What about electric trucks?

June 27, 2016
One of today's great ironies is that trucking finds itself at the forefront of the technological revolution sweeping transportation today.

One of today's great ironies is that trucking – an industry notorious for being conservative in its outlook and slow to change – finds itself at the forefront of the technological revolution sweeping transportation today.

That's because trucking, with its consistent high-mileage routes and (mostly) predictable routes is the perfect test bed for emerging technologies such as autonomous vehicles, alternative fuels, V2V communication, low-rolling resistance tires or self-diagnosing drivetrains. And now, you can add all-electric drivetrain to that list.

I keep telling myself nothing technology-related can surprise me when it pops up in trucking anymore. But even I was taken aback in the past few weeks to see various developing technologies aimed at creating new all electric drivetrains for Class 8 commercial vehicles.

Now, to be accurate, it wasn't the electric part of that news that surprised me. I'd said for several years now that I think all-electric trucks and vans will be an important arrow in a fleet manager's quiver in the years ahead. But the Class 8 component of the news did stop me in my tracks. Because I'd always assumed that given the current constraints on battery capacity and vehicle range, all-electric trucks would fill eventually fill a specific niche in urban, P&D applications. But even then I thought we’d see minimal penetration into Class 5 – but that would be about it.

I may have miscalculated.

Earlier this month, a company called Nikola 1 announced it is developing a Class 8 electric truck with a natural-gas engine to mitigate range limitations. Even more interesting was the company's claim that it already has more than 7,000 orders – with deposits – in hand for the new truck.

The numbers on the new truck are impressive. Nikola 1 is claiming the truck has a 100 percent electric 6x6 drivetrain and will cut per-mile fuel costs in half, compared to diesel trucks. One the business end of the drivetrain, the company says the new, electric drivetrain churns out 3,700 foot pounds of torque and a whopping 2,000 horsepower with a 1,200 mile range and will capable of running 1 million fuel free miles.

Those are serious, Class 8 long-haul performance numbers that would be impressive with any fuel type or powertrain. If the truck performs as advertised, it has the potential to be a game-changer within the industry. At the very least, it's a terrific example of how quickly technology is shaking up trucking today.

Electric trucks have a long and proud history in trucking, of course. Given the limits of early gasoline engines in terms of power and range, electric trucks were a competitive option for fleets right into the 1920s when gas engines finally pulled away in terms of efficiency. (Diesel didn't become the dominant fuel major in the industry until after World War II.)

As a result, electric drive technology stagnated over the past 90 years or so in North America. But the technology never faded completely away: Urban fleets in Europe – particularly in the United Kingdom – have been running electric vans and trucks for decades with excellent results.

Here in the States, electric vehicles were pretty much limited to golf carts. But about 10 years ago, something funny started happening: People started getting old golf carts and customizing them for off-reading and hunting. They started showing up in suburbs as a quick, cheap and easy way to run the kids to the pool or head over the neighbors’ house for a dinner party.

And over time, I think Americans slowly got used to the idea of electric-drive vehicles as safe, convenient, cheap and dependable means of short-range transportation. Which may explain why electric vehicles have hung in there: Two years ago, various news outlets, including Money magazine, were reporting that electric vehicles were fizzling as fuel prices fell from historical highs. But if Nikola is correct, a significant number of trucking professionals are now comfortable enough with the idea of an all-electric truck to at least give one a chance to prove itself.  

That's not to say that we're all going to be trucking off into the sunset tomorrow in an all-electric truck, of course. The real world is a brutal place in the trucking industry. And any new technology has to prove out before fleets will embrace it wholesale. But this unexpected move into the Class 8 market proves that trucking today has transformed from a conservative industry hesitant to try anything new into one where innovation is welcome – provided it brings real benefits and cost-savings to fleets out on the front lines.

About the Author

Jack Roberts

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