Electric Dreams: Are engineers dreaming of electric sheep?

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Elon Musk’s dream of an electric semi has yet to become a reality. A rollout that was first expected to take place in September has been pushed back to November, while Tesla looks to address production delays with its Model 3 cars.

But Musk’s truck is clearly in the works. One picture making the rounds on social media even shows some sort of prototype, looking much like an early teaser from Tesla and hitching a ride on the back of a flatbed trailer.

No matter what form the final Tesla takes – or how company engineers address practical concerns like battery range and weight – electric trucks are coming. They won’t even be limited to emerging manufacturers like Nikola Motors, which has unveiled plans to use hydrogen fuel cells to create the energy needed for high-density lithium batteries. Well-established ­manufacturers are pursuing electric dreams of their own.

Indeed, it was a common theme echoed during presentations throughout the inaugural North American Commercial Vehicle Show.

Several manufacturers identified specific product rollouts to come as early as 2019. That’s when Navistar and Volkswagen are committing to bring a medium-duty electric powertrain to market, the Class 4 Fuso eCanter is expected to enter full production, and Cummins expects range-extended electric pickup and delivery vehicles. Meritor will be testing its e-carrier, which mounts an electric motor in a differential carrier, as early as next year.

The promised rollouts will undoubtedly ease the minds of stock analysts and investors. Setting aside the question of ­whether Tesla or Nikola Motors will be able to disrupt the supply chain of trucks – and that would be no small feat given the stiff competition from established manufacturers and their global supply chains – jurisdictions around the world are setting deadlines to ban internal combustion engines.

Paris, Mexico City, Athens, and Madrid are just a few examples of cities that have set deadlines to embrace battery power rather than fossil fuels. London wants to apply tolls on emitting vehicles, while Oxford, England wants to introduce an outright ban on fossil-fueled vehicles between 2020 and 2035. Closer to home, the head of the California Air Resources Board, Mary Nichols, has gone on the record to call for near-zero emissions by 2030.

Perhaps more shocking was a symbolic vote by Germany’s Bundesrat, which has asked the European Union to limit roads to zero-emission vehicles by 2030. Germany, after all, was the birthplace of the diesel engine itself.

The timelines appear absurdly tight, but improvements in power supplies can be realized in years rather than decades. Consider how far battery power has progressed in recent years. A 100 kWh battery pack that costs about $25,000 today would have been valued at $120,000 in 2009. Weights are dropping, too.

It’s easy to dismiss electric vehicles in the context of longhaul tractors, where the balance of weight and range still appears out of reach, but emerging technologies tend to focus around applications that are based in urban cores or serve drayage operations. There are also plenty of options that would ­combine different power sources rather than creating the anchor of a massive battery pack. Bosch, which has a hand in
Nikola’s technology, also has an eCity truck that leverages an eAxle and 48-volt power for accessories, energy recovery, and stop-start capabilities.

Senior executives are not abandoning the idea of electric ­linehaul trucks, either. Martin Daum, the leader of Daimler’s global truck business, told a crowd of customers that he can’t wait to add an “e” to the Cascadia name.

It leads me to wonder. When engineers have trouble sleeping, are they counting electric sheep? Because electric power is ­clearly on their minds.  


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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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