Early fleet tests are the key to successful BEV rollouts

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There is no denying the recent surge in activity around battery electric vehicles (BEVs).

Established and emerging OEMs alike are now releasing electric trucks into the wild, gathering the all-important intel that will determine exactly how such equipment performs beyond the reaches of a test bench.

Not surprisingly, much of this work is anchored in Europe and California, home of particularly aggressive commitments to reduce emissions. But Canada is playing its own role in the electric vehicle evolution – and it’s not limited to a $1.8-billion investment that will see BEVs produced at Ford’s Oakville Assembly Complex.

battery gauge
(Illustration: istock)

CN recently ordered 50 trucks from Quebec-based Lion Electric Co. Loblaw, meanwhile, has ordered its first Freightliner eCascadia tractors, expected to enter service beginning in the first quarter of 2022. Then there’s the ongoing work to produce electric vehicle components at Quebec’s Nordresa Motors and Dana TM4.

Before anyone accuses me of going all Elon Musk-ie, I recognize there are few electric trucks on the road today. In higher weight classes, the numbers amount to merely dozens of units across North America. But as small as such numbers appear, early truck orders — and the teams which support them — play a critical role in determining what broader electric rollouts will look like.

They’ll help define operations that can work with today’s limited ranges, and answer some of the everyday challenges that need to be addressed.

Roger Nielsen, president and CEO of Daimler Trucks North America, offers questions around regenerative braking strategies as just one example. “If their cruise is set at 60 mph, do they want the truck to coast to 62 mph before the regenerative braking kicks in, or would they rather the truck go down the hill at 60 mph and use that energy they get by it kicking in early to recharge the battery?” he asked during a recent online briefing. “We are always having trade-off discussions.”

Wayne Scott, Loblaw’s senior director – maintenance, told me he’s particularly interested in seeing how his company’s diminishing grocery loads might further extend promised battery ranges.

Then there are the questions surrounding where such vehicles can be practically based, and the charging support they’ll require. Such issues might represent the biggest challenges of all.

There is a big difference between the rollout of commercial chargers and the systems used to rejuvenate an electric car’s battery in a home garage. Forget the AC systems rated at less than 50 kW. Commercial applications will be a decidedly DC affair.

Automotive-grade CCS DC fast chargers can bring a 100 kWh battery up to an 80% charge in less than 20 minutes, delivering around 1,000 volts and 500 amps and drawing 250-500 kW of power. Proposed commercial vehicle chargers will deliver 1,500 volts and 3,000 amps to charge 500 kWh batteries in 20-30 minutes and require 4.5 megawatts of power.

Forward-thinking fleets need to begin thinking about where such power will be available to support wider rollouts. Not every existing yard or warehouse will suffice.

But it would be a mistake to discount a role for electric commercial vehicles because of the limitations and unanswered questions of today. A broader rollout of electric vehicles will come relatively quickly in applications like last-mile deliveries, refuse collection, port drayage activities, and utility fleets.

Look no further than the recent Throne Speech as an indicator of government support to come. It reinforced Canada’s commitment to reach net-zero emissions by 2050; the Liberal government has made several references to a “green” economic recovery in the wake of Covid-19. Incentives to develop electric fleets would help achieve both targets.

As the inevitable financial support emerges, the trucks will continue to evolve. More fleets will experiment with the offerings.

And it will all power a broader interest in the electric trucks to come.

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John G. Smith is Newcom Media's vice-president - editorial, and the editorial director of its trucking publications -- including Today's Trucking, trucknews.com, and Transport Routier. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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