Do you remember the time when automakers declared they were agnostic on the myriad of fuels and propulsion technologies coming online and which one would “win?”
“There is no silver bullet,” they’d say, referencing the new competition to traditional gasoline and diesel power: compressed and liquified natural gas (CNG/LNG), propane, ethanol, biodiesel, electric powertrains 1.0, and the first hydrogen fuel cell science projects. “There are many ways to propel vehicles, and it’s up to the user to decide based on preference and use case.”
That’s still true today. But we may soon look back at that time the same way we view other bridge technologies such as the Pony Express and the Discman. We’re now past that agnosticism. The OEMs have chosen a propulsion-technology winner, and it’s electric.
This point was driven home at the 2019 Act Expo in Long Beach, Calif. in April. “We believe the future is electric,” said Roger Nielsen, president and CEO of Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA), the largest maker of Class 6 to 8 trucks in the U.S., in his keynote address. “It’s the beginning of the post-internal combustion engine era for commercial vehicles.”
This declaration was echoed on stage by the likes of Jay Craig, CEO of Fortune 500 parts-maker Meritor; Peter Voorhoeve, Volvo Trucks North America CEO; and Ike Brown, co-owner of logistics provider NFI, which runs 4,000 tractors.
Okay, let’s take a deep breath. Anytime you’re in a room full of evangelists and first adopters the market can appear a little skewed. At ACT Expo, however, no one was Pollyanna: “Let’s remain sober, there is no business case (for electric trucks) today,” said Nielsen and many others.
Nielsen went on to talk about the tipping points to electric truck viability: Battery costs must be cut in half while energy density must double; batteries must be proven durable for second and third owners; and infrastructure buildout is an essential yet arduous process.
This measured view of the development of the EV market contrasts with the last generation of electric vehicle makers. Who remembers Coda Automotive, Smith Electric, and Boulder Electric Vehicle? They never failed to insist, brazenly, “I can give you a positive TCO (total cost of ownership) today!” and “Just wait until we scale, in two years.” Always two years.
Last year’s ACT Expo was a transformative year for electrification. Since then, electric trucks from Freightliner, Volvo, and Peterbilt are now in customer’s hands. Fuso has deployed more eCanters. Mack will put an electric refuse model on the road in a few months.
At this year’s event, Penske Truck Leasing unveiled via live video the first commercial heavy-duty electric vehicle charging station in La Mirada, Calif. Daimler’s Portland plant is undergoing a massive retool to build electric Freightliner trucks.
That said, those deployments are still only part of electric trucks’ pre-commercialization test phase. “It’s just not in the dialogue that we’ll put (fleets) in an electric truck next month,” said Paul Rosa of Penske Truck Leasing.
Yet market dynamics outside of product development are requiring more urgent attention.
Urban jurisdictions are starting conversations around congestion charging, creating “green zones” in cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Pasadena, Calif., and requiring zero-emissions vehicles in public fleets — while outright bans on internal combustion engines in global cities are already in place.
When the statistic is widely disseminated that two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions comes from transportation, and when former U.S. Rep. Janice Hahn calls the Long Beach port corridor a “diesel death zone,” you can hear the drumbeat to ban diesel getting louder.
If these mandates become reality before the viability of electrification, will fleet operators be forced to comply using technology that is on its way out? The waning lack of support for CNG infrastructure today would’ve made any CNG evangelist in 2012 think twice about adoption.
The natural gas market wouldn’t exist without incentives, and neither will the electric truck market, at least for a while. Even still, there are tangible, startling costs to alt-fuel or alt-power adoption. NFI’s Brown said the company invested in first-generation LNG technology. “It was a disaster,” he said, a financial disaster to be sure.
Unlike that time of agnosticism, the electrification path is now all but secured, or so we’re told. Yet the transition could produce more economic pain than we had imagined.