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Trucking’s EV endgame still far off, experts agree

March 31, 2021
The road to electrification is wrought with complexity and opportunities, a panel of fleet experts found on a recent EV webinar.

Commercial vehicle electrification will likely loom large in the new $2 trillion-plus infrastructure bill Congress is hashing out, though experts in the industry admit they only have a small fraction of the complex picture figured out. At the top of the list are regulations, incentives and charging infrastructure, which a panel of trucking industry experts discussed in a March 25 webinar called “Learning from Leaders for a More Sustainable Fleet,” held by ACT News.

While the path to sustainability is still one worth taking, the big problem in the near term Drew Cullen, senior vice president of fuels and facility services for Penske Transportation Solutions, found is that fleets must take on a lot of risk when purchasing battery-electric trucks, while the reward is uncertain. Penske should know, as the logistics company operates 100 Classes 1-8 BEVs and has installed a DC fast charging network in Southern California. As always the goal is continuous improvement and trying to find ways to” do the work of 12 trucks with 10 trucks.”

He said regulations and strategies are inconsistent from state to state and region to region, which can be frustrating to fleets operating nationwide. Furthermore, incentives are not set up to cover the current incremental costs of fleet electrification, “unless you're really, really lucky and you can stack some of them.”

Cullen added these will change over time, but the current situation makes it hard to.

“The challenges come with that incremental cost piece,” Cullen explained. “Think about trying to bid on some dedicated routes. You want to offer up a solution — it's going to be more expensive. Do you really think the customer is going to pay more for it? Are you going to get yourself out of a competitive [position] because your prices are out of line?”

Furthermore, the resale value for the battery-electric technology is unknown, Cullen said.

“It's a real challenge to try and figure out what they're going to be worth, even in just a couple of years, because the technology is changing so fast: the batteries are getting better and the ranges are getting longer,” he noted.

Building the infrastructure will also be a “monumental effort” akin to constructing the U.S. interstate system in the 1950s, said Michael Roeth, the executive director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency, who was also on the webinar.

“We're talking both about a significant amount of power to charge these trucks in an electrification mode and then also using electrification to make hydrogen as well,” Roeth said.

With all these looming questions fogging the problem, one thing is evident.

“There really needs to be a clear path that the industry can take to get to that ultimate end game,” Cullen surmised.

Clearing the path

Time and experience have proven the ultimate tools to bushwhack a tangle-free route to sustainability. This has been seen as drivers get more time behind the wheel of battery-powered equipment. Cullen said at first trucks would come back with a 7% or 8% state of charge, though as the drivers learned their vehicles better and how to leverage the regenerative braking, trucks were coming back with 10% to 15% battery life left.

“They're professionals,” Cullen said. “They want to do their job as efficiently as they possibly can. It doesn't completely eliminate the range anxiety issues, but it's those small, incremental steps that really helped along with this.”

Cullen also pointed out carbon credits generated on the road can then be sold back into the marketplace to offset some of the electricity costs, while Penske also looks for new funding opportunities to help customers as well.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, fleets need to buddy up with utility companies and other stakeholders going down the same green road. In Penske’s case, the utility helped them validate which facilities had the requisite power for charging stations and get them up and running, while also providing needed transformers.

“You can't turn challenges into opportunities without strong partnerships and relationships,” Cullen said. “We didn't get it right the first time and sometimes we didn’t get it right the second time. So, you've got to have those partnerships to be able to get through it.

De-carbo loading

Finding those partners willing to venture down the path to electrification has become less difficult as global citizens accept the theory of anthropogenic climate change, that the emissions created by the transportation industry are having adverse consequences for the environment. Shell, an oil company that provided the oils and lubricants that played a big part in powering the massive industrialization of the 20th century now has taken a lead role in going green in the 21st century. Shell set a goal to become a net-zero emission energy business by 2050.

According to Shell, 217 million commercial trucks and buses across the globe generate 9% of the world’s CO2 emissions. Without major intervention, the situation could be very dire by that time, as Shell predicted road freight volume will double and emissions grow by 60% over the next 30 years (relative to 2018).

“We aim to offset annual emissions of more than 52 million gallons of lubricants, compensating around 700,000 pounds of CO2 emissions per year,” asserted Selda Gunsel, Shell Lubricants VP of global commercial and fuels technology, during the webinar. “This amounts to eliminating the CO2 emissions generated while driving a 2021 Ford F-150 for more than 1.5 billion miles.”

Some ways of achieving their goals include reducing the carbon intensity of its lubricants by using 30% to 50% renewable power during the manufacturing process as well as adopting nature-based solutions such as reforestation and selling more natural gas.

Roeth agreed there are plenty of technology options to improve fleet sustainability, so many that the industry is currently in a “solution overload.”

Gunsel also preached partnerships: “It's important to collaborate across the sector, with fleets and energy suppliers, and truck and engine manufacturers and policymakers to develop solutions.”

A Shell survey of 158 road freight executives and experts at the end of 2020, in conjunction with Deloitte, found most are developing solutions.

Called “Decarbonizing road freight: Getting into gear,” the survey revealed 70% of respondents were exploring fuel cell and battery electric solutions, while 70% also called decarbonization a “top 3” priority.

This leads Shell to believe “road freight is nearing a tipping point to decarbonize and it will happen faster than many expect,” Gunsel said.

Reaching for the stars

Looking ahead isn’t the only solution to cutting out carbon. For those not ready to set forth on an electrification journey, which for fleets can be as daunting as Frodo’s trek to Mordor, there are suitable solutions that exist for diesel trucks.

In 2018, Shell unveiled a Class 8 demonstration truck called Starship that showed off such options, which include improved aerodynamics, low rolling resistance, lightweighting, improved engine and transmission efficiency, and energy-efficient lubricants. Fuel efficiency grew by 39%, and freight ton efficiency increased by nearly two and a half times over the current fleet average in North America.

“If every long-haul truck could replicate what Starship achieved, that could eliminate 229 million pounds of CO2 emissions every year,” Gunsel said. “This is a 60% emission reduction for the U.S.”

Roeth, who advised on the Starship project, which will have a second coming this May with Starship 2.0, acknowledged that while several options to increase freight efficiency exist, “it's hard to get them all spec’d on one truck” due to varying duty cycles.

Exploring which fuel-efficient feature to leverage will save money and cut emissions now while helping prepare for the future.

“Aerodynamics, tires, idle reduction, all those things that can help with a diesel truck today will really help a zero-emission truck get longer range,” Roeth said, adding this could extend ranges by 20-25%. “That could mean another 50 to 100 miles in the range of that battery-electric truck just because we've done efficiency outside of the powertrain.”

And adopting a more fuel-efficient strategy will allow fleets to save money at the pump now. Average U.S. diesel fuel costs in 2020 were at $2.55 per gallon and are at $2.71 in 2021, with a modest 3 cent increase for 2022, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimated.

“Right now, battery electric vehicles aren't for everybody,” Cullen concluded. “They're still in the early phases in development. It'll take time for them to become more prolific out there and be able to be a solution for all fleets.”

About the Author

John Hitch | Editor

John Hitch, based out of Cleveland, Ohio, is the editor of Fleet Maintenance, a B2B magazine that addresses the service needs for all commercial vehicle makes and models (Classes 1-8), ranging from shop management strategies to the latest tools to enhance uptime.

He previously wrote about equipment and fleet operations and management for FleetOwner, and prior to that, manufacturing and advanced technology for IndustryWeek and New Equipment Digest. He is an award-winning journalist and former sonar technician aboard a nuclear-powered submarine.

For tips, questions or comments, email [email protected].

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