Research group sees electric truck technology advancing rapidly electricity transmission loss

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“We could not think of a better place to start than with electric trucks,” said Mike Roeth, executive director of NACFE. “No subject is more fraught with confusion than commercial battery electric vehicles, and changes and developments in this space are happening at a rapid pace.”

But like other technologies, electric trucks will have the most utility for certain uses, such as local package delivery, short-haul operations and transporting goods on a 200- to 300-mile route with charging infrastructure at each. At the Waste Expo in Las Vegas last month, Peterbilt displayed an electric garbage truck that can drive 80 miles and pick up 900 cans on a single charge.

An “electric truck is going to be about twice as expensive as a normal diesel vehicle,” Ron Armstrong, chief executive of Paccar Inc., Peterbilt’s corporate parent, said on an investor call in April. “So as long as there’s subsidies and as long as maybe the regulations dictate zero emission vehicles in certain zones in large cities, that’s going to create some demand. But until it’s economically feasible, there won’t be widespread demand. That could be five-plus years.”

At the top of the list is the idea that electric trucks can’t haul the same weight as their diesel counterparts. Diesel vehicles require a slew of heavy components — including engines, transmissions, emissions systems, exhaust systems, cooling systems, fluids and mountings — that electric trucks don’t have. Removing them helps level the playing field, even with the heavy weight of the batteries required for electric transport, he said. Diesel and electric trucks have equivalent freight-carrying capacity in many applications.

Although it is still undergoing development, electric truck technology is rapidly approaching practical application. New companies, including Workhorse Group, Tesla and Thor as well as legacy truck makers such as Daimler, Volvo and Navistar, plan models across the full range of commercial vehicle weight classes and are currently developing trucks, Roeth said.

Charging remains a challenge. Electric trucks work for local delivery where they can return to a depot for off-shift charging. But fleets with variable routes and no guaranteed return trip will need growth in remote charging infrastructure before they can replace diesels with battery electric trucks.

Pricing looks like an issue for now, but will become competitive with diesel trucks, especially when total cost of ownership is calculated. Getting beyond prototype and low volume production also should make battery electric truck pricing more attractive. For now, potential buyers have to consider factors such as grants, tax breaks and incentives and a largely unknown residual or salvage value.

But the “trend over the last decade is expected to continue, with large reductions in cost and significant gains in performance,” Roeth said. “Diesel performance, in contrast, is unlikely to yield large gains in performance with reduced costs.”

Fleet managers should also expect that electric trucks will be less costly to operate. The lack of a combustion engine and mechanical systems such as pumps, valves, transmissions and belts should reduce the cost of maintenance and servicing, Roeth said.

“The value of electric motors and batteries in salvage may prove an advantage as they can be repurposed for non-vehicle uses and may have significant life left. Mechanical systems at the end of vehicle life require reconditioning, which can reduce their net value in salvage,” he said.