How electric trucks and autonomous vehicles can disrupt heavy fleets
The recent unveiling of Havelaar Bison’s electric pick-up truck in Canada made headlines around the world. As the first electric pick-up designed and tested for this northern country’s “severe weather and challenging terrain,” it stands a good chance of making it into production. It would be a shame if the Bison just joined the already crowded corral of e-truck concepts and prototypes.
That e-stockade includes Indiana’s Workhorse Group, which has already received an order for 200 of its all-electric W-15 pick-up trucks from UPS. New York’s Bollinger Motors is set to introduce its U.S. built electric pick-up in 2019.
To what do we owe this surge of interest in electric pick-ups? After all, their history stretches back to the 1990s, with the GM S10 e-pick-up and Ford Electric Ranger, which were snapped up almost exclusively by fleets. These unfortunately experienced battery overheating issues and were off-roaded. But as EV technology has improved, it stands to reason there should be more electric trucks on the road. After all, they’re America’s best-loved vehicles – American drivers bought 2.7 million in 2016, with Ford F-series selling 83% more than the entire mid-size segment. And as carmakers struggle to meet CAFE standards – 54.5 mpg in 2025 – trucks offer an obvious path to compliance.
The technology is real and the technology works.
– Michael Simon, TransPower President, and CEO
Portugese pilot showed significant savings
In his “Master Plan, Part Deux”, Elon Musk announced his intent to build not only an electric pick-up but also an electric semi-truck. Last year, Mercedes-Benz revealed its sleek Urban E-Truck, as an alternative to clunky short-range diesel commercial trucks. Mercedes has already had success with a fleet of eight Fuso Canter E-Cell electric trucks in Portugal, which saved up to 64 percent in operating costs, or 1,000 euros per 10,000 kilometers. Next up is a year-long pilot project with the municipality of Stuttgart.
TransPower, a California company that adapts large vehicles to electric powertrains has 12 battery electric trucks built on the Peterbilt 579 chassis. They currently have fleets with large corporations such as IKEA, Dole Fresh Fruits, and SA Recycling.
The best choices for electrification in a territory like the U.S. are vehicles that travel 50 to 200 miles in single-duty cycles. That’s because modern batteries are better suited to lighter vehicles that only need to operate eight to 10 hours a day, and can be returned to be recharged. So fleet vehicles that follow established routes, return to the garage or depot overnight, would be ideal candidates.
But all that could change with autonomous vehicles. In fact, the trucking industry is keen on the concept, and it’s not hard to see why. Even Waymo, Google’s autonomous vehicle spin-off, recently put its Firefly passenger vehicle plans out to pasture and is developing driverless trucks. The main advantage for autonomous trucks is simply that they can run constantly, never get tired, never get distracted, and stay on the job 24-7. An autonomous truck can run around the clock, trimming significant amounts of time off cross-country routes. Plus driverless trucks are safer – right now, trucking fleets must contend with federal restrictions on how much time drivers spend on the road. Then there’s the reality of a growing shortage of professional truck drivers.
Autonomous and electric go hand-in-hand
And autonomous technology lends itself to EV technology. EVs are easier for computers to drive since there are fewer moving parts – the main components are a battery, inverter and electric motor. With internal combustion engines, there are hundreds of tiny pieces requiring lubrication, which are also prone to breaking. EVs need electrical intelligence for tasks like controlling vision, guidance, and mapping, and to process increased volumes of software. They’re also configured for drive-by-wire, steering-by-wire, and brake-by-wire, which makes them even more well suited for autonomous driving. In fact, by-wire Tech handily replaces traditional mechanical control systems with electronic control systems. Last but not least, eliminating mechanical linkages reduces weight.
So the convergence of EV and AV seems forged in the stars, as they make use of complimentary technology. However, cost is still a hurdle, even with available tax credits, subsidies and incentives. Electric trucks cost two to three times more than a conventional vehicle. But that has to be weighed against the long term per-mile cost to operate them, which is projected to be significantly lower. That’s already been demonstrated with Portugal’s Fuso fleet. So lower maintenance costs, steadily decreasing battery costs and more efficient propulsion systems could mean payback time in less than two years, making electric trucks more attractive to fleet managers.
The North American Class 8 market, which includes trailor tractors, dump trucks, anything with three or more axles, is about $30 billion in revenue. That’s 250,000 unit sales at $120,000 each. Is it any wonder Elon Musk is eyeing his piece of this lucrative pie?
But how can fleet managers overcome financing, charging time and range challenges? Musk is looking at swappable batteries. Others suggest customizing electrification technology already in use for ie monorails. Or, perhaps using a system to analyze and track driver style and vehicle health that might impact electrification. Then there are options such as creative financing that include partial leases and dedicated utility rates for commercial vehicle charging. Why not convert gas stations to battery swapping outlets? That would significantly lessen plug-in charging times.
Industry ripe for disruption
“The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
– Science fiction novelist William Gibson
Although e-trucks, large and small, represent only a small ripple in the marketplace, they’ve arrived. These vehicles can tow and haul as well as any other truck – the Fuso has a payload of 3.0 tonnes, with a 100 kW output and maximum torque of 650 Nm. Like any EV, it’s also fun to drive, providing full torque from low revs.
When might the industry reach a tipping point? A guess could be hazarded to coincide with fuel economy standard deadlines such as CAFE, which kicks in around 2015. Even if those standards are loosened, carmakers still have to abide by global regulations. Organizations like the International Council on Clean Transportation, which includes nine governments from around the world, have established standards for not only passenger vehicles but also light commercial vehicles/light trucks. And sending a clear message to carmakers, energy ministers from 24 nations are working to boost the total sales of electric vehicles to 30 percent of new vehicle sales by 2030.
That eight-unit Portugese Fuso fleet, which covered over 50,000 kilometres, reduced CO2 emissions by 37 percent compared with diesel engines. The gains in efficiency and the benefits to the planet demonstrate that an electric truck fleet would not only dramatically disrupt, but also transform the trucking industry into a better, more sustainable business model.