August 2020

Electric trucks evolving rapidly, charging up drive to diesel alternatives

We’re entering August, and beyond the obvious headlines, the wheels of commerce and technical innovation in trucking still seem to be turning, in spite of it all. Although the trucking industry is surrounded with revolutionary technology, like any commercial, industrial sector, fundamental change only comes in an evolutionary way. But in the case of electric propulsion things seem to be speeding up a bit.

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The day a fish stepped out of the water

Diesels have powered commercial trucks ever since automobiles stepped out of the primordial swamp of the industrial revolution. For most of its history, there were few modes of propulsion that could truly compete with diesels on all fronts even now – especially the relative energy density of the fuel and reliability of the overall platform in commercial application.

Science doesn’t exactly know when that first fish “walked” out of the water but once it did, eventually it got behind the wheel of an electric Class 8 semi and the rest as they say is history. Electro-motive power’s evolution has been a little faster and there is mounting evidence that diesel’s dominance at the top of the propulsion food change is about to be challenged by a powerful and technically evolved rival.

Survival of the fittest

Reporting about recent commercial experience of electrified trucks on website TheDrive, Jesus Garcia noted electrified hypercars with 1,200 horsepower are easy to salivate over, but zero-emission commercial vehicles are something we could all benefit from.

And while the actual environmental performance of any vehicle labeled “zero-emission” is debateable since it takes just as many petrochemicals to manufacture an electric truck as it does a diesel and guess what else: electrical production always has environmental impacts. But one thing is less debatable, and that’s the actual operational performance and efficiency of electrified trucks. According to Freightliner their customers’ experience is proving it.

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300K and counting

Freightliner announced the first week in August that its fleet of 30 medium and heavy-duty commercial battery-electric trucks had surpassed the 300,000-mile mark in real-world. This announcement is apparently to support the market introduction of their soon to be released fleet and commercial-ready trucks.

Consisting of 10 medium-duty trucks and 20 heavy-duty trucks, what the company dubbed the “Freightliner Innovation Fleet” made their debut in the summer of 2018 with the first medium duty truck arriving for duty with Penske in by December and the first heavy-duty trucks delivered to Penske and National Freight Inc. (NFI) in August of last year.

Real-world applications, real world test

The Innovation Fleet, explains Garcia, were used in regional and local delivery, food distribution, and transporting from port to warehousing – all the same routines, routes, and miles as their conventional commercial cousins – and a massive field-test to find out how well battery-electric trucks can handle real-world applications.

Intended use for hauling port shipments and distribution in regional areas, Freightliner’s eCascadia heavy-duty battery-electric is truck comes in at a gross combined weight of 80,000 pounds with a 730 peak horsepower rating. Freightliner says It’s 550 kWh battery pack provides 250 miles of range and a 90-minute charge can deliver 80 percent battery life or 200 miles of range.

The medium-duty eM2, is what you typically a Penske moving truck has a GVW of 26,000 pounds and 480 peak horsepower. Freightliner says this vehicle has a range of 230 miles using a 352 kWh battery pack and one-hour charging that can provide 184 miles of range, or 80 percent battery life. Garcia notes Freightliner’s next goal is to reach one million and more. Freightliner says its plans to start production on the eCascadia and eM2 series by mid-2022.

Another species joins the genus

Of the genus Electricus Carriageus Maximus another company is about to make a tremendous impact on the transportation environment with its coming species of electromotive powered class-8 trucks. Nikola.

In a July, FreightWaves Alan Adler covered Nikola Corp.’s press conference where it announced its plans to step up the assembly of electric trucks in a pilot plant adjacent to its 1-million square-foot manufacturing now under construction in Arizona.

Evolving production strategy

Apparently, there is indication that being among the first to market with a demonstrably commercial ready truck is going to help ensure the species will survive in this still uncertain territory. That may explain why Nikola is trying to get its products on the road before it completes its plant. “It will be a hand-built, very, very low volume, very slow build,” Nikola global head of manufacturing Mark Duchesne told the publication. “It allows us to gain the experience of building these trucks.”

Nikola marked the starting point for battery-electric and hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric truck production at a groundbreaking on the 430-acre site late July.

FreightWaves reports after the pilot facility, the $600 million plant will come together in phases with the first phase ready in late 2021. Both the battery-electric Tre and the fuel cell Class 8 Two-day cab model will be assembled there. The second phase which includes cab assembly and a paint shop will follow in the third phase if Nikola’s sales hit their targets.

Only the strong to survive

Although we didn’t mention the beast, there is another potential Mastodon in the room and its Tesla. In a recent CNBC report on Nikola’s share price, Boris Schlossberg, managing director of FX strategy at BK Asset Management, explained that while Nikola remains too speculative to make a solid bet on, he still sees it as the one badge emerging as a true rival to Tesla’s dominance.

What are its chances of survival? So far Schlossberg is pretty bullish: “Nikola is the first real interesting competitor to Tesla, because it’s providing the first true value proposition with a 600-mile range and the ability to essentially create a power plant out of its truck for a lot of the construction industry. So to me, the big question is if Nikola can deliver even 70 per cent of what it promises, I think it becomes an interesting viable competitor.”

Adapt or die

For the most part, it’s likely operators uptake for electric trucks will gain momentum and eventually electric propulsion may supplant diesel power across many commercial vehicle platforms. But not everywhere and not completely. But as we head to that sunny future it is fun to watch the continuing evolution of Electricus Carriageus Maximus and its Darwinian impact on the trucking industry’s changing environment.

Bob Tales