Plenty of planning needed before adopting electric trucks: Panel

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In theory, adopting electric trucks sounds relatively simple: Find a truck, plug it in, and run it. Right? In reality, moving a fleet to electric trucks is a process that requires a great deal of research and planning, according to a panel of industry experts speaking at the Technology and Maintenance Council (TMC) fall meeting.

Mike Roeth, executive director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE), said his organization’s Run on Less Electric fleet evaluation trials will help differentiate “hype from reality” when it comes to electric trucks.

Ken Marko
Ken Marko, fleet sustainability manager, Pepsico, said the company had revised earlier commitments to reduce greenhouse gases, and would now seek to reduce them by 75% by 2030. (Photo: Jack Roberts)

The trials include four vehicle segments, from yard tractors to Class 8 trucks in regional applications. “What we’re learning is that small vans and step vans, with smaller battery packs and daily range requirements ranging from five to 50 miles [8 to 80 km], are already making a lot of sense for fleets,” Roeth said. “The business case for those vehicles is developing very quickly.”

Electric medium-duty box trucks have also been found to do well, despite their different duty cycles, with daily ranges of 50 to 60 miles [80 to 95 km]. 

But perhaps the biggest surprise to the NACFE team has been the evaluation of terminal tractors. “These yard trucks are really good early opportunity for fleets to learn about electric trucks,” Roeth noted. “They’re typically towing empty trailers on flat ground and work, so the state of charge is easy to manage.”

By placing charging stations around bathrooms and lunchrooms – anywhere a driver takes a break — the opportunity charging is not an issue, he said. Combining that with the regenerative braking, there seems to be enough power to run the truck around the clock, maintaining a 50% state of charge most of the time.

Freightliner eCascadia
(Photo: Daimler Trucks North America)

Charging infrastructure questions

Alexander Voets, sales and marketing manager with Freightliner eMobility, cautioned attendees that there was “a lot to think through” when it comes to deploying electric trucks. 

“There is a lot to learn about charging infrastructure,” Voets said. “And it is absolutely necessary that you do so, because today there [is] no charging station infrastructure for commercial vehicles anywhere in the country. So it’s going be entirely up to you in the beginning.”

Charging is not a one-size-fits-all solution, either, he said.

An AC 120-volt domestic charger, Voets noted, is a normal domestic power outlet that is sufficient for slowly charging a single battery-electric passenger car, usually overnight. A Level 2 AC outlet is the type of outlet a washing or welding machine plugs into — and it can also be used for a quicker version of such charging. “But DC fast-charging systems are what trucks really need,” he said. “Because their batteries are so large compared to passenger cars.”

Looking ahead, Voets said work is now being done on megawatt charging systems, with a goal of charging times that last around 20 to 30 minutes.  

George Miller, director of truck sales at BYD, advised fleet managers to think about the routes they need to run, and the payloads they need to carry, before switching to electric trucks. “Payload is a challenge because the weight of current battlers is greater than a diesel powertrain package,” he said. “You need larger batteries for power density and range. Which means you’ll need to start with routes running lighter payloads to see if electric trucks will work for you.”

Environment also plays a role, Miller added. Extreme temperatures are not only hard on battery packs, heating or cooling cabs also places a significant drain on battery capacity. 

Miller also addressed the infrastructure issue, telling attendees that they most fleet operations will require 480-volt, three-phase, commercial power — with circuit breaker capacities close to where trucks will be charged. But it can take up to three years to install the infrastructure.

“Electricity does cost less than diesel,” Miller said. “But there are many different facets to charging you’ll need to learn. To control costs, you want to avoid charging at maximum speeds during peak demand times. So managing your charging will be an important part of your overall operation.”

BYD truck
(Photo: BYD)

Operational savings

Still, Miller said, electric trucks can deliver real operational cost savings. “Obviously there are significant savings on fuel costs,” he said. “Preventive maintenance costs can go down by as much as 80% as well. For many fleets, PMs will come down to just checking fluids and greasing the chassis of the trucks. Beyond that, the bulk of your maintenance work will be focused on software, mainly.”

Mark Jamieson, Cummins’ business development manager – new power, said how you use electric trucks will dictate the cost and weight of the batteries. But, he added, if range is your primary concern, then batteries are the primary driver to support that need.

“Aerodynamics is a good way to reduce the amount of batteries you need,” he added. “But driver operation of the truck, including in-cab cooling and heating, as well as getting the most from the regenerative braking system, can quickly degrade state of charge as well. That’s why training drivers on power management is critical.”

Luckily, Jamieson said, drivers really like regenerative braking systems, which in the right duty cycles can significantly extend vehicle range. “Make sure your drivers understand regenerative braking and how it affects performance,” he advised. “And plan routes so that you avoid steep grades as much as possible, since they take much more energy out of the system when the truck is climbing them.”

Pepsico has been introducing low-emissions vehicles for some time now, and has recently accelerated its plans to reduce greenhouse gases. Initial plans to reduce GHG emissions 20% by 2030 have shifted to a target of 75%.

Education requirements

“Obviously, this is going to be difficult to do,” said Ken Marko, fleet sustainability manager. “Now we are focusing even more on zero-emissions vehicles to achieve that goal.”

“To be successful with electric vehicles, you have to plan a lot in advance,” Marko said. “You need to get educated on site planning, incentive programs, charging station locations, and begin talking with utility companies about support equipment and infrastructure. It can take anywhere from 12 to 18 months to get infrastructure installed. So you need to start early.”

Additionally, Marko said fleets will need to study the routes they run, how batteries are sized, general operational procedures, and technician training.

“There will be a lot of data coming off of these vehicles,” Marko added. “There are a lot of sensors on them. And the data come off of them can be overwhelming at times.”

The biggest focus, Marko said, needs to be on energy management. “You’ll need to negotiate rate plans with your power utility,” he said. “And you’ll need to understand when you should charge trucks and [what] that right charging cycle will be. Peak demand charges can have a big impact on your bottom line. I wasn’t clear on that early on. But I learned very quickly how big an impact that could be, and make adjustments immediately.”

You don’t necessarily need to charge every vehicle in your fleet at the maximum rate, Marko added. Dwell time will be a primary indicator as to how fast you’ll need to charge, with lower rates over a longer period of time being the most cost-effective means of doing so.

UPS electric truck
(Photo: UPS)

Data drivers

“Our drivers really like electric trucks,” Marko said. “But they tell us they’d like to have more operational data to help them behind the wheel. They need more than just the electric version of a fuel gauge. They want information on range capacity and estimated miles to discharged batteries as well, so that they can make the right decisions to get back home at night.”

To help smooth over a transition to electric trucks, Marko advised getting drivers involved early on by telling them why you’re making the change. “Early on,” he said, “we purchased some electric passenger cars and let the drivers take them home for a few days. That allowed them to get some experience with electric vehicles before we had the trucks in the fleet and have some awareness about how to operate them.”

Michael McDonald, director of sustainability and government affairs for UPS, closed out the session by noting that technician training on electric vehicles seemed to be lagging. “I notice that nobody is talking about training technicians to work on these vehicles,” he said. “And training and support are critical. When UPS began running compressed natural gas [CNG] powered trucks, we once had a vehicle sit idle for weeks because it was so new that nobody at the dealership knew how to repair it.”

A positive point on electric trucks, McDonald noted, is that they tend to complement advanced safety systems very well. “They are data-driven vehicles,” he said. “So they support systems such as vehicle communications, predictive and real-time maintenance, AI, and machine learning very well.”

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Jack Roberts has been covering the North American trucking and transportation industries as a journalist since 1995. A licensed commercial driver, Roberts has emerged as a leading authority on new and advanced logistics and vehicle technologies, including autonomous vehicle systems, battery-electric trucks, and hydrogen fuel cells. Roberts is a graduate of the University of Alabama and lives and works in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

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