This Peterbilt shown in a US Dept of Energy video on heavy duty truck fuel efficiency can achieve 107 mpg thanks to technology and aerodynamic enhancements Subject to appropriations the department is investing 80 million in grant funds in its SuperTruck II project and another 57 million for 35 projects across the country to reduce petroleum consumption and carbon emissions for vehicles ranging from passenger cars to heavy trucks Photo: U.S. Dept. of Energy
This Peterbilt shown in a U.S. Dept. of Energy video on heavy duty truck fuel efficiency can achieve 10.7 mpg thanks to technology and aerodynamic enhancements.

A battery crystal ball

There are a lot of vested interests in predicting the future cost and capabilities of batteries to power commercial vehicles. The thing about predictions is they often are wrong. Think about the unexpected fuel price crash of 2014 and what it did to what people were sure was going to be a boom in natural gas powered vehicles.

There are a lot of unknowns in the world and I have found that if enough money gets thrown at project or idea the rate of progress of development of that project can change. Throw too much money at it and raw material producers can increase prices as demand exceeds supply. Add complexities like international policies and confidence in predictions can be hard to find.

What’s easier to think about is how much potential for improvement may be out there, and how difficult those improvements are to achieve. People often refer to the innovation S-curve as an easy way to visualize the adoption of change. The S-curve is used to determine performance in regard to time and effort.

A newly invented technology starts at the bottom of the S-curve and stays there for a bit without gaining significant market share while bugs are worked out. Then the technology takes off, getting an infusion of capital and seeing market demand for improvement. The technology then sees a rapid uptake by the market. In this phase small investment can result in dramatic, quick gains.

Later as the low hanging fruit has all been picked, additional improvement takes more time and money, and the gains decrease in size. As the product matures, the top of the S-curve shows that gains take a lot more time and resources with a smaller percentage improvement.

Today commercial battery electric vehicles are on the lower part of the S-curve where they are just establishing a market and the technology is being worked out. In time, the market will take off, and significant improvements will occur in short time frames as demand for them increases.

On the other hand, the commercial vehicle diesel engine is somewhere near the top of the S-curve after more than 100 years of refinement. Today’s diesel engines are extremely efficient and reliable. The potential for big gains in diesel engine technology is challenging. An example is waste heat recovery — demonstrated on the DOE Super Truck — which has been funded by the DOE for over a decade with little practical application.

The point of all this is that it is difficult to predict exactly when CBEVs will become commercially viable, but if they are like most innovations their market acceptance will follow the typical S-curve pattern. It is also very likely that when CBEVs hit the top of the curve some new technology will be crouched down at the bottom of the curve just bidding its time and waiting for its ascendency to unseat battery power.

That’s the cool thing about having so many innovative thinkers in the world looking at trucking technology; there is always some development waiting in the wings to usurp existing technology and make things more efficient, less costly or both.

That’s probably why so many people love this industry; there is always something going on.

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