What happens to electric vehicles when the power goes out?

Electric vehicles, both cars and trucks, require the power grid to recharge. But what happens to those vehicles when the power grid fails? (Photo: Shutterstock)

Electric vehicles, both cars and trucks, require the power grid to recharge. But what happens to those vehicles when the power grid fails? (Photo: Shutterstock)

The recent hurricanes that knocked out the power to large sections of Texas, Florida offer a cautionary tale

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Electric vehicles – both cars and trucks – seem like the future. It only took nearly 200 years since the so-called experts declared electric vehicles the future for them to arrive. The first electric-powered vehicle arrived sometime in the 1830s – there is some dispute over the exact year and person – but it wasn’t until 1891 when William Morrison of Iowa is credited with producing the first successful electric automobile.

Fast forward to modern America, and today we have any number of companies developing electric vehicles. Volvo announced it will stop developing new gas- and diesel-powered powertrains starting in 2019. Tesla, of course, has become synonymous with electric vehicle technology. On the truck side, Daimler just introduced its eCanter and a company named Chanje has an agreement in place with Ryder to produce an electric delivery vehicle. Mack, Volvo, Nikola Motor and Tesla are also involved in electric truck development as are others.

To date, most of the anxiety around electric trucks has been around range and power. How far can the vehicle go before it needs recharging and how much payload can it hold? Tesla is hoping to alleviate some of those concerns with its truck design, expected to be unveiled on Oct. 26, with a range of 200 to 300 miles and a vehicle capable of pulling a full load. Cummins just unveiled a Class 7 powertrain that has a range of 100 miles extendable up to 300 with a GVWR of 75,000 pounds.

Electric vehicles have come a long way, yet there is an important question that never seems to get addressed when discussing electric cars and trucks: what happens if the power goes out?

Manufacturers are becoming adept at talking customers through range anxiety. Trucking fleets adopting electric vehicles to this point are typically using them in short-range applications, recharging them at night at dedicated on-site facilities. To date, few, if any fleets, have fully switched to all-electric vehicles. So, if there is a power outage overnight, some vehicles may not be fully operational, but there is capacity to fill the gap.

But if electric trucks become the dominant force some believe they will in 10 to 15 years, how will a fleet survive if it has a fleet of uncharged vehicles in the morning because of a power outage? More importantly, as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma showed us, what happens if the electric grid is shut down for days or weeks?

When asked that question, Lars Stenqvist, chief technology officer of Volvo Group and EVP, Volvo Group Trucks Technology, told FreightWaves we are not there yet, but he is confident that solutions to that question will develop.

“It’s a little bit like autonomous vehicles,” he said. “We must have good solutions in place. We are relatively early in this; if we come into a society where we depend on electricity, it will be higher on the priority list.”

It doesn’t have to be a hurricane that takes out a power grid, excessive heat, worker error, even squirrels, have been known to cause outages. In a situation like the recent hurricanes, trucking becomes a vital recovery link for communities, quickly moving in relief supplies and restocking store shelves. That stops in an electric society.

A story on Autoblog.com in 2011 noted this problem – back when there were many fewer electric vehicles on the roads – and referenced a University of Minnesota study that found power outages had doubled in the previous decade.

The Obama administration had designated $11 billion to help shore up the nation’s electric grid, but much of that had not been spent by the time he left office. It’s unclear whether those efforts will continue.

This is not a new problem for businesses, hospitals are dependent on power but are on the same power grid as the rest of us. Hospitals have large backup generators that supply power to critical systems, with most able to supply power for at least a day.

Will carriers need to install diesel generators to keep their trucks up and running in the event of an outage? Is solar- or wind-generated power an option? And how large - and at what cost - would a backup system need to be?

Like Stenqvist said, it will likely work itself out in time. What to do during a power outage is one question that rarely gets asked when discussing the viability of electric trucks, but it’s one that needs to be discussed.

 Electric trucks will make for a greener, more efficient fleet operation someday, but not if they are parked in the lot, unable to move.