Bridging the gap to electrification

Developments in recent months have brought some clarity to what the future of zero emissions truck transportation will look like. The paths forged by truck manufacturers – incumbents and start-ups, alike – tell us there will be a wide variety of battery-electric trucks available for local deliveries of lighter-weight loads.

For heavier, longhaul loads, hydrogen fuel cells will likely be needed to extend battery life and range. My colleague Rolf Lockwood writes about the future promise of hydrogen fuel cells here, but until an expansive fueling network is developed, it remains just that – a promising future technology.

Battery-electric trucks can be ordered and put into service today, where applicable. The fueling piece of the puzzle is less complicated as they are initially being deployed on short, repeated routes and return home regularly for charging. There’s a small segment of the industry that fits that description.

Meanwhile, pressure is mounting on trucking to reduce its carbon footprint. But how do we accomplish that without rushing technologies to market that aren’t ready, as we did with early generation emissions systems such as diesel particulate filters and selective catalytic reduction? And how do we do it without putting even good, well developed technologies into the wrong applications?

Fleets will sour on electrification in a hurry if forced to adapt it in applications that aren’t well suited to it. Dave Earle, CEO of the B.C. Trucking Association painted a candid, and somewhat sobering picture of the realities facing a trucking industry under pressure to reduce its emissions. Speaking at a BCTA webinar on electrification, he noted the average truck in B.C. is 13 years old.

You may remember that vintage truck did not exactly produce world-beating fuel economy.

(Photo: Volvo Trucks North America)

“With the emissions controls we saw in the 2000s, we saw serious and significant declines and decreases in fuel efficiency,” Earle said. “It was not until 2017 that we actually got back to where we were at the turn of the century.”

The B.C. commercial vehicle population numbers 216,000 and turns over at a rate of just 2.9% per year, Earle noted. That means it’ll be a long time before zero emissions trucks hitting the market in small numbers today will displace the current fleet.

Put another way, the first fully electric light-duty vehicles were deployed in B.C. in 2008, and this year about 10% of new car sales in the province are electric. Sounds good, right? Yes, until you realize only 1.16% of light-duty vehicles in the province are electric, despite the encouraging double-digit penetration rate. The bottom line is, it takes a long time to turn over a fleet.

“The cold, hard math on this is we are not going to get there by zero emissions vehicles alone,” Earle said of provincial targets for GHG emissions from the transport sector. “We need to do more with what we have.”

So, where are we today? Mike Roeth, executive director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE) cleverly describes our current state as “the messy middle.” It’s where, if we’re serious about reducing emissions, we will have to tap into a wide variety of readily available and emerging technologies until battery-electric and fuel-cell-electric trucks become more practical and cost-effective for a wider range of applications.

Maybe it’s lightweighting, as discussed in this issue, to add payload and remove a truck or two from the fleet. Long combination vehicles and intermodal also allow us to do more with less. Maybe it’s right-sizing components, such as the engine. Perhaps it’s finally getting around to spec’ing full fairings on trucks and trailers, or low rolling resistance tires. Already doing that? Then maybe the next step is combining a natural gas engine with an electric axle, a combination that’s available in the market today. I recently spoke to a heavy hauler in Alberta who runs on propane and loves it. Who would’ve thought?

Progress made on the battery-electric and fuel-cell-electric fronts to date is encouraging, but there’s work to be done in the meantime as those offerings continue to be developed. I am continuously amazed by the ingenuity demonstrated by the trucking industry and am eager to see which solutions emerge to make the “messy middle” – as well as the air we breathe – a little bit clearer.

James Menzies

James Menzies is editor of Today's Trucking. He has been covering the Canadian trucking industry for more than 18 years and holds a CDL. Reach him at james@newcom.ca or follow him on Twitter at @JamesMenzies.

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  • I will buy the most environment friendly truck there is.
    The thing is I can not take the risk.
    I have a bitter experience with Def.
    We al want clean air and trucks including me .
    If there is no incentive to drive clean we will have old dirty equipment on the road.
    In Europe they ban old trucks in city’s and ports.
    That’s all I have to say