The electrics are coming

If the industry buzz over the last couple years was about autonomous driving, this year the clear theme that’s emerged as the hottest discussion point is electrification. And despite a high profile unveiling, much media coverage, and more than a little marketing bravado, it’s not Tesla that’s in the driver’s seat.

Leaf through the pages of this month’s issue of Truck News, and you’ll find plenty of news about electrification. Volvo made two all-electric heavy trucks available for test drives in Sweden in June, Peterbilt did the same for its electric 579, and Freightliner named the first fleets that will deploy its eCascadia and eM2 later this year.

Cummins, famous for its diesel engines, is increasingly marketing itself as a power solutions company, and has already demonstrated an all-electric Class 7 truck. It is dedicating major resources to electrification.

Not to be deterred, Tesla, Nikola, Thor and other non-traditional truck makers are forging ahead with plans of their own. But this market won’t be an easy one for them to tap into. They lack the dealer networks, the customer relationships, and an innate understanding of how the industry works, which are all needed to be successful in this business. Those are not insignificant barriers to overcome.

Perhaps more importantly, they could lack time. The Daimlers, Volvos, Cummins, and Paccars of the world can afford to wait for electrification to become more viable due to lighterweight, less expensive battery technologies, and the wider deployment of charging infrastructure. They’ll continue to sell diesel-powered trucks in the meantime and will have electric options available when widespread market acceptance arrives.

The newcomers, on the other hand, may not have the luxury of time on their side. They don’t derive revenue from traditional trucking sources and if electric power technologies don’t advance rapidly, they may run out of cash before the market opportunity they are pursuing fully presents itself.

I won’t completely dismiss the threat these new arrivals to the trucking industry present to the incumbents. And I think there presence benefits the industry as a whole, as the incumbent truck makers have responded to this threat by upping their spending on electric vehicle technologies.

Tesla is still testing its Semi and received a flurry of orders in the days following its unveiling. I know it’s still testing its trucks because one was spotted on a California streeet during a visit to the Paccar Innovation Center in Silicon Valley last month. And Nikola just received a substantial order for trucks from brewer Anheuser-Bush.

But at the end of the day, the traditional truck makers are too smart to let the likes of Tesla run away with the electric truck market. When this market is ready to explode, the truck makers you know and have established relationships will be there with product. And my money’s on them to still be there standing in the end.

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James Menzies is editor of Today's Trucking. He has been covering the Canadian trucking industry for more than 20 years and holds a CDL. Reach him at or follow him on Twitter at @JamesMenzies.

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