When fleets succeed or fail based on operating costs calculated in fractions of a cent per mile, the unknowns in the spreadsheet are a big deal. And, based on the formal and informal discussion at the recent ATA Management Conference & Exhibition, these unknowns are mitigating many truckers’ enthusiasm for electric vehicles.

The good news: Most of the people I’ve spoken to are fans of the vehicles themselves, or at least see the potential based on some test drives and demonstration runs. But many aspects of refueling an alternative fuel vehicle are yet to be determined and you cannot manage a fleet with good intentions.

So the conference room was packed for MC&E’s Sunday morning panel to discuss battery electric trucks and hydrogen fuel cells. As it turned out, the presentations were just a warm-up to a long question and answer session with audience members. And everyone was late for lunch.

“Our world is changing. We are embarking on a monumental shift towards new technologies that will disrupt the 125-year history of single-source energy, “said Rakesh Aneja, vice president of eMobility at Daimler Truck North America.” We are at the tipping point of ever-changing commercial transportation and , with it, of our world, if, or rather I should say, when we can overcome the challenges to get there ”.

See also: Fleets “frustrated” with slow utilities to support the charging of electric trucks

Among the challenges, Aneja stressed the importance of matching these new truck technologies with the right applications. And, currently, these applications are limited because the charging / refueling infrastructure is limited.

“Infrastructure development and overcoming grid challenges, especially for commercial transport, will be our focus for the next few years,” said Aneja. “We cannot rely on the car infrastructure charging network to recharge our trucks.”

Grid updates

But, as we are learning, the shift to commercial electric vehicles is highly dependent on utility companies’ ability and willingness to anticipate demand, which, historically, they are unwilling to do.

“Upgrading the electricity grid is essentially a social cost. Every utility and utilities commission across the country will do it differently, ”explained Bill Zobel, director of alternative fuels at Pilot Co.

And that means fleets could gain, or lose, a competitive advantage, depending on who provides the charging infrastructure.

“It therefore remains to be seen how these costs manifest themselves in the total cost of ownership of the truck at the end of the day,” said Zobel.

As for hydrogen, Zobel suggested that private capital will finance the infrastructure and investors will need returns, but private capital is used to taking risks and is not bound by regulators.

“So there is a big difference between how these two infrastructure models will develop over time,” said Zobel.

The appeal of hydrogen, he explained, is that the supply chain is very similar to oil.

“In other words, it is produced centrally in one factory. It is distributed on a truck at a retail outlet where it is sold to the customer, ”said Zobel. “So the business model is very similar: there are selected points in the value chain where you can make money, invest, to help move the market forward. So, in this regard, it becomes very simple. The hydrogen refueling is very fast. You can refuel a truck in 10 minutes or less, get them in and out just like you do with an oil experience. “

Zobel also noted that the federal government recently made a large investment in a hydrogen production program and offers incentives to support clean hydrogen.

TMC Technical Director Jack Legler, who moderated the panel, set out the calculations.

“Basically, we use 14 terawatts of energy per year to move our Class 8 trucks,” said Legler. “It doesn’t matter in what form that energy is, and whether it’s diesel, gasoline, hydrogen, pure electric, whatever. There are still 14 terawatts of energy, and this represents about 5% of the capacity of the national grid from the electricity point of view “.

Solutions are available, but “a different way of thinking” will be needed for the transition from fossil fuels.

“The partnerships you’ll need to create will be companies we haven’t traditionally worked with before, and everyone is learning each other’s needs and capabilities,” he said.

More questions

Of course, truckers are a tough crowd. Many in the audience wanted to know how much net benefit this transition to alternative fuels would really provide, especially if power requirements cannot be met by renewable fuels, or if battery technology involves costly mining of materials or causes problems when batteries are no longer useful.

Legler, who worked in waste management, noted that recycling, initially, “was not as environmentally friendly as everyone believed it was, which is why it has evolved to what it is today from what was the regulatory construct. original, “he said. “Because once operational reality sticks its ugly nose in the middle of your theory, it somehow changes things.”

See also: Slow and steady wins the race to zero emissions

And Aneja agreed on the importance of “a life cycle assessment” and noted that manufacturing and operating an eCascadia Freightliner reduces carbon emissions by around 50%, based on the current power generation mix. in the US With a clean energy supply, however, the reduction would be 95%.

“And for me it’s a fact: it has to come from renewable energy, otherwise we’re just shifting the issue,” he said.

Mike Roeth, executive director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency, noted that lifecycle values ​​can be determined, but fleets should simply continue to focus on efficient operation.

“This becomes a huge spreadsheet calculation, with a lot of variables, it’s very complex to do,” Roeth said. “But someone has to do it, and all the rest of us have to work on the individual parts of those equations to make this work.”

While it is important to understand the big picture, the people in the audience wanted the details or specifically: “Where is the data?”

And that’s the problem with something new: there isn’t a lot of data out there. But assessing the value of new truck technology is what NACFE does.

“The good data, which will please many of us in the room, comes with time,” said Roeth. “We just have to use these trucks. We have to learn from them. It will take some time to build, execute, understand, and they will greatly improve. We are in the very early stages of understanding what a battery electric truck is ”.

“Everyone will learn again,” added Legler. “Everything in the vehicle ecosystem affects everything else. We will quickly learn with the number of kilometers we accumulate on all these technologies.

“The learning curve is very steep.”

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