Electric Trucks Need Infrastracture

This story appears in the May 15 print edition of Equipment & Maintenance Update, a supplement to Transport Topics.

Development of electric-powered commercial trucks in the 21st century takes the industry full circle to the infancy of the automotive revolution that began in the late 1800s, when battery-powered cars pioneered modern society’s fascination with mobility. Early on, at least, battery-powered cars were preferred because they were easy to operate — no cranking the engine to start them.

Phil Romba

Today’s Class 8 trucks outfitted with electric powertrains — and those in development — are at the crossroads the automobile passed through more than 100 years ago. But electric trucks are less likely to suffer the fate of the electric automobile.

However, it will be a number of years — close to 10 — before electric trucks in linehaul service are commonplace on U.S. interstate highways, despite the best efforts of companies developing fuel cell and plug-in electric trucks.

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One of the greatest challenges of any alternative fuel source for Class 8 and other commercial trucks is reaching sufficient numbers to support the huge investments necessary in the fueling infrastructure. Much like natural gas fuel­ing sites, both plug-in electrics and fuel cell electric trucks will require new infrastructure.

They are destined to serve niche applications, like most developing technologies in their infancy, because of the need to develop the infrastructure and maintenance expertise, equipment safety standards (for fuel systems and batteries) and test components, systems and vehicles for reliability and durability.

Innovators such as Daimler Trucks in Europe and BYD have overcome numerous challenges to field electric trucks for such applications as refuse trucks and pickup-and-­delivery straight trucks. Some, such as the Mercedes-Benz Urban eTruck, are being tested in anticipation of sales in 2021. Nikola Motor Co. faces different obstacles to develop from the ground up the first fuel cell electric-powered on-highway tractor, which the company plans to introduce in 2021 as well.

Nikola plans to use electrolysis to convert electricity generated at solar panel farms to hydrogen. It’s part of the company’s drive to develop — and allow fleets to operate — a zero-emissions vehicle.

The hydrogen fuel cell being developed for the Nikola One tractor uses a controlled chemical reaction to convert hydrogen into electricity that in turn charges onboard batteries. It also has regenerative braking capabilities that will supplement battery charging when the vehicle brakes. And for stationary charging, it will have a plug-in charger.

The 300-kilowatt battery packs power electric motors. At the vehicle’s announcement in December, the com- pany said it will have a range of 800 to 1,200 miles between hydrogen fill-ups.

Electric plug-in trucks require stationary battery charging because they have no onboard charging mechanism such as fuel cells, except for some limited regenerative braking. As a result, plug-ins have a much shorter range. For example, BYD reported its Class 6 refuse truck has a range of 124 miles.

Meanwhile, published reports show sales of natural gas-powered trucks have slowed since 2015 as the price differential between natural gas and diesel has narrowed significantly. Fleets have chosen natural gas-powered trucks, at least in part, because there was an economic benefit.

Falling diesel prices could negatively affect adoption of electrics, just as the adoption of natural gas-powered trucks slowed in 2015 and 2016. And recent executive actions by the Trump administration to bolster domestic energy production and to reduce regulations could slow the shift to hydrogen and electricity.

Comments by Nikola and BYD said the advantages of electric power hold up even with current diesel prices. Nikola founder and CEO Trevor Milton told Equipment & Maintenance Update in early April that, even with diesel near historic lows, projections show the Nikola One still will save fleets 30% on overall operating costs. “From what we can tell,” Milton said, “we will sell all the trucks we can build. Adoption will be more of an issue of how many trucks we can build.”

Published reports indicate BYD already relies on a similar approach to help customers recover higher acquisition costs for its trucks and tractors. The economics of electric trucks will make the positive difference in fleets’ decisions regardless of which political party is in power and current diesel prices.

The greatest obstacle to adoption of alternative fuel trucks continues to be development of maintenance and infrastructure expertise. Nikola’s partnering with Ryder to sell or lease and maintain the fuel cell electric truck is a strong move, helping to allay fears new adopters may have. But Milton said Ryder technicians will need training to work safely on high-voltage electric systems because the truck operates on 800 volts.

Andy Swanton, BYD’s vice president of truck sales, said fleets will not have to handle battery maintenance on the T7 straight truck or Class 8 T9 tractor model sold in the United States.

“Any maintenance or repair to the high-voltage batteries is managed by BYD’s after-sales engineers,” he told EMU in early April.

The truck’s battery-management system monitors the high-voltage batteries for proper function and, if necessary, alerts the driver to any issues. It also can stop the vehicle or isolate the battery cells or module.

Nikola faces many challenges to bring the truck to market, including the construction of fueling infrastructure. According to the company, hydrogen gas produced using solar electricity will be trucked to fueling sites, which may include a mix of Nikola-owned truck stops and commercial truck stops.

The company said at the December introduction that it would establish about 364 separate fueling stations, but executives said in April that the company might partner with a limited number of commercial truck stops. Regardless of who operates the hydrogen fueling stations, the time to fuel with compressed hydrogen, according to Nikola, will be comparable with the time to fill diesel tanks.

Unlike over-the-road tractors that rarely stop at company terminals for days or weeks, electric trucks in vocational applications such as refuse or pickup-and-delivery do return to company locations where batteries are charged during off hours.

BYD’s T7 model with a Wayne refuse body has a 175 kilowatt-hour, iron-phosphate battery pack. Charging times range from two to 4.4 hours, depending on the type of BYD charging system used, the company said.

As the population of plug-in electric trucks grows, fleets likely will operate more than one make. And one electric vehicle maker has handed fleet operators a possible solution to the challenge of buying and operating more than one type of charger.

Electric bus maker Proterra announced in 2016 that it would open the patents for its fast-charging system developed for buses. According to Proterra, the charger can recharge a 100 kWh electric bus in 10 minutes or less.

Use of a fuel such as hydrogen may sound dangerous to the uninformed, but Nikola’s Milton said hydrogen “is the safest fuel in the world. It’s 22 times lighter than air, so it dissipates very quickly.”

“If stored correctly, it is much safer than gasoline on a passenger vehicle,” he said.

According to the California Fuel Cell Partnership, fuel-cell electric vehicles have safety systems that include “hydrogen sensors, temperature-activated pressure relief devices and ground-fault systems that isolate the fuel and the electricity when necessary.”

Based on current plans to provide braking on the Nikola One using the electric motors and air disc brakes, Milton said additional testing and safety measures will be necessary.

Swanton said plug-in electrics manufactured by BYD pass a host of safety and reliability tests from a number of industry organizations, including Underwriters Laboratories and International Organization for Standardization. Safety testing includes impact, overcharging, heating and short-circuit. Reliability tests include vibration, mechanical shock and water immersion.

When the Mercedes-Benz Urban eTruck was introduced in Europe in July, Wolfgang Bernhard, then head of Daimler Trucks, said costs, performance and charging times are improving.

While electric trucks may take hold this time, it will be a decade or more for them to be a common sight on an interstate highway near you.

Freelance writer Phil Romba has covered trucks and maintenance as a full-time journalist and worked as a public relations manager for Volvo Trucks North America during his career of more than 20 years.