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Big Rigs Begin to Trade Diesel for Electric Motors

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CHINO, Calif. — The turning radius took some getting used to. So did the gigantic steering wheel. But the electric version of the Freightliner Cascadia big rig was otherwise easy to drive, as I navigated the warehouse parking lot, dodging delivery trucks for Amazon and J.B. Hunt.

Being 80 feet long, it didn’t quite offer the golf cart experience I was promised when its regular driver, Karl Williams, let me take over the controls, though the acceleration was effortless. There was no stick shift to wrestle, no deafening diesel engine. Just a pair of buttons to turn it on and release the air brake, and I was off.

“Anybody can drive one,” Mr. Williams said, moments before a middle-aged mom proved his point.

Mr. Williams has been a truck driver for 22 years, logging at least a million miles with diesel power. Since December, he has been testing the battery-electric eCascadia as part of a pilot program in Southern California.

“It’s beautiful,” he said. “You don’t go home with your ears ringing every night.”

Two years ago, the eCascadia was nothing more than a PowerPoint presentation — a virtual rendering to expedite a diesel stalwart into a zero-emissions future for goods movement. Now it’s one of several competing models, from start-ups as well as established truck makers, that are gearing up for production next year with real-world testing. Orders have poured in, from companies eager to shave operating costs and curb emissions, for trucks that won’t see roads for months or even years.

Volvo Trucks North America announced this year that it would test 23 of its VNR battery-electric heavy-duty trucks in and out of the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The Washington-based truck maker Kenworth is already there, operating the beginnings of Project Portal, a 10-truck fleet of semis powered with hydrogen fuel cells. And Daimler Trucks North America is making deliveries in 20 of its preproduction eCascadias with two partner companies, Penske Truck Leasing and NFI.

“We want them quicker than the manufacturers can produce them,” said NFI’s president, Ike Brown. NFI, a freight hauler based in New Jersey, has been operating 10 eCascadias between the port complex, the country’s busiest, and its warehouse in Chino, 50 miles inland.

Mr. Brown’s company makes regional deliveries using a fleet of 4,500 mostly diesel trucks. With a defined daily route of about 250 miles, and trucks that return to the same place every night to recharge, electric trucks “just make sense,” Mr. Brown said.

Medium- and heavy-duty trucks are responsible for about 8 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Electrics not only reduce tailpipe emissions to zero, they cost less to operate. With fewer moving parts, they are also easier to maintain.

On average, it costs about $1.38 per mile to operate a diesel truck, according to the trucking information website TruckInfo.net; $70,000 of the $180,000 annual operating cost is fuel, and $15,000 goes toward maintenance. Tesla, by comparison, estimates its electric Semi will cost $1.26 per mile.

Electric trucks do, however, cost more to buy upfront. While most manufacturers have yet to set pricing, the longer a truck’s range, the more batteries it needs and the more it will cost. Tesla plans to sell its 300-mile-range Semi for $150,000 and 500-mile Semi for $180,000. The price of a new diesel tractor and trailer is about $150,000.

“Our goal is to get them within 10 percent of what a diesel would cost, so fleets can see the return on investment of reduced fuel and maintenance cost within two to three years,” said Dakota Semler, a co-founder of Xos Trucks in North Hollywood, Calif. The company plans to go into production with its ET-One electric semi next year.

Already, Xos is making smaller, medium-duty electric trucks for the armored car company Loomis and UPS.

“We’re further along in medium-duty with potential real-world solutions than we are in the heavy-duty side just because it’s an easier problem to solve,” said Scott Phillippi, senior director of maintenance and engineering at UPS. “The range isn’t quite so strenuous.”

UPS, which is based in Atlanta, operates 80,000 trucks globally. About 100 of its medium-duty box trucks are currently electric, but none of its 21,000 semis have made the switch. Yet.

UPS placed an order for 125 Tesla Semis two days after Elon Musk sent a pair of them speeding across the tarmac at a small airport adjacent to his company’s Southern California design headquarters in late 2017.

Mr. Phillippi said he was optimistic and realistic about taking delivery of the Semis in early 2021, “but I don’t have anything in writing.”

UPS is one of hundreds of companies that have ordered tens of thousands of electric trucks since truck makers started announcing production plans for electrics. Anheuser-Busch, PepsiCo and Walmart are among the Fortune 500 companies awaiting deliveries that won’t begin until next year.

A start-up in Arizona, Nikola Motor, has taken 14,000 orders for its Nikola One and Nikola Tre hydrogen fuel cell electric trucks — so many that it has stopped taking orders. The trucks won’t go into production until late 2021 at the earliest.

Daimler, Kenworth, Volvo and their fellow industry heavyweight Peterbilt also plan to go into production with their battery-electric semis next year.

“In the truck industry, the No. 1 request is reliability,” said Michael Scheib, head of electric trucks for Daimler Trucks North America. “Any technology might be interesting, but if it isn’t reliable, you will not be successful. Reliability cannot be forced. You have to break it, redesign it, and when you’re ready, you release it. You can’t accelerate it.”

The electrification of trucking is rolling out in three distinct phases, starting with medium-duty box trucks and vans, followed by heavy-duty semis used for regional hauling, like the ones Volvo, Kenworth and Daimler are testing at Southern California’s ports.

“With battery vehicles, it comes down to range, because batteries cost money and they add weight,” said Jim Mele, an analyst with Wards Intelligence. “Long haul will probably be the last to see electrification because they’ll probably need fuel cells to get the range they need, and those are still in development.”

Long haul, also known as over-the-road trucks, often travel more than 600 miles a day.

Most heavy-duty electric truck testing is happening at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach — the country’s largest by cargo volume and container value. About 14,000 trucks go through the adjoined port complex each day, most of them fueled with polluting diesel.

The ports are the reason Los Angeles and Long Beach consistently rank first for ozone pollution in the American Lung Association’s annual State of the Air Report.

About two million of the 15.5 million trucks operating in the United States are semis, or tractor-trailers. They’re replaced at the rate of 200,000 to 300,000 a year. Still, the market for electric heavy-duty trucks is expected to be less than 4 percent of all trucks sold until 2025, according to the global information firm IHS Markit.

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