Is now the ‘right time’ for electric vehicles?

Avatar photo
Darren Gosbee of Navistar, Tim Reeser of Lightning Systems, and consultant Tim Campbell take the stage at the annual Green Truck Summit.

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Navistar has built electric vehicles before.

Darren Gosbee, the manufacturer’s vice-president of engineering, refers to the 120 eStar delivery vans that were produced with 80 kWh batteries and 160-km ranges. Their $130,000 price tags were largely dictated by the batteries that cost $54,000.

But the early experiment was a proving ground of sorts. It showed that most of the vans actually operated within 40-km ranges. Had that been known, smaller batteries would have been possible.

“It wasn’t the right time for this product,” Gosbee says, referring to the 2010 launch. “Is it the right time now? We’ll see.”

Speaking at this year’s Green Truck Summit, Gosbee suggested medium-duty and pickup and delivery applications will be the first to experience a “tipping point” for the broader use of electric vehicles. “Now we’ve moved to a point where there’s a lot more confidence,” he says.

The eStar had a limited range, but users didn’t even need to push them that far.

Granted, there are still lessons to learn. Gosbee refers to factors including battery costs, the weight and payload implications of large battery packs needed to generate 300-km ranges, the lack of charging infrastructure to support commercial operations, and the unknown residual values. None of today’s electrified trucks have been on the road long enough to answer the latter question.

Battery prices also play an increasingly important role when larger vehicles and longer ranges are considered, says Tim Reeser, CEO of Lightning Systems, which builds electric vehicle powertrains from the Class ¾ Ford Transit to the Class 6 GM 6500XD. “It very much is dependent upon the product.”

But this is where the power of information plays a role.

“Analytics now plays such an enabling role,” Reeser explains. Such data can allow users to choose a shorter range, as long as they understand how the energy is used. It can also identify other power needs that exist. He refers to one bus in Colorado that, during a particularly cold day, used about 38% of its energy to power a heater.

They’re the kinds of factors that can help a user decide whether to spend another $25,000 to double a vehicle’s battery capacity.

“Ultimately data is what will rule this world,” he says. “We really want to understand how to right-size the batteries for customers.”

Reeser also bristles at suggestions that battery prices need to drop to about $200 per kWh, because there are so many factors at play. “Is that a thermally managed battery?” he asks, referring to the pricing. Other costs include the labor for installations, and discounts for volume purchases. His company sees prices closer to $400 per kWh. Tesla’s numbers are reportedly closer to $300.

Active thermal management systems and high-quality battery cells all affect the total cost of ownership, Reeser says. “There’s pumps, there’s control systems, there’s hoses, there’s cables, there’s radiators.” One bus that his company works on requires a $13,000 wiring harness.

Still, cases for electrification can be made even with the higher price points.

“Once we’ve got all that on-board power, what can we do with it?” Reeser asks, referring to options beyond turning a wheel. Food trucks could use the onboard power for cooking, eliminating the need for propane generators. Utility trucks might use it for on-site power generation and backup power. In construction and mining, the onboard power could enable off-grid tools without generators.

That’s where specialized companies could continue to find a market, even in the face of investments by OEMs.

“All of those are very small niche markets,” Reeser explains. Even massive customers like FedEx, UPS and DHL customize their step vans in different ways. “There will continue to be room in this market for all of these niche players.”

The barriers are not all limited to the vehicles themselves, though.

“Infrastructure for cars is not the same as infrastructure for commercial vehicles,” explains Tim Campbell of Vahana Automotive Consultancy. He refers to a time when he was at the wheel of a high-roof van when a nearby charger’s connection was inside a parking garage. There was no way to reach it. In another case, the cord for a DC charger wasn’t long enough to reach down the side of the truck.

But there is plenty of pressure to find solutions, even in a global context.

Next month, trucks entering London will have to pay $12.50 per day. But those without Euro 6 engines – diesel designs with the latest emissions technologies — will pay $125 per day as the city looks to reduce truck-related carbon dioxide emissions 1% by 2025 and 30% by 2030. “They brought it forward by a year – that’s the real frightening thing,” he adds. Another 22 cities in the United Kingdom are following a similar path.

It seems a world away, but Campbell sees the focus on electrified vehicles as an increasingly global affair – as it is with trucks of any form.

“U.S. and Europe are coming together,” he says, “whether you’re looking at light vans or you’re looking at heavy vans.”

Avatar photo

John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking,, TruckTech, Transport Routier, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

Have your say

This is a moderated forum. Comments will no longer be published unless they are accompanied by a first and last name and a verifiable email address. (Today's Trucking will not publish or share the email address.) Profane language and content deemed to be libelous, racist, or threatening in nature will not be published under any circumstances.