6 things to consider before electrifying your fleet

The electrification of heavy commercial vehicles is exciting. Drivers love the lack of noise and vibration, and the immediate torque. Technicians like the simplicity of the powertrain, longer brake life and the absence of oil changes.

Customers appreciate they can slap their logo on a press release exuding the benefits of zero emissions transport. But it’s the fleet buyer who’s stuck taking the biggest risk and stepping boldly into the unknown.

One fleet owner once told me “I like to be near the tip of the arrow, but not the tip itself. The tip is what gets bent.” Fortunately, the proof-of-concept phase of commercial vehicle electrification is complete, and we are now entering the early adopter phase, according to Wilfried Aulbur, senior partner with Roland Berger consultants. But fleets still must do their homework before taking the plunge. Here are a few key considerations when thinking about deploying an electric truck:

Select the right truck for the job

An important step on a fleet’s journey to electrification, is to select the right truck for the job. Instead of spec’ing horsepower and fuel tank size, buyers will have to consider things like battery capacity, range and payload.

“Step one is to understand the vehicle,” said Teri Proude, director of business development, Pride Group Enterprises, which is setting up to be a major supplier of electric commercial trucks. “A lot of people are buying them as an asset to make money, at the end of the day, so what kind of range do I need? What kind of charging specifications? What class of vehicle is going to best suit those needs?”

Adds Aman Johal, Pride’s vice-president – logistics, “When you buy a diesel truck you can work out of anywhere. When you buy an electric truck, you have to think about where the driver is starting their day, where they park, what route, is there enough infrastructure for charging all along that route if the truck doesn’t have the range?”

Right-sizing the vehicle for the route is critical, as a Class 8 battery-electric truck can weigh up to 4,000 lb. more than a diesel. Manhattan Beer Distributors recently purchased five Volvo VNR Electrics, and ran simulations with Volvo to determine their capabilities under the worst conditions, including full loads and bad driving habits.

It found the trucks could handle all of the distributor’s inner-city routes twice between charges, but still elected to deploy the first of those trucks on a route just 15 miles long.

Gary Lalonde, vice-president – truck sales, Lion Electric Company, agrees that truck selection is paramount.

“It’s great to want to take that first step, but it’s useless if the truck won’t be able to meet what you are doing today. No one has the budget to buy two or three times the trucks [to do the same job],” he reasons. “Can I do what I need to do using an electric truck?”

Most fleets today have a portion of their fleet, or at least a couple of trucks, that can immediately be replaced with electric trucks, Lalonde says.

Performance in cold weather will also be a concern for electric trucks deployed in Canada, but Lalonde corrects a widely held myth.

“Cold is not the enemy of a lithium-ion battery,” he says. “It’s extreme heat that’s the enemy. People compare them to the lead acid battery.”

Motors, however, don’t like extreme temperatures, so Lalonde said Canadian buyers should be asking their OEMs about the battery pack’s thermal management system and how it will ensure continued strong performance in extreme temperatures.

“Ask and understand, how do you take heat out of that battery,” Lalonde suggests.

Get to know your utility

Engage your local utility early and often, and ensure they can supply the charging capacity you’ll need. Verify the peak and off-peak costs of electricity and be prepared to find some wide variances between jurisdictions where you operate.

Roland Berger’s Aulbur noted during a recent FTR webinar that electricity in one major metro area in the U.S. costs US 20 cents/kWh, while neighboring counties charge six cents. Such variance may even impact which terminals will house your first electric trucks.

Lalonde says the truck maker hasn’t had any deals fall through because a utility wasn’t up to supporting the trucks. However, some have not been able to meet the customer’s timelines.

“We engage the utilities as early as possible. If it’s going to be nine or 18 months out, we will only deliver the vehicle when the work is completed,” Lalonde says, recalling a delivery company that received electric trucks and was unable to use them for six months because the utility was slow to fulfill its obligations. Lalonde said the OEM should be active in ensuring the utility fulfills its requirements on time.

Johal adds when the time comes to install chargers, choose a supplier who has experience doing so – and not a general electrical contractor.

Also, be sure you understand how pricing is determined. Manhattan Beer Distributors had the novel idea of creating the electricity needed to power its electric trucks. It installed an array of solar panels on the roof its 190,000 sq.-ft. warehouse – only to find out after that the local utility requires the beer distributor to first feed that power it produces into the grid, and then buy it back, with delivery charges on both transactions.

Tap into incentives

Early adopters of electric trucks will find it difficult to justify the higher costs of electric models if looking at it purely from a total cost of ownership (TCO) perspective. At least until battery packs decrease further in price and economies of scale allow OEMs to build the trucks more economically.

That’s where government incentives come in. B.C. and Quebec are among the provinces with the most aggressive incentives, which is why some of the first electric heavy trucks have been deployed there.

But there is a vast number of smaller incentives available throughout Canada, many of which are not well known. Lion Electric Company and other truck OEMs have formed entire teams who do nothing but seek out grants and incentives for customers.

“A lot of utilities will help with some infrastructure costs, so there are programs across the board,” Lalonde says. “No one has time to be an expert in incentives. We have an entire team that, all they do is incentives across North America. In some cases, you can stack them to benefit from one program and add that to another. Some customers leave money on the table because they didn’t have time to deal with it.”

Picture of Bison's eCascadia
Bison Transport is putting an eCascadia through its paces. (Photo: Bison)

Find a customer that shares your vision

When Bison Transport decided to test two eCascadias, it realized it needed a partner that shared its vision of zero emissions transport. It found such an environmentally minded customer in Washington State.

“This customer was doing some other opportunities that supported infrastructure installation, so we’re piggybacking on some other technology plays this customer is doing,” says Mike Gomes, director of maintenance for Bison Transport.

Bison needs charging capabilities at the customer site. It also had to be candid about the unknowns surrounding electric trucks. How reliable will they be? Will there be increased downtime? How do you price service; there’s no fuel surcharge, but could there be an electricity surcharge? Customers need to be involved in all those discussions, so it’s important they are equally passionate about testing new technologies and eliminating emissions from their supply chain.

“It’s imperative to work with your clientele and let them know you’re integrating electric vehicles.”

Teri Proude, Pride Group Enterprises

Proude suggests seeking out CPG (consumer packaged goods) shippers, as many have strong environmental mandates and have suppliers within a 50-mile radius of their operations. Such short runs are ideal for electric trucks and the typically urban routes present a great opportunity to improve air quality.

“It’s imperative to work with your clientele and let them know you’re integrating electric vehicles,” he adds. “You want everyone to be aware of the new technology and possible hiccups. We have a century of prior knowledge of diesel.”

Who will maintain it?

A great deal of technician training and specialized tooling is required to service an electric truck. Many early adopters are choosing to initially lean on their local dealer for all service and maintenance for an extended period of time.

For Manhattan Beer Distributors, local dealer Milea Truck Sales & Leasing will manage all the maintenance for six years. When Purolator took delivery of 18-foot box trucks with Motiv Power System’s electric powertrain, the company demanded Motiv supply a full-time technician to oversee the trucks on-site for a period of three to six months.

But Bison has found technicians are eager to work on the electric units.

“Our technicians did the provincial safeties on the units,” Gomes said. “They’re very excited about it and it’s almost a fight over who is going to get to work on them.”

Bison has leaned on Freightliner to provide technician and driver training. Lion’s Lalonde notes technicians love the simplicity of an electric powertrain – after all, an electric motor has just 20 parts [three of them moving], while a diesel has 2,000 parts.

Just get started

As more fleets consider electrifying a portion of their fleets, the biggest hurdle to overcome, according to Lalonde, is fear of the unknown.

“The greatest competition to electric vehicles today is the status quo,” he says. “No one is going to get fired buying what they have today, but that won’t get them to their sustainability goals. The biggest barrier is confidence.”

He encourages fleets thinking about electrifying, to talk with others that have done so. One thing is certain – the interest is growing.

“Last month was the most interest we’ve ever had from customers,” Lalonde says.

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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 james@newcom.ca or follow him on Twitter at @JamesMenzies.

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