Electric vehicle evolution
Access to adequate charging options is one factor setting the pace for the future of electric fleets.
By Megan Gosch
Could the truck industry go all electric?
“Maybe,” says Ron Batey, director of pricing and economics for refined fuels at CHS. “Right now, the industry is focused on battery electrics and there’s much more research and innovation needed before that’s an affordable fit for the masses.”
You can find electric fleets on the road today — PepsiCo was the first to deploy the Tesla semitractor and Amazon Rivian delivery vans are making deliveries in more than 500 cities — and you can expect to see more (especially with a new California mandate requiring that truck sales go all electric by 2035). But Batey notes most large-scale successes have come with light-duty applications.
“There will be some scenarios where battery-powered electric vehicles (EVs) will work out,” he predicts, “but today Tesla trucks appear to be primarily hauling bags of chips for Frito-Lay. To see that same tech work for the average medium- or heavy-duty fleet, you’ve got some big barriers to overcome.”
Batey notes there’s a key conflict at the center of today’s battery technology. “Current EV batteries are too large and weigh too much to be viable at the medium- and heavy-duty scale, but you can’t drop weight without losing the energy that provides fleets with the driving range they need. It’s a catch-22.”
Battery weight also poses a risk when it comes to road maintenance, Batey continues.
“EVs are heavier than traditional internal combustion engines. It’s one thing to run errands with a vehicle containing a 1,000-pound compact EV battery and another thing entirely to haul potentially a 10,000-pound heavy-duty battery. Heavy-duty EVs can cause more damage and raise a serious question on how we’ll maintain our roads if EV trucks go mainstream.”
EV charge times vary widely (from minutes to days) depending on vehicle size, battery type, charging equipment and available power output. In all cases, the larger the vehicle, the more time and electricity needed to fully charge.
“We’re seeing EV passenger cars charge in 40 minutes with high-power superchargers,” says Batey. “Charge times for light-duty vehicles may be more feasible for fleet operators, but charging for the average heavy-duty application could take three hours or more. It’s a trade-off; faster battery charging means less battery longevity. A significant breakthrough in battery technology will be needed to help the average fleet owner avoid excessive charging times.”
Fleet operators keeping their vehicles close to home could have an advantage, but heavy-duty fleets running long hauls aren’t likely to see sufficient charging infrastructure for years.
“We don’t have enough widespread charging infrastructure in place to fully support passenger vehicles yet,” Batey adds. “To scale charging for the kind of range and power a heavy-duty fleet needs will be a slow, massive, ongoing lift.
“Battery electrics will certainly play a role in the automotive landscape, but we need science to push technology, price and logistics in the right direction. The cost benefit just isn’t there yet.”
Beyond batteries, another option shows more promise for fleets, he says. Without a heavy lithium-ion battery, the hydrogen fuel cell is an EV technology that could eliminate carbon emissions in heavy-duty applications while bypassing weight and charging challenges.
Advancements are still needed in the technology used to compress and liquify hydrogen and to build out the infrastructure needed for mass adoption, but “this alternative would be a much stronger fit for heavy-duty fleets where every pound matters,” says Batey. “That could be a technology that takes the debate from ‘Will electric win?’ to ‘What kind of electric will win?’”
Propelled by green transportation
While heavy-duty and passenger vehicles face different opportunities and challenges on the path to a low-carbon future, consumer trends could hold more sway over fleets than professional operators may realize.
“Millennial and Gen Z consumers could be the strongest guiding force impacting the future of fleets,” says Gary Tucker, director of environmental health and safety, CHS transportation and logistics.
“Recent studies show younger consumers aren’t just eager to invest in technology that’s marketed as ecofriendly, like EVs. They’re also more likely to put their purchasing power toward suppliers that are using greener technology. In some cases, shippers are seeing consumers dictate use of greener transportation practices.”
As younger consumers demand greener technology for personal vehicles, Tucker says heavy-duty fleets are likely to experience a “trickle-up” effect.
“The more EVs on the road and the greater the demand for new tech, the more momentum there is behind that tech and the faster that tech will advance,” Tucker says. “The more trial and error and innovation that takes place in the passenger and light-duty space, the more heavy-duty fleets can benefit and learn from it. It’s much easier to engineer an electric compact car than an electric Class 8 tractor-trailer.”
“Demand that drives advancement in the passenger vehicle space is where we can learn how to charge faster and build a more efficient battery,” adds Batey. “We’re likely to see a 15-year lag between mass adoption in passenger vehicles and mass adoption in heavy-duty trucks, but innovation in light applications has the power to fund the breakthroughs needed to transform trucking technology.”
Check out the full issue of C magazine with this article and more.