and short regional hauls, and possibly yard tractors, said NACFE executive director Mike Roeth in a recent virtual press conference. “These will be battery-electrics only,” he said.

The first Run on Less event, in 2017, was a longhaul fuel-economy run demonstrating how currently available equipment and technologies could, with the help of a smart driver, result in better fuel mileage. The second Run on Less event, in 2019, showcased possible fuel economy improvements for regional-haul operations. This time, fleets and OEMs will partner, and there will necessarily be some variety in the design maturity of the trucks involved.

“But they will all be hauling real freight on real routes with real drivers and real charging,” Roeth said. “This will be a real demonstration of electric trucks, now, in 2021.”

For the first time, trucks operating in Canada will be included, though no particular fleets have been selected. If you want to take part, Roeth encourages you to get in touch via nacfe.org.

Rolf Lockwood is editor emeritus of Today's Trucking and a regular contributor to Trucknews.com.

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  • Interesting article by Rolf Lockwood.

    How about this idea: instead of fuel stations adding diesel, battery stations swapping out batteries!

    This could be done in the same amount of time as fueling up, using conventional tools like forklifts or robotic lift tools, and in terms of infrastructure very easy to realize.

    Even at card locks or truck stops and no problems with dangerous goods or contamination. It would yield jobs and unlimited distance for any type of (long haul) trucking.

  • Thank you for this update Rolf. I think this year is a turning point for EVs. Of course, every year in the past 10 or 15 has been the turning point, but this time it feels different. Transit agencies are beginning to get into electric, which may provide the proof that truck owners need to be convinced this will work.