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Stifel’s electric trucks panelists talk Tesla, battery life

Thor Trucks' prototype is pictured.

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FreightWaves is in Miami Beach covering Stifel Financial Corp.’s annual Transportation and Logistics Conference. This morning Stifel moderated a panel on electric trucks: the panelists were Jeff Flath, the president and CEO of eNow, Shyam Nagrani, the VP of business development at Motiv Power Systems, Jason Roycht, the VP of commercial vehicles and offroad at Bosch North America, and Dakota Semler, the founder and CEO of Thor Trucks.

The participants began by introducing themselves, their role in their companies, and their approach to the electric truck market. Jeff Flath showed a video about eNow, which provides solar panels and batteries to create auxiliary power systems for medium- and heavy-duty reefer trucks. Trucks equipped with eNow’s solar panels do not need to draw on the diesel engine to supply energy to refrigerated and frozen systems. Shyam Nagrani explained that Motiv Power Systems builds electric vehicle chassis, mostly in Class 4, 5, and 6, that are based on Ford chassis and have the flexibility to use any—or even multiple, simultaneously—battery systems currently on the market. About 75% of Motiv’s business—school buses, garbage trucks, and last mile delivery trucks—is based in California, where Gov. Brown’s $1.25B subsidies have helped the company grow exponentially. Motiv expects to be profitable, without subsidies, by 2020.

Nagrani said, “For us the sweet spot of the market is urban delivery vans, school buses, and shuttle buses, where you know exactly what your range is… UPS knows its average range is 37 miles, never gonna be more. So the range is known and there’s no range anxiety. Starts and stops help us because of regenerative breaking—so urban environments mean that electric trucks are better than diesel there.”

Jason Roycht spoke about Bosch’s interest in diesel engines and injection systems but said that the company realizes that the automotive industry is moving toward electrification. Roycht made the point that researching and developing autonomous, electric, and connected products for commercial vehicles is made more difficult because the market is 1/25th the size of the passenger vehicle market, therefore it is much harder to realize R.O.I. Dakota Semler, who’s from a family that owns a 300 truck fleet, said that Thor’s electric trucks are priced to be competitive without subsidies. Semler emphasized that Thor focuses on shorthaul, regional, and last mile delivery markets where range anxiety is not a factor. 

One of the highlights of the discussion was when the panelists were asked, “What was the most unrealistic claim made by Elon Musk during the Tesla Semi unveiling?” The question provoked laughter from the audience, but the panelists were careful to qualify their answers by saying while they had a good idea of Tesla’s technology, they didn’t have inside information. Dakota Semler flatly stated that “The 500 mile range, even with strict hours-of-service regulations is not, realistically, longhaul. We don’t see a use case for longhaul electric trucks.” Jason Roycht said, “We were skeptical of Elon’s claims about longhaul—that’s not just Bosch, though, the whole industry was skeptical. There are a few data points the industry is still waiting to understand, like the amount of energy he wants to put on a vehicle and exactly how much that will weigh. He also quoted something like 7 cts a kilowatt-hour [which we have questions about].”

Shayam Nagrani said, laughing, “I’ll never bet against Elon Musk. I have drunk the Kool-Aid and put down a $1,000 deposit on a Model 3. That was two years ago and I’m still waiting!”

The panelists also brought their expertise to bear on the important question of battery life. Electric trucks are supposed to offer a much lower total-cost-of-ownership (TCO) than diesel trucks, even though they have a higher upfront cost. Achieving that TCO, though, requires the batteries to have a lifecycle past 300,000 miles, or even more. The Stifel analyst pointed out that cell phone batteries have to be replaced after 1,000 charges and asked about the durability of electric vehicle batteries.

Roycht pointed out that even existing battery technology already offers a significant ROI, clarifying that “We’re already at a point in battery tech where it makes economic sense. There are technical things that need to be solved—we want to see battery packs that last 1M miles, not a couple hundred thousand. There’s a base cost assumption for batteries which already enables TCO advantages. The opportunity we have in the industry is to prolong the life of these packs even further. I’m not a battery expert,” Roycht continued, “but to put it simply, the faster you bring energy in and out, the faster you degrade the lifetime. What level do you let it go down to, how fast do you charge it, how thermally sound—temperature controlled—do you keep it? That all affects battery life.”

Dakota Semler gave the most visibility into how electric vehicle manufacturers are dealing with battery lifecycle issues: the answer is software. “There’s a few things you can optimize for in a battery pack—you can’t have everything. The main parameters are space and weight (energy density), cycle life, and there’s performance. The one thing that you can really control through software is cycle life. When you talk to lithium ion battery supplies the metric they use to define their life is 2000 cycles. What that means is that after that point, the battery isn’t dead, but it retains 80% of its charge. We can already support 300-400K mile warranties, we just have to control the battery properly.”

Nagrani said, “We’re not smart enough to figure out which battery technology is going to win out—which chemistry is going to be dominant. So we’ve built our chassis to be flexible and use anything, even different kinds of batteries at the same time and balance the load between them. For example, sodium nickel has better energy density, but lithium ion gets energy in and out faster, so we mix and match to get the best of both worlds.”

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