Welcome to the Year of the Electric Truck

Avatar photo
Earlier this year, Daimler said the battery-electric eM2 will deliver 480 peak horsepower, drawing on batteries with 325 kwh of capacity and offering a 375-km range.

CARSON, Calif. – Penske Truck Leasing has accepted keys to Freightliners before, but today’s ceremonial handoff of an electric Freightliner eM2 kicks off what can safely be described as the Year of the Electric Truck.

“Electric commercial vehicles present a real opportunity to advance the ideal of emissions-free mobility while improving our customers’ real cost of ownership,” said Daimler Trucks North America president and CEO Roger Nielsen, referring to the demands driven by increasing regulatory pressures and diminishing energy resources.

The eM2 is the first unit in what will become known as the Freightliner Electric Innovation Fleet, looking to test battery-electric vehicles in real-world operating conditions before entering series production. And the rollout involves more than trucks. Penske has committed to install 20 high-power charging stations across five California locations this month, setting up support for nine more eM2s and 10 e-Cascadias that will begin service along the west coast of the U.S. in the coming year.

But Daimler and Penske are not alone in the race to bring commercialized electric trucks to market. Established manufacturers and start-ups alike have scheduled tests and launches throughout 2019.

Battery-electric truck tests


Just last week, Volvo Trucks North America announced it will  commercialize an electric version of the regional VNR tractor by 2020, placing the first test units on the road in the months to come.

Volvo Trucks North America president Peter Voorhoeve was quick to stress that electric trucks are not a novelty, either. “This is a serious segment,” he said, noting how the costs of diesel and electric vehicles are drawing ever closer together. “There’s a lot of scientists trying to predict where the cross point of diesel and electric is, and it’s not that far away.”

“What we knew about batteries 1-1/2 years ago is not valid today,” added Magnus Koeck, Volvo’s vice-president of marketing and brand management.

Ryder recently placed a record order for commercial electric vehicles, with plans to deploy 1,000 Chanje Energy vans.

Barely weeks before that, Ryder System placed the largest-ever order for commercial electric vehicles in the U.S., with plans to deploy the 1,000 Chanje Energy medium-duty electric panel vans throughout California over the next two years.

The business case for electric trucks

Indeed, a concept that caused eyes to roll only a few years ago is increasingly looking like a viable power option in selected applications.

The costs of using electric trucks in shorter, mild duty cycles are drawing closer to those associated with combustion engines, said North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE) executive director Mike Roeth, when releasing his organization’s related “confidence report”.

That report noted the greatest opportunities are linked to medium-duty trucks running one shift per day and sitting still long enough for recharging. Most medium-duty trucks also cube out before grossing out, meaning that hefty batteries are less of a concern than they are in heavy-duty longhaul applications.

Ideal electric applications so far include those with low daily average speeds, low average daily drive time, predictable daily distances, stop-and-go driving patterns, and fixed start and return locations, NACFE said.

Electric truck tests

Several manufacturers reflect that thinking though plans involving refuse vehicles and port drayage trucks.

Mack Trucks, for example, will test an electrified LR waste truck with New York City’s Department of Transportation in 2019. And during the Canada Waste and Recycling Expo, refuse product manager Curtis Dorwart promised the tested vehicle with a vertically integrated Mack powertrain will be “weight-neutral” when compared to its diesel-powered counterpart.

Peterbilt prototypes have been developed with Transpower Electric Drive System.

Paccar, which earlier this year unveiled DAF CF electric trucks in Europe – drawing on a 210-kW electric motor and 170 kWh lithium-ion battery pack for a 100-km range – has plans on this side of the Atlantic as well.

Kenworth has unveiled the prototype of a T680 hybrid-electric day cab, which draws on a Ballard Power hydrogen fuel cell as part of the Zero Emission Cargo Transport (ZECT) program. Peterbilt, meanwhile, is showcasing a Model 520 prototype equipped with a 300 kW (400 hp) Transpower Electric Drive System and 315 kW/h energy storage using lithium-ion phosphate batteries — enough power to travel 130 km and pick up 900 cans of refuse on a single charge.

Navistar has promised to bring a medium-duty electric powertrain to North America by 2019/20. It will draw on support from Traton Group, a subsidiary of Volkswagen and now a shareholder in Navistar.

Electrification is clearly at the top of mind, Peterbilt general manager Jason Skoog told us earlier this year. “You rarely go into a customer meeting that it’s not discussed.”

Toyota’s Beta prototype features an operating range close to 500 km.

Emerging truck manufacturers

Many of the discussions have been fed by companies that are not yet known for making trucks.

Elon Musk and Tesla grabbed many headlines as 2017 came to a close, with the promise of bringing the electric Tesla Semi into production by 2019. It’s already secured orders from companies as diverse as Walmart and Bison Transport, although some reports suggest dates are being pushed into 2020.

This April, Nikola will demonstrate its hydrogen-electric Nikola Two and European Nikola Tre tractors at an event dubbed Nikola World. It has reported more than US $13 billion in pre-order reservations, and says Ryder System and Thompson Caterpillar will be at the event to work on customer orders. Limited production of the Nikola Two is scheduled to begin in 2021, ramping up to full production by 2022. And the company plans to have more than 700 hydrogen fueling stations across the U.S. and Canada by 2028.

Loblaw was involved in an initial test of a Class 8 BYD tractor in Vancouver.

Transport Canada also recently confirmed that battery-electric Build Your Dreams (BYD) Canada trucks comply with Canadian Motor Vehicle Safety Regulations and Canadian Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, meaning they can be imported for applications including municipal service, refuse and recycling, and courier and delivery applications. That company is developing a drayage truck and was already involved in a trial with Loblaw, which ran a BYD Class 8 tractor between a Vancouver Distribution Center and a store in the city’s west end. Still, it has reportedly put plans for an Ontario-based manufacturing facility on hold.

Thor, meanwhile, is partnering with UPS to field test a Class 6 truck around Los Angeles, while Toyota has unveiled the second iteration of a Class 8 truck known as Beta, featuring an operating range close to 500 km. It’s being tested in the same region.

A western focus

The focus on launches in the western U.S. are less surprising when considering sources of funding available to back the all-important research.

Elon Musk made headlines in late 2017 when he showcased the prototype of a Tesla Semi. At the time, it was scheduled to enter production in 2019.

Millions of related dollars have been invested by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD), an air pollution control agency that covers Orange County and urban areas of Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties. The area historically has the worst air quality in the U.S. because of natural geographic and atmospheric conditions, coupled with a dense population.

Its Clean Fuels Program is funded through a $1 motor vehicle registration fee, supporting tests of options including fuel cells and battery-electric vehicles.

Judy Mitchell, a governing board member with SCAQMD, says her district is using “every tool in its tool box” to bring technologies to market that will help to reduce mobile and stationary emissions.

Ongoing tests suggest that such technologies are rolling ever closer to a reality.

Understand the role of motors in electric trucks

Avatar photo

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, 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.