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Shunt trucks: Fuel of the future

While the technology is in its infancy, electric shunt trucks are gaining traction


Electric shunt trucks, such as this T2e, are here — and more are coming

The applications best suited for electrification are those that see trucks operate locally, with lots of starts and stops, and that park at home each night for charging. So, it’s little wonder that shunt truck operators and manufacturers are taking a hard look at electrification, as that application checks each of those boxes.

What’s the appeal?

Shunt truck applications are seen as ideal for electrification, because they usually don’t travel far from home base, where charging stations are located. Their frequent starts and stops provide regenerative braking opportunities and they can usually be charged between work shifts.

“Drivers like the fact that this tractor has the same agility and robustness that they associate with the Kalmar Ottawa product. But it has the extra benefits of being quiet, and without fumes,” Gina Lopez, vice-president of terminal tractors with Kalmar, said of the company’s T2e electric shunt truck.

Operators also like being able to do away with the troublesome emissions systems needed on diesel-powered on-road yard tractors. Those systems don’t like idling, and shunt truck applications typically include lots of idle time.

“A Tier 4 emissions system was designed for operators in Class 8 applications, doing 70 mph and generating a lot of heat in the aftertreatment system,” said Mallery Pinder, North American dealer manager with Tico, which is developing an electric model. “In our application, most users idle 50% or more, and idle time is not good for those systems.”

But while there’s lots to like about going electric, Pinder cautioned that the technology may not yet be ready for prime time.

“In a port environment, they’re going to need to be able to pull 150,000-lb loads,” Pinder said. “The battery technology needs to be able to withstand five to 10 Gs of force when an operator connects to a trailer, and you do that 100 times a day. The battery needs to be able to withstand that shock load, and often.”

While Tico is developing an electric shunt truck, it sees compressed natural gas (CNG) as an ideal bridge until electrification is further advanced.

Here in Canada

Loblaw is believed to be one of the first, if not the first, Canadian company to order an electric shunt truck. It ordered a Terberg unit from dealer Train Trailers, which will be delivered and put into service in the coming weeks. First, the electric drive system from the European manufacturer will need to be modified for the North American market.

James Currier, national account manager for Train Trailer, said this will be the first all-electric Terberg shunt truck in North America.

“Train Trailer is very excited to bring an electric vehicle to North America,” he told Truck News. “We’ve been pushing Terberg to allow us access to one. Everything looks good to go for July.”

Train chose to work with Loblaw, as it has several distribution centers across Canada where the unit can be tested.

“The Canadian climate is sometimes unforgiving. Given this is a new product to the Canadian climate, we want to be able to test it in several different climates, so partnering with a company like Loblaw allows us to find the resources and dedicate the time necessary in order to test all sorts of different attributes and functionalities,” Currier said. “It was absolutely necessary to find a partner with very large scale.”

When the shunt truck is deployed, Train Trailer will work closely with Loblaw to monitor its performance.

“It’s very much a hand-in-hand partnership,” Currier noted. “We want to be able to start putting electric vehicles out to a large portion of shunt truck users within Canada, and ideally eventually all of North America, but in order to do that somebody has to go first.”

A second generation Terberg electric yard tractor is currently in development, and once it’s released, Train Trailer plans to bring them over in larger quantities. Currier said interest in the technology is steadily increasing.

“I’d say every month, I see an increase in demand for electric vehicles,” he said. “Ultimately, I think their presence in Canada will be strong and significantly increased over the next few years.”

But is it too cold?

The Loblaw experiment will be watched with great interest, as there’s a widely held theory that Canada’s just too cold for electrification. It’s no secret, after all, that batteries prefer moderate climates to extreme temperatures.

Mike Saxton, chief commercial officer with Orange EV, makers of pure electric terminal tractors, said he’s confident his company’s vehicles can operate in a Canadian winter, and will soon do so.

“Orange EV’s electric shunt trucks are outperforming diesels in cold weather,” he said. “They start when turned on and avoid the need for excessive idling. Colder weather may, somewhat like with diesels, lead to increased energy consumption rates. How much greater depends on how cold and for how prolonged the cold.”

Lopez said “Our current T2e (electric terminal tractor) has the capability to operate down to 14 F (-10 C). We are aiming for lower temperatures with some upcoming development initiatives as well.”

The charging requirements 

Range and charging time are two critical factors to consider when purchasing an electric shunt truck. Saxton said Orange EV’s shunt trucks can run 24 hours on a single charge.

“For most sites, the electric infrastructure required already exists,” he said. “And the site is simply extending current circuit capacity to where they install and hook up to the charging equipment Orange EV provides with the trucks…Sites install 480 VAC circuits at amperage based on the speed of the charging desired, from standard to fast charging.”

The trucks are recharged in as little as two hours using fast charging methods, he added, noting charging is usually done during work breaks and other downtime.

Kalmar’s T2e requires 480-volt three-phase power with a single industrial plug. Lopez said it will run for 12 hours between charges and can be fully charged in 2.5 to 3.5 hours.

“Most applications present opportunity charge windows during breaks and this allows for longer periods of operation,” she added.

How quiet is too quiet?

One safety concern that may exist in busy yards is the noise – or lack thereof – from an electric shunt truck. While this is no doubt appealing to drivers, does it compromise safety in the yard?

“Fleets ask this at first but then realize there’s still some noise from the truck and trailer, while also concluding their other safety practices more than address any concern over quiet trucks,” contended Saxton.

“Many of these sites already have electric forklifts, which are also quiet. The new protocols include slowing at and checking blind corners, beeping the horn – a different sound helps identify the electric truck – and educating site personnel, already highly trained to be safety-conscious.”


James Menzies

James Menzies

James Menzies is editor of Truck News magazine. He has been covering the Canadian trucking industry for more than 15 years and holds a CDL. Reach him at james@newcom.ca or follow him on Twitter at @JamesMenzies.
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