For short runs, electric trucks could see bigger role

Source: David Iaconangelo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Urban areas might start seeing more electric commercial trucks plying the roads over the next few years, as battery-powered vehicles rival diesel for limited types of travel, according to a freight industry report.

The first trucks to go electric will likely be light- and medium-duty types, like those used to run deliveries in urban areas, wrote analysts from the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE) last week.

When keeping daily routes to relatively short distances — 25 to 100 miles, especially in stop-and-go traffic — electrified trucks perform just as well as diesel versions, according to the report, though that parity would disappear if a driver had to go farther than 100 miles.

Parity requires advances in battery technology to improve energy density and make batteries lighter, wrote the report’s authors, adding that ongoing improvements would probably make the maximum daily range for the two sources equivalent by 2030.

After a century of commercial development, advances in diesel powertrains tended to be small and expensive, especially as regulators require reductions in emissions. But the last decade’s improvements in performance and reductions in cost were expected to continue for battery systems, said the report.

Electric truck providers also expect increasing opportunity.

Dakota Semler, CEO at Thor Trucks, a Los Angeles-based electric trucks solutions firm, said his company saw special potential in light-duty food-and-beverage trucks, such as those highlighted in the NACFE report, as well as the larger types used to transport goods from ports to warehouses on highly predictable routes.

“A lot of people conjure up Smokey and the Bandit” in a long-hauler when they think of electric trucks, Semler said at an event hosted by minerals researcher Benchmark Minerals Intelligence in New York.

“That’s not the application we’re going after,” he said.

The past decade of research and development on luxury passenger cars and transit buses has allowed cost-effective powertrains to hit the commercial vehicle market, Semler said.

Older-model diesel vehicles had been prohibited from at least two ports in California and downtown areas of some European cities, he added, while money for trucks could come from Volkswagen AG settlement funds and budget-funded initiatives by cities and states.

Meanwhile, changes in retail markets have led to surging demand for “last-mile,” short-haul commercial vehicles that often spend a lot of time idling in traffic. Heavier-duty classes of electric trucks would generally have limited application in the near term, said the NACFE report. And long-haulers, constrained in part by a lack of reliable charger infrastructure, would likely be last of all to go electric.

Battery-powered trucks “are not the choice for every application or market,” said Rick Mihelic, NACFE’s director of future technologies studies, “yet they will likely have an increasing role in the commercial vehicle market and in freight transportation.”