Exploring the path to electric trucks

John G Smith
Michael Berube of the U.S. Department of Energy, Gary Parker of Cummins, and Tod Hynes of XL all see answers to the challenges faced by electric vehicles.

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – There are plenty of barriers to the widespread adoption of electric trucks. Battery prices, weights, and limited ranges are just three of them. But Michael Berube, one of the presenters at this year’s Green Truck Summit, sees plenty of promise in such trucks to support evolving delivery models.

A large share of goods – about half the overall weight, and 37% of the value – will move less than 160 km between their origin and destination, says the U.S. Department of Energy’s acting deputy assistant secretary – sustainable transportation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy.

Delivery patters are shifting evermore to “hub and spoke” models against a backdrop of growing e-commerce activity, he adds.

The broader adoption of electric vehicles is also seen as an important factor in the fight against unwanted emissions.

“Transportation is now the Number 1 source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. That change occurred in the last year or two,” says Tod Hynes, founder and CEO of XL, a fleet electrification company. The energy sector had long held the top spot, but it has been able to reduce a reliance on coal while increasing investments in wind and solar power. In contrast, the carbon dioxide emissions generated by the transportation sector have largely remained flat, even increasing in the last few years.

“There are people who may not believe in climate change,” he told the crowd, “but your investors and your customers do.”

In the midst of it all, interest in plug-in power has replaced the focus on hybrid-electric vehicles, Hynes says. “There’s clearly a demand for plug-in solutions.”

Financial incentives and public sector mandates are playing their part in supporting that very demand.

Incentives in the U.S. include state-determined funds from a US $4.925 billion fund linked to Volkswagen’s diesel emissions settlement. There’s also utility company support, and municipal mandates to reduce carbon dioxide. Further pressure is coming from Fortune 500 companies looking to reduce their environmental footprints.

Battery costs still need to reach $80 to $100 per kWh before they are on par with combustion engines, Berube says. But earlier this year they were as low as $197 kWh. “It is now entering that horizon where you can see it becoming really cost-competitive.”

Costs could be further reduced through recycling activities, supported by a focus on reducing the amount of cobalt found in the individual batteries. About 80% has been removed so far, and the goal is to remove about 99%, Berube says. “We will get to potentially up to 1/3 of the raw materials that will come from the recycled stream.”

For now, buses are the leading application for fully electric vehicles, but medium-duty trucks are close behind, says Gary Parker, director – electrified power engineering programs at Cummins.

The manufacturer is exploring several different approaches, from mild hybridization, to PowerDrive systems (which switches in real time between two hybrid and two purely electric modes depending on the driving situation), battery-electric vehicles, and fuel cell-electric systems.

Combined, its electrified power segment has a presence in four countries, counting 202 engineers, 241 patents filed for electrified systems, and about 18 million km of on-road experience.

But Cummins is also embracing a strategy that involves other alternative fuels. It’s actively exploring biodiesel levels above B20, hydrogen, and diverse options for natural gas ranging from compressed natural gas (CNG) to liquefied natural gas (LNG), renewable natural gas (RNG), and biogas.

Even the U.S. government appears to be hedging its bets in the search for options to reduce emissions. The U.S. Department of Energy’s consortium on medium- and heavy-duty trucks now includes technical teams exploring internal combustion engine powertrains, freight, and operational efficiency. Five teams are also participating in the Super Truck 2 project that wants to see if it’s possible to cut Class 8 longhaul fuel requirements in half. During the summit, Berube also announced US $18 million in funding to explore natural gas. Yet another program is researching everything from battery-electric vehicles, to high-thoughput hydrogen fueling, and membrane electrode assemblies.

There are clearly plenty of options to be had.

None of them are expected to dominate the industry in the short term, though.

About 92% of transportation work relies on gasoline and diesel, Hynes notes. “There really aren’t a lot of alternatives that have scale … We need to be getting into the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of units rather quickly.”

Berube remains confident that change will come.

“The future is not going to look like the past,” he says. “That’s the nature of disruption.”


John G Smith

John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking, trucknews.com, TruckTech, Transport Routier, Canadian Shipper, Inside Logistics, Solid Waste & Recycling, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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