Most of you can ignore the electric truck ‘hype’

The hype is extreme. Everywhere I turn, I’m assailed by news about the wonders of the plug-in battery electric truck (BEV), and no less about fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) in our medium and heavy fleets. The latter enthusiasm is somewhat surprising because the FCEV is still rather far off, at least in North America, whereas you can buy electric trucks right now. While still a tiny fraction of the total fleet, many BEVs are already in service.

Electric trucks
(Illustration: istock)

There are big players that we all know and smaller upstarts as well that see a place in this radically different future as the rush to de-carbonize our transport system runs at a crazy pace. Automotive engineers must be a happy bunch these days. Chemists, too.

And the hype I speak of is not just about motive power.

All the noise about autonomous vehicles seems to have died down a bit, though Volvo just announced that it’s building a prototype of its long-haul VNL model, integrated with Aurora Driver technology aimed at Level 4 autonomy and beyond. No timeline offered, but it’s strictly for North America as I understand things.

There’s even an on-the-road trial of platooning that just launched in Alberta as I write this. I thought that idea was pretty much dead over here, though not in Europe.

But let’s leave autonomy and such alone for a bit – another column — and get back into powertrain and “fuel” technologies.

What we need here is perspective.

The fact is, the vast majority of you – whether drivers, techs, managers, or owners – can pretty much ignore all this. By all accounts most of you are. And why wouldn’t you?

Depending on a zillion factors, most likely you won’t be in a position to absorb such machinery into your operation any time soon, and may never be. Too expensive for a start, and if you’re not PepsiCo, you can forget being able to afford the trucks themselves let alone the shop training and refurbishment, the home-base charging apparatus, or the huge question surrounding petty little details like totally unknowable residual value. Chances are, your routes don’t lend themselves to the present restrictions like limited BEV range anyway.

PepsiCo, not incidentally, just changed an already bold commitment to populate 20% of its sizeable fleet with zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) by 2030. Now it’s a whopping 70%. That’s bold and then some, likely just a touch beyond you.

But speaking of such timelines, New York State has just mandated that all new trucks sold there be zero-emission machines as of 2045. That tells you how much time you’ve got to get in line. Obviously, every jurisdiction is and will be different, and none will be as rigid as California. I’d hate to be trucking there.

I’ve wandered down this editorial rabbit hole because I came across a column I’d written a dozen or so years ago. I was at a conference and had just attended a panel session focused on “early” electric technologies. I listened to a few panelists from some very forward-looking companies talk about how long it would take for some of the more mainstream hybrid-electric and such technologies to be broadly accepted and utilized. The consensus answer was 2014, maybe 2015, by which time critical manufacturing mass would be achieved and prices would become manageable without financial incentives from governments.

Ha! There’s a good one. We did get those options by then, and can still employ the diesel-electric hybrid, but it never got all that far. And I knew it wouldn’t.

I wrote that I couldn’t “…buy the 2014-15 timeframe for broad acceptance, even if hybrid prices fell in a big way. At least not for the average Canadian operation. As things stand now, these new technologies are the stuff of very big commercial carriers and institutional fleets with mandates that rise above and beyond simple cost.”

Nothing has changed.

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

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  • Talking about Electrification is a great content filler and makes for interesting reading but I agree Rolf, its a long, long way off for many applications

  • I find it quite interesting that exactly 100 yrs ago – a transportation company would have been debating a similar question. Should I invest in another 6 horse team and wagon or buy one of these new Model Ts?
    Well we know how that story ends.
    In a very short time we went from horse and oxen teams to trucks. Cities and then towns were introduced to electricity in what seems overnight. The telegraph companies strung thousands of miles of wire in an incredible short amount of time. Electric motors made the skyscraper possible by being to use elevators. Think of the world on June 28th, 2007 and the next day we have the iPhone. I think that changed the world just a little.
    Think of trucking the year before interstate construction and then again 10 yrs later. That’s the revolutionary change we’re talking about.
    And ultimately we cannot afford to remain on diesel. Just like 100 years ago the first adopters were the big companies then very quickly the rest changed as well.
    It’s 1920 – you keep investing in buggy whip manufacturers – now it’s 2021 – what are you going to invest in? (hint – it ain’t anything that runs on diesel)

  • There are many details to still work out for certain, sufficient charging capability not being the least of them. Thanks for your article.

  • Hi Rolf;

    Agreed. Either the reason was not as compelling as some thought it was, or the commitment wasn’t there.

    Best regards,
    Chris

  • Hopefully a very, very long way off. My LD trucker husband recently met a guy that shared his story: He had purchased a very small electric car (not sure how long ago). When the battery failed the replacement cost for it was $10,000. It was almost half of what he paid for the car. Can any of you ‘contracted’ truckers imagine how much you will be soaked for buying a new battery for your rig? On another note, when the brain-children in this industry start mass producing these batteries – how will they be disposed of when they fail & will they be recycled? Will this really benefit what so many call ‘climate change’ issues?