Electric Trucks Begin Reporting for Duty, Quietly and Without All the Fumes

Replacing fleets of medium- and heavy-duty trucks can help cut greenhouse gas emissions and make cities quieter and cleaner.

The delivery company DHL is testing FUSO eCanter electric trucks. Credit: Daimler

The delivery company DHL is testing FUSO eCanter electric trucks. As batteries improve and prices drop, electric trucks are expected to save fleet operators money, both in fuel and maintenance. Credit: Daimler

From Vancouver to New York, from Paris to Tokyo, that delivery truck outside your home—the rumbling motor, the belching fumes—may soon become much quieter and cleaner.

Electric trucks are driving out of factories and into service, and multiple vehicle companies are gearing up to make them. The result could be a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions—especially if the deliveries turn out to be cheaper than old-fashioned diesel engines.

In the United States, more than 6 percent of greenhouse gas emissions emitted in 2015 were from medium- and heavy-duty trucking. Transportation, including trucking, was responsible for 14 percent of emissions globally in 2010.

Because trucks need so much hauling power, they have eluded electrification until recently; a battery that could pull significant weight would itself be too hefty and too expensive. But now, improvements in battery technology are paying off, bringing down both size and cost.

Already buoying passenger car sales, the trend is now boosting the EV truck market, says Lisa Jerram, a principal research analyst for Navigant Research. Electric technology for big, heavy vehicles has also gotten a boost from smog-savvy city governments' investments in electric buses.

According to a recent report by Jerram, the number of hybrid-electric and electric trucks is set to grow almost 25 percent annually, from 1 percent of the market in 2017 to 7 percent in 2027, a jump from about 40,000 electric trucks worldwide this year to 371,000.

In recent weeks, announcements of pending leases by United Parcel Service and advance orders for a newly introduced model from Tesla have signaled that big players are stepping into the market.

Numerous trucking manufacturers are now producing all-electric trucks or planning to, says David Alexander, research director of UK-based Truck Technology Ltd. and a coauthor of the report.

China's BYD already has electric trucks on the road, while Daimler Mitsubishi's FUSO is expected to be rolling soon. Smaller companies—Arrival (UK), Chanje (U.S., China), E_FORCE (Switzerland), Tevva Motors (UK), and Workhorse (U.S.)—have launched electric trucks in local markets, Alexander says. And major truck companies such as Volvo, Scania, MAN (VW) and Navistar are testing prototype electric trucks, aiming to bring them to market by 2020.

Mercedes-Benz's electric truck is powered by a battery pack with three lithium-ion battery modules that give it a range of up to 200 kilometers. Credit: Daimler

When Mercedes-Benz unveiled its Urban eTruck prototype in 2016, it billed it as the first fully electric truck for heavy distribution operations up to 26 tonnes. The company said then that a market launch could be "at the beginning of the next decade." Credit: Daimler

The trucking industry is diverse, with a range of sizes and loads. Long-haul 18-wheelers are not yet ready to go electric, but mid-sized delivery trucks for urban deliveries are, Jerram says. It's not just range; diesel is pretty efficient for steady, long-distance hauling, so it's harder for electric trucks to compete on cost, she says.

Urban delivery trucks, on the other hand, typically do a lot of stopping and starting, so their total distance driven is not that long. Plus that kind of driving in a diesel truck releases a lot of sooty exhaust, contributing to health problem in cities and ports where trucks idle.

Decreasing local air pollution was a key motivation in a project financed by the Department of Energy in the Houston area, where pollution routinely exceeds national air quality standards. In late 2015, UPS deployed 18 Workhorse experimental electric delivery trucks. The company has more than 120 fully electric delivery trucks in California, New York and Texas and more than 140 abroad, in Barbados, Canada, Europe and Japan. And it recently announced that it will deploy three new eCanter medium-duty electric trucks from Daimler's FUSO. These lithium-ion-battery-powered trucks have a range of about 62 miles and can haul 2 to 3 tons.

"This truck is really perfect for large, heavily populated urban centers, such as Tokyo, New York, cities within California, Berlin, etc.," says Bryan Allen, a Daimler marketing manager.

In New York City alone, a lot more UPS trucks could be electric soon. A partnership with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and Unique Electric Solutions will help convert existing UPS diesel trucks to electric. They are hoping to convert up to 1,500 UPS trucks in New York City by 2022.

Other companies are also enthusiastic about electric trucks. Canada's largest supermarket chain, Loblaws, unveiled a heavy-duty, "Class 8" delivery truck in Vancouver last month, manufactured by China's BYD. It aspires to have a fully electric fleet by 2030 and says it ordered 25 Tesla electric trucks—a prototype of which was unveiled recently with typical Elon Musk hype, scheduled for delivery in 2019.

The Journey to Electrification

Globally, regulations such as proposed bans on internal combustion engines in France, the UK, China and India are helping to create this market, Jerram says. Although some of those targets are vague or years away, some regions are taking more concrete steps. The California Air Resources Control Board's Advanced Clean Local Trucks plan has proposed that 2.5 percent of truck sales be zero emissions starting in 2023, rising to 15 percent by 2030.

But what was long an industry barrier to adoption of electric trucks may prove to be its greatest boon.

"There's a business case that electric trucks will save fleet operators a lot of money," Jerram says. In an industry with tight margins, that could sway the market, especially as operations prices continues to drop as compared with diesel.

UPS is working with the New York State Energy and Research Development Agency to convert its traditionally diesel delivery trucks to electric for use in New York City. Credit: UPS

UPS is working with New York state and the company Unique Electric Solutions to design a way to convert its traditionally diesel delivery trucks to run on electric power. If the project works, UPS says two-thirds of its New York City fleet could be converted to electric by 2022. Credit: UPS

"Big fleets—FedEx, UPS, Walmart—they know they can actually save a lot of money on fuel and overall maintenance," Jerram says. That's because electric vehicles have fewer moving parts that can break and generate less heat that causes stress on mechanics than internal combustion engines. There's no need for oil changes and there is less wear on the brakes because of regenerative braking, she says. For example, Daimler claims its eCanter model will save more than $1,000 in operating costs approximately every 6,200 miles.

Still, it's early days in electric trucking. The three eCanter trucks Daimler will deliver to UPS in the new year are part of a limited run of 150 trucks in the United States, Japan and Europe, Allen says.

While truck range has increased with battery technology improvements, it's still a weight game, he says. In trucking, you want as much weight as possible in the goods being hauled, not in a heavy battery.

"The reality is that the batteries weigh a lot more to get that range that the truck driver needs," he says. But the technology is continuing to improve, so FUSO is offering this truck as a two-year lease. "We didn't want to penalize partners like UPS," which want to be industry leaders, he says. "They operate the truck for two years. Then they turn it in, and we offer them the latest and greatest truck."

Pepsi, when it recently placed a big advance order for the new electric truck promised by Tesla, noted that it sees ways to balance the weight equations. Among the snack foods the company routinely delivers are light packets of chips and much heavier beverages. Deliveries can be customized to maximize the range—and minimize the expense.

Heavy Duty Trucks — for Local Jobs

Although, electric trucks can't yet replace the long-haul big rigs you see on cross-country road trips, companies are starting to roll out heavy-duty trucks for local use, such transporting goods from port to warehouse or as a garbage truck, Jerram says.

BYD has them on the road. Toyota has a fuel cell-powered heavy-duty truck undergoing trials in California, according to Alexander. FUSO recently announced a heavy-duty prototype called Vision One that it claims will have a range of about 217 miles and a hauling payload of 11 tons—just 2 tons less than a diesel rig of the same class.

BYD's Q1M yard truck is a class 8 heavy-duty truck designed to replace diesel tractors used in rail yards and freight distribution centers. Credit: BYD

BYD’s Q1M yard truck is a class 8 heavy-duty truck designed to replace diesel tractors used in rail yards and freight distribution centers. Credit: BYD

It's not surprising that China's BYD is early out of the gate, with the first electric heavy-duty truck on the road.

"They are the largest country market we've forecasted for all types of electrified trucks," Jerram says. "And if you add in Japan, the Asia Pacific region is definitely the leader." China's emphasis on electric bikes, cars, buses and now trucks is a strategy to deal with its air pollution—and they have a business interest, Jerram says. "A lot of Chinese manufacturers are coming into all sections of the vehicle market."

As electric trucks make up more and more of our fleets, other things will change, too. Moving away from diesel means that "everything changes," Allen says, "from how the trucks are serviced to fuel stations."

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