January 11, 2018 4:45 PM, EST
Electric Trucks Show Rapid Development
But Vehicle Price, Range Must Improve to Satisfy Fleets
Class 8 International tractor equipped with TransPower electric drive system Class 8 International tractor equipped with a TransPower electric drive system. (TransPower)

WASHINGTON — Electric-vehicle technology for the medium- and heavy-duty sector is developing rapidly, but the price and range of these vehicles must improve for widespread deployment to take hold, industry experts said.

Several researchers and industry executives discussed the emergence of electric commercial vehicles at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board, held here Jan. 7-11.

While truck manufacturers and their suppliers are moving toward electrification at a swift pace, further improvements are needed to make the business case work in most trucking applications, said Joshua Goldman, vice president of business development at TransPower, an electric drive systems supplier.

Currently, trucks equipped with an electric powertrain can cost about $300,000 while delivering a 150-mile range, parameters that work for subsidized tests at ports, for example, but are not economically viable for most fleets.

Goldman by Seth Clevenger/Transport Topics 

“Today, we’re not there,” he said. “We realize we need to double the range and halve the cost of this truck in order to get to a real diesel-replacement commercial application for the operators.”

TransPower aims to slice that price to $150,000 and extend the range to 300 miles within the 2021-25 time frame. That would provide a competitive total cost of ownership calculation without the aid of subsidies, Goldman said.

Electric-vehicle prices should come down over time through greater economies of scale, said Blake Whitson, project manager at the Center for Transportation and the Environment, an Atlanta-based nonprofit focused on alternative-fuel vehicle development. “Increasing the volume of these vehicles is really key to get the cost parity with conventional technologies,” he said.

While electric motors are not new to commercial vehicles, particularly in mining and construction applications, technological advances over the past two decades have made electric power increasingly feasible for on-road use. Whitson cited as examples the emergence of lithium-ion batteries and improved energy storage systems and charging infrastructure.

“All of these improvements are allowing medium- and heavy-duty vehicles to be electrified and be deployed in more applications and operate more efficiently, all while creating zero tailpipe emissions,” he said.


Whitson said the medium- and heavy-duty sector also will serve as a valuable proving ground for the development of electric-vehicle technologies. Commercial vehicles are professionally maintained and operate in high-mileage, long-hour applications, making it easier to quickly collect performance data.

In the meantime, TransPower is working with truck makers and other suppliers to deploy a variety of electric-powered commercial vehicles, including terminal tractors, drayage trucks and refuse trucks.

In some cases, TransPower supplements its electric drive system with other power sources — such as compressed natural gas and hydrogen fuel cells — to extend the vehicle’s range.

“At TransPower, we don’t know the fuel or fuels that will be required for the future of zero or near-zero emission fleets,” he said. “We do know there is a heavy slant toward electrification and plug-in and zero-emission models, especially in urban centers.”

In December, major truck component supplier Meritor Inc. invested in TransPower to accelerate the introduction of its vehicle electrification technologies. Terms were not disclosed.

Meanwhile, new players such as Tesla Inc. and Nikola Motor Co. are preparing to launch electric-powered Class 8 trucks. Nikola also is incorporating hydrogen fuel-cell technology into its design, while Telsa’s is pure electric.

Also at TRB, another speaker suggested a different way of harnessing electric power in commercial applications.

Siemens is testing its eHighway overhead catenary system in Sweden and at the Port of Long Beach. (Siemens AG)

Benjamin Wickert, head of business development at Siemens, made a pitch for adding overhead electric lines on major freight routes to reduce emissions from heavy-duty trucks. Testing by Siemens of its eHighway overhead catenary system is ongoing in Sweden and the Port of Long Beach in California. The system works by using electricity to propel trucks equipped with electric motors down highways. But these aren’t necessarily pure-electric trucks; they just need electric motors for when they’re on the eHighway. When they’re not on it, they can revert to more traditional power.

He noted that this catenary system does not require that new roadways be built, and relies on proven technology that has been safely and reliably used previously to power trolley cars and city buses. Plus, he noted that the overhead system supports efficient use of natural resources, since it can be installed on trucks that can run on diesel, compressed natural gas and other fuels when not connected to the electric grid.

Siemens estimates that electrifying just 1% of the road network in Germany would cut emissions from trucks by 60%.

Wickert did not discuss the cost of installing the electric power lines, but he suggested that government agencies and utilities could make the investment.

Staff Writer Daniel P. Bearth contributed to this story.