A growing number of fleets are clearly eager to plug into the growing promise of battery-electric or hydrogen-electric trucks, as manufacturers race to introduce the first such vehicles to North America.
Just weeks ago, Penske Truck Leasing and NFI National Freight accepted keys for the first two Freightliner eCascadias. Those trucks, along with medium-duty eM2 models, will become part of a 30-vehicle Freightliner Electric Innovation Fleet to test the underlying technologies in real-world settings.
They’re not alone. Volvo Trucks North America has promised to begin tests with an electric VNR tractor this year. Mack Trucks will test a battery-powered LR refuse vehicle in New York in 2020. Kenworth and Toyota have joined forces to develop equipment that runs on hydrogen fuel cells, with 10 of those vehicles to be tested by Toyota’s logistics operation, selected drayage haulers, and UPS.
Established manufacturers are not the only ones in the race, either. Ryder recently ordered 1,000 battery-electric Chanje panel vans to be put in service in the next two years. Nikola has reportedly secured more than US$13 billion in pre-orders for its hydrogen-electric trucks, with production of the Nikola 2 model to begin in 2021. Loblaw has tested a Build Your Dreams (BYD) drayage truck in Vancouver. UPS is running field trials of a Class 6 vehicle made by Xos, formerly known as Thor, around Los Angeles.
The promise of trucks powered by hydrogen-electric fuel cells is being tested in Western Canada, too. The Alberta Zero-Emissions Truck Electrification Collaboration (AZETEC) project, which launched earlier this year and will run until 2020, involves the design and manufacture of two heavy-duty, extended range, hydrogen fuel cell electric hybrid trucks that will move freight year-round between Edmonton and Calgary.
The latter tests are particularly significant in Canada, pushing the weights well beyond those experienced by urban delivery vans or port drayage trucks, and extending ranges along the way.
The 64-tonne (gross vehicle weight) B-trains, developed for Alberta’s unique operating environment, will be capable of traveling up to 700 km between refueling and be operated by Trimac Transportation and Bison Transport. By the end of the project the trucks will have travelled more than 500,000 km and carried about 20 million tonne-km of freight.
Ballard Power Systems will provide a total of six FCmove-HD fuel cell modules—each generating 70 kilowatts of power—with three modules to be installed in each truck.
Numerous Canadian carriers have ordered Telsa’s Semi truck with a projected delivery date of early 2020. (Tesla)
Then there’s Elon Musk. The Tesla CEO promised one of North America’s first Class 8 electric trucks, unveiling the prototype of his Tesla Semi as early as December 2017 and beating many established equipment manufacturers to the related headlines. Production of that truck was to begin this year as well, although the date has been pushed at least to 2020.
Within hours of a video from that Tesla unveiling, fleets quickly responded by either reserving the basic model for US$26,000 down or paying the full US$257,000 up front for the more expensive Founders Series Tesla Semi. Even some Canadian carriers were revealing a strong pent-up desire to reap the benefits of electric trucks, or at least to test them.
“I ordered them the day [Tesla founder Elon] Musk came out with the YouTube video,” says Rob Piccioni, founder and CEO of Montreal-based Fuel Transport, who reserved five Semis. “It was amazing that Musk was able to touch on some of the nuances of our industry, some that the trucking industry has not been able to touch on in the past 100 years.”
Tesla’s claims include reduced aerodynamic drag, acceleration from 0-100 km/h in 25 seconds with a 36,000-kilogram load, the power to steam up a five-degree slope at 100-plus km/h, a battery charge range of 475 or 800 km, depending on the charging/battery option, and an energy consumption of less than 125 kilowatt-hours per 100 km.
Tesla also claims, somewhat unclearly that, “With fewer systems to maintain, the Tesla Semi provides US$200,000+ in fuel savings and a two-year payback period.”
The promises of lower operating and maintenance costs were not the biggest draws for Piccioni. “For me it is a technology play. I am banking on the technology, not the savings. I believe these trucks have more technology in them, more accessibility of hardware and software,” he said. “I trust the innovations of Tesla—for example, the unbreakable windshield. Windshields are a problem for us.”
Hercules Forwarding Inc. also ordered Semis without ever kicking a tire. The company, with its Canadian headquarters in New Westminster B.C., and its U.S. headquarters in Vernon, Calif., reserved two Semis in January 2018, and paid in full for two Founders Series Semis in March.
Hercules made the decision to, as company president Martin Burnham Jr. puts it, “To get our feet a little bit wet. There was not much information available at the time we made the purchases.”
This lack of information is evident in the confusion about just what some fleets think they are getting. One person thinks the Semi comes with a trailer. Another thinks he will be able to run the Semi with his own trailers. One figures that the tractor has computer-controlled side fairings, thus explaining how, with Tesla’s seemingly miniscule gap between tractor and trailer, the rig could possibly turn left or right.
Yet carriers want electric trucks badly enough to stick their necks out for the chance, should all go as Musk says it will, to rewrite the book on operating and maintaining power units. While fleets vary in their expectations of energy savings, the dream is the same: big savings.
“If you are driving one of these vehicles 1,000 km a day, that’s [the equivalent of] $100,000 in fuel,” says Jamie Temple, the vice president, HR with Brampton, Ont.-based Speedy Transport Group. “On the [Tesla] car side you are looking at one-tenth of the cost. So you could be looking at around $90,000 a year in savings in fuel. If we run that truck like an airplane [keeping it on the road as much as possible] you’d see these savings.”
Temple sees the trucks making daily round trips between the Greater Toronto Area and Montreal, but notes, “We could also go into the northern U.S., but the first step will be to focus on our domestic market where we have a concentration of terminals along the Ontario-Quebec corridor.”
It seems reasonable for Speedy to have one charging station in Montreal and another in the GTA, Temple adds. “The Semis can get back up to an 80-per cent charge in 30 minutes. A 30-minute charge to get 400 miles—we’re good.
“You are looking at an 11- to 12-hour day. We’ll be looking at utilizing that truck with two drivers—slip seat. We’ll use it more than we would a regular truck. If we could, we’d run it 22 hours a day, if what Tesla is saying [about the charge time] can be done. We think we can make it more profitable than a conventional truck and trailer. This is why we are doing it.”
Burnham, in contrast, does not expect to be able to run the Semi quite that steadily. “Off the bat, we will lose half of our productivity. But to lessen our carbon footprint, we are willing to accept that.”
And in California, he notes, the more electricity people use, the more it costs per kWh. Does he envision a two-year payback period? “It is possible but it all depends on what the electricity bill will do.”
In referencing California, Burnham is acknowledging the fact that most manufacturers are focusing their efforts in and around California, leveraging grants available through the California Air Resources Board (CARB).
Those funds are available as the Port of Los Angeles targets a goal of banning anything but emission-free trucks by 2035. About 16,000 diesel models currently serve the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
Millions of related dollars are being invested by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD), an air pollution control agency that covers Orange County and urban areas of Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties. The area historically has the worst air quality in the U.S. because of natural geographic and atmospheric conditions, coupled with a dense population.
The “clean” nature of electric vehicles is ultimately decided by the source of the electricity. For example, net pollutants will be lower if the energy comes from a renewable source like a wind farm rather than an aging coal facility. But California is moving forward to establish the electric vehicles with confidence that cleaner electricity sources are coming. Eventually.
Daimler Trucks North America has built the first two Class 8 battery electric Freightliner eCascadias for customers at it research and development centre in Portland, Oregon. (DTNA)
Piccioni suspects that if demand for electricity to run electric trucks becomes really strong, costs may rise simply as a reaction to increased demand and to pay for new infrastructure. “Everyone assumes that the price of electricity will stay where it is. But if you start to power half the trucks with electricity, there will be serious demand on the electricity infrastructure. There will need to be a big adjustment in the power infrastructure. This will cost money,” predicts Piccioni.
Temple’s comment on charging? “We have to get that right the first time. Do we go on grid, or do a hybrid with solar charging? Charge up a battery charging station from solar energy [and charge the trucks from it]? That would probably be our preference, but we have to wait until we confirm a delivery date. At that time we will invest in a couple of charging stations.”
Asked whether he can envision chargers at truck stops, Temple says, “I can see that coming, but what would happen if there are four trucks ahead of a driver at the trucks stop? We will invest in a charging station at our yard.”
Piccioni has ideas about how he will run his Semis, but a final decision depends on where to put the chargers. “We need to understand the infrastructure that will help us understand how we use these trucks. I’ll probably try and run them from Montreal to Sarnia or London, but we would like to use them into the U.S. too. It depends on their performance … [and] where we can access power. Will shippers participate in the chargers? I can’t ask the shippers this yet because Tesla hasn’t launched the truck yet.”
And when will the Semis start rolling out the door?
Piccioni says he doesn’t know, while Burnham says there is reason for concern.
“As things are going, we are very concerned that our money is at risk. There is reason to be concerned,” he says.
Meanwhile, Burnham has made an effort to cover his base, having ordered Class 8 tractors from Xos Trucks in April. He expects to begin late this year. Asked why Hercules is patronizing two manufacturers, Burnham says, “Xos was further along in its development. They also have smaller-duty trucks that will do one shift. We bought the tractor and the 22-foot straight truck.”
No one seems to be putting all their eggs in one basket when it comes to incorporating battery-electric vehicles into their fleets.
“Tesla took the market by storm,” says Temple. As far as what other competitors are doing, “There is talk that Volvo is going to push really hard in the market. At some point we will evaluate the competition.”
This past spring, the Lion Electric Company officially unveiled its 100 per cent electric Class 8 truck, manufactured in Saint-Jérôme, Quebec. (Lion Electric Company)
Unleashing the Lion 8
This past spring, the Lion Electric Company officially unveiled its 100 per cent electric Class 8 truck, manufactured in Saint-Jérôme, Quebec. They are ready to be incorporated fully into carriers’ day-to-day operations. “These are not for testing. They are ready to roll, like any truck. This is not a pilot program,” says Patrick Gervais, vice-president, Marketing and Communications with Lion.
Lion sells the truck as a cab and chassis, which customers can configure however they wish. “It can be configured several different ways: Bucket truck, refuse truck, tow truck. You can convert them in many different ways. We can personalize so you have the right number of batteries; you only pay for the batteries you need. We can place them in the right place,” Gervais says.
Recharge times depend on the charger (e.g., the Level II charge time is eight hours).
A customer might have a third party build a dry box, such as Laval, Quebec-based Transit did for the Lion 8 that SAQ, the province’s government-run alcohol provider, purchased. C&S Wholesale Grocers, in California, is having solar panels installed on its box, to provide backup power in case Lion 8’s batteries fall short in powering the reefer (something Gervais does not expect will happen). Other Lion 8 customers include the city of Saint-Saveur and CP Trucking.
CN has ordered 11 tractor versions that Lion will commercialize in 2020, Gervais says. “CN will be operating them in several ways, like deliveries, urban use, pulling tractors.” Kruger has ordered two tractors as well.
Lion predicts operational costs will drop by 60 per cent compared to a diesel truck. “There is a lot less maintenance to do on an electric truck. We have regenerative brakes. When you take your foot off the accelerator it [slows and] stops, just like a golf truck. If you control your driving you almost never use your brakes. With stop and go driving the brakes regenerate [charge] your batteries. The other thing is that we are using 80 per cent less energy. $50,000 worth of diesel is about $10,000 of electricity,” Gervais says.