Taking Oil Out of the Big Rig: Electrification of Haulage Trucks
As we trundle towards the unveiling of Tesla’s semi-truck, provisionally set for October 26th, we thought this would be a good time to scope out what is happening in the world of electric trucks.
Transportation and logistics, especially due to the high levels of venture capital investment in recent years, has become a cornerstone of CTG research. From autonomous vehicles, solving traffic, lithium commodity markets, bike sharing, and even flying cars, evaluating trends in mobility has been a major focus.
The trucking forecast
While the next generation consumer vehicle may be the jewel in the crown for automotive OEMs, we are increasingly seeing companies trying to apply improvements in battery technology to the challenge of hauling large loads. If technology improves power-to-weight ratios to the extent that 20-30 tons of cargo can be hauled up to 300 miles, it will mark a turning point in electric vehicle technology generally. The excitement around the Tesla Semi is therefore justified.
However, first we need an idea of scale. In the US, just under 100,000 consumer electric vehicles have been sold as of July. This figure pre-dates the release of the Tesla Model 3, by the way. In all of 2016, that figure was just over 160,000 relative to nearly 17.6 million total US vehicle sales. For comparison, 166,000 new haulage trucks were sold in the US in 2016, with a list price of anywhere from $95,000 – $125,000.
So the market is smaller, but what about the impact? One metric claims that despite less than 5% of vehicles being commercial vehicles or heavy-duty trucks, they contribute to almost 20% of greenhouse gas emissions. This figure, combined with the EPA’s estimation that 27% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are from transportation would place around 5.4% of responsibility for total U.S. GHG emissions on commercial or heavy-duty trucks.
So, who is fixing this?
As always, its complicated, and it’s not just Musk. There are a great of range pure-play electric freight vehicles being developed. The fundamental problem is that with an electric vehicle, increasing power and range is correlated with increased weight.
A selection of electric trucks sorted by speculated maximum load weight
On the lighter end of the market, Daimler’s Fuso eCanter’s range of 60 miles places it in a city delivery setting. Similarly, Arrival, which has already received orders from the Royal Mail in the UK, has a longer range of 100 miles, but anticipates urban application as its main focus. Both are still far under their diesel-powered equivalents in terms of driving range, but in a city setting, these options offer fuel and maintenance cost savings, not to mention being friendlier to urban air quality. Daimler offers the Fuso in various configurations with more or less range and battery capacity depending on how much cargo space a customer is willing to give up.
Commercial truck partners Navistar and Volkswagen AG’s Truck and Bus will collaborate to launch an electric medium-duty truck in North America by late 2019, and to develop common hardware and systems to connect trucks to the internet. Volkswagen will test nine electric trucks in Austria that will offer payloads of about 18 tons and ranges of about 180 kilometres between charges.
Another option being developed by Daimler is the Mercedes-Benz Electric Truck, which the company recently presented for the first time in Stuttgart. The prototype is the first fully electric truck with an admissible total weight of up to 26 tonnes. The key innovation here is the entire conventional drivetrain will be replaced by a new electrically-driven rear axle with electric motors directly adjacent to the wheel hubs – derived from the electric rear axle that was developed for the Mercedes-Benz Citaro hybrid bus. The power is supplied by a battery pack consisting of three lithium-ion battery modules. This results in a range of up to 200 km – enough for a typical daily delivery tour.
Tesla’s semi is expected to offer a range of 200 to 300 miles, far less than the 1,000 miles for some diesel-powered counterparts that U.S. long-haul truckers use. We look forward to finding out more about this electric truck option in the near future.
Cummins, a leading maker of diesel- and natural gas-powered engines for commercial trucks, unveiled a heavy duty trucking solution with a 140 kWh battery pack that it will sell to bus operators and commercial truck fleets starting in 2019. The 18,000-pound tractor cab, dubbed AEOS after one of the four winged horses driving the chariot of Helios, the sun god in Greek mythology, is just a prototype but is capable of hauling a 22-ton load.
A couple for the road
In many ways, this short read on the electric trucking market does a better job of presenting the challenges associated with hauling large loads a long way using purely electric drivetrains. However, there are adaptations that could ensure that a majority-electric hybrid haulage solution is on the roads – and commercially viable – sooner. For example, solving the charging problem may increase viability, as Dorof Myersdorf, the CEO of StoreDot outlined, “If these small trucks can be charged fast, you can dramatically reduce the size of your fleet.”
The company is working with Daimler to fine-tune a fast-charging battery solution specifically for trucks.
Another solution could be the combination of hydrogen and electric power. The aptly named Nikola Motor Company is working on building heavy-duty transport trucks using hybrid hydrogen-electric powertrains. The company recently partnered with Bosch to work on a solution, and raised an oversubscribed $110 million Series A round.
We will keep an eye on this area, but to finish, we cannot summarize better than the words of Daimler Trucks Asia’s Mark Llistosella, “The game has started.”
 An observation made about the EU transportation fleet – mobility research from Frost & Sullivan.
 Transportation is the second leading source of GHG emissions in the United States, just behind electricity. Between 1990 and 2015, GHG emissions in the transportation sector increased more in absolute terms than any other sector.