May 2021

Green lightning in a bottle: Electrifying trucking trends!

Anyone following trucking and fleet technologies these days understands that just about everything related to commercial operations is becoming “electrified.” That is, digitized, microchipped, connected and getting smarter.

There was a time back in the early ‘80s that the biggest deal in trucking electronics was the introduction of digital engine controls -- and whether or not they were worth the money. Fast forward to today where cabs and drivetrains are filled with electronics – all focused on three primary goals: Fuel efficiency (emissions), Driver efficiency (safety) and Compliance efficiency (regulatory).

Ford is clearly all-in with its Lightning F-150 on the passenger vehicle side and heavies like Daimler Trucks and Volvo as well as Nikola Motors and Tesla introducing commercial class-8 platforms, we see commercial trucking electrifying at a lightning bolt pace. However, under the current regime in the Whitehouse, there is likely to be plenty of Green New Deal crony capital for electromotive powered “programs” and it’s likely we’ll see another surge in trucking’s steady move to more and more electrification.

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The current situation

May 20, Bloomberg Wall Street Week’s host Alix Steel discussed commercial fleets’ ongoing electrification with Hyliion CEO Thomas Healy. Hyliion engineers natural gas /hybrid-electric drive trains for class-8 trucks and what Hyliion refers to as advanced “range-extending” solutions.

Exploring the ramifications of Green New Deal thinking along with making dire warnings of impending climate doom (in order to spark investing on fear and move the markets?) the show’s host talked with Healy about the electrification of truck fleets, and his company's electric vehicle (EV) efforts.

Bloomberg headlined the segment “Commercial Truck Fleets Begin the Adoption Stage for Electric.” Healy agreed, the industry is still “beginning” to electrify. Healy explained that while fleets are “super eager” about adopting electric trucks, barriers preventing them from specifying all-electric trucks and entering them into commercial operations are still relatively high. Citing the lack of viable recharging infrastructure as well as the technical aspects of keeping electric fleets operating, Healy noted that the industry needed “easier” solutions.

According to Healy and Hyliion, those easier solutions consist of the hybrid-gas and hybrid diesel powertrains that, like a locomotive, use super-efficient compression-based engines to drive generators that spin generators and power the electric motors. The primary value proposition of the company’s “range-extender” technology is that all its components are commercially proven, and the vehicles can leverage existing fueling and maintenance infrastructure.

Sure, pure electrics may be the “wave of the future” for fleets, said Healy but again, mostly for the short haul. The industry knows that. But it is nonetheless reflected in the steady pace and uptake of the technology by the OTR segment of the industry.

E-fueling infrastructure under construction

FleetOwner reported WattEV, a Californian start-up, has chosen Bakersfield to locate a 25-megawatt solar-powered, electric-only truck stop in California’s Central Valley and Southern California’s ports and shipping hubs. FleetOwner said the company aims to solve the classic which comes first? The chicken or the egg? Which comes first, electric trucks or charging infrastructure?” Their solution -- do both at once.

The 110-acre truck stop now under construction in the southern San Joaquin Valley, will be located near Amazon and Walmart logistics fulfillment centers and feature a solar micro-grid array with battery storage and energy from PG&E’s grid.

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Trucks as a service

Salim Youssefzadeh, WattEV’s CEO explained to FleetOwner that to solve the other side of the issue, he’s developed a new business model, labeled Trucks as a Service (TaaS), something that he said opens the transition path for transporters to use battery-electric trucks.

“We aim to enable the addition of 12,000 heavy-duty battery electric trucks to the roads in California by the end of 2030, exceeding existing forecasts,” said Youssefzadeh. “If it works in California, it’ll work just about anywhere in the country.”

In support of WattEV’s core business model – developing the novel charging infrastructure – has reserved 50 Tesla’s and plans to place more orders with other OEMs. The company expects its new approach will help to accelerate the adoption of electric trucks in California and the rest of the country.

Organic change – you can’t change it

What is observable by most industry analysts is that no matter what the technology is, if it can’t serve the immediate commercial interests of the industry that wields it, it’s not going to get bought. So no matter how much a technocrat wants to “jump” organic change, please remain seated and skeptical. It is the highest hurdle.

Only and unless the technology is so blindingly, obviously a game changer, will it be adopted and disrupt the status quo. Everyone wants to tap this green lighting and put it in a bottle. It sounds like the answer to just about everything. But when the wait for this return is projected and likely to make costs jump, no matter what moral grounds the technology is standing on – fleet managers won’t open the bottle, because it’s all so much Kool Aid until proven otherwise.

Bob Tales