Watch Now

ACT Expo notebook: Peterbilt’s math lesson and Volvo’s big day

Electric truck progress is more than just adding up incentive-backed orders

Volvo Trucks North America has sold 16 VNR Electric trucks to a Maersk subsidiary. (Photo: Volvo Trucks North America)

A reporter’s notebook from the Advanced Clean Transportation Expo in Long Beach, California

Like coins dropped into a jar at the end of the day, the number of heavy-duty electric trucks continues to grow by nickels, dimes and quarters. But measuring success requires more than counting up pocket change.

Peterbilt Motors General Manager Jason Skoog gave a math lesson about battery-electric and hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric trucks during a keynote address Tuesday. 

“Today’s diesel trucks are the cleanest trucks and the most environmentally friendly trucks we’ve ever produced.”

Wait. What’d he say?

Isn’t this an electric truck convention?

Skoog was merely framing the competition. For all the hype about an electric transition in trucking, diesel is going to be the primary fuel for trucking for a long time. It is getting cleaner, but as a fossil fuel, it will never be free of carbon emissions.

Jason Skoog, Peterbilt Motors general manager (Photo: Peterbilt)

Skoog retraced more than 20 years of Peterbilt experimentation with advanced powertrains, drawing laughter when he recalled the medium-duty Model 330 truck with a compressed natural gas (CNG) generator, a 240-horsepower electric motor and a 3,000-pound lead-acid battery. Its driving range: “an incredible 9 miles on one charge.”

That was in 1998.

Three electric models 

Peterbilt is among the leaders in battery-electric trucks, with the Model 579EV for regional haul and port and drayage operations; the Model 520EV for refuse; and a Model 220EV for inner-city deliveries.

Skoog said 100% of local and refuse trucks that travel routes of 150 miles or less daily are candidates for electrification. Based on Peterbilt’s analysis, 35% of Class 8 trucks average 250 miles or less per day, qualifying them ideal for today’s single-charge battery range. It assumes they can return to base for recharging each night.

That leaves 65% of Class 8 trucks practically ineligible.

“We either need improved battery technology combined with a nationwide rapid-charging system or hydrogen fuel cells combined with a nationwide infrastructure to support a 100% zero-emissions future,” Skoog said. “It’s likely a combination of those two things.”

“We either need improved battery technology combined with a nationwide rapid-charging system or hydrogen fuel cells combined with a nationwide infrastructure to support a 100% zero-emissions future. It’s likely a combination of those two things.”

Jason Skoog, general manager of Peterbilt Motors

It has a combined 400-unit backlog. Peterbilt delivered 10 Model 579EVs to the Port of Oakland, California, in July to haul cargo containers. Five more are destined for the Port of Long Beach this year. In all, 60 Peterbilt electric trucks will be in operation by the end of 2021 — a nascent but growing part of the Denton, Texas-based manufacturer’s business.

Peterbilt’s sibling Kenworth Truck Co. is working with Toyota Motor Corp. on fuel cells, delivering eight demonstration T680s to Southern California ports for testing. Toyota said last week it will begin assembling fuel cell modules for heavy-duty trucks in Kentucky in 2023.

Not just the trucks

Electric trucks need convenient high-speed charging to keep them operating. This can require a medium-to-large-scale construction project. That includes trenching, plus installing conduit, switch gears and transformers. It is expensive and time consuming. And often requires outside project management. Not exactly a fleet manager’s core competency.

“Customers must start the infrastructure discussion the minute they’re thinking about putting an EV in their fleet,” Skoog said. “And there’s nothing stopping you from getting a site assessment done to understand what you’re getting yourself into when it comes to installing an EV charger at your location.”

Battery-electric trucks are more expensive than diesel trucks up front. But grants, like the California HVIP program, can shave tens of thousands of dollars. Peterbilt isn’t alone in having a staff grant writer to help customers with the paperwork. Electricity is expensive, especially during times of peak demand. Bargaining for a better rate is practically a must.

“The way I look at it, if you don’t ask, they can’t say yes,” Skoog said.

Leveling the playing field

Practically every fleet manager’s goal for equipment is the lowest total cost of ownership. Productivity lost by charging three times for a couple of hours versus a 100-gallon diesel fill-up good for 800 miles [at 8 miles per gallon] makes diesel a hands-down winner for up time.

Incentives can level the playing field. So could increasing the 2,000-pound weight offset for battery mass on the gross vehicle weight of an 80,000-pound truck and its cargo. An electric truck that gets 150 miles on a charge typically carries 6,000 pounds of batteries, Skoog said.

Other ways to increase electric truck adoption: Allow a pound-for-pound offset for actual battery weight. And let electric trucks be the first exemptions from the World War I-era 12% federal excise tax on new trucks. 

Regulations already on the books will drive 25% adoption of electric trucks by 2030, he said. May as well make it easier.

Volvo nudges its suppliers to get on board

Tuesday was a big day for Volvo Trucks North America at the ACT Expo. Twenty of its VNR Electric trucks were part of Tuesday morning’s announcement of 100 subsidized Class 8 electric trucks going to Schneider and NFI Industries in 2022.

Separately, Volvo announced that Maersk Co.’s Performance Team unit would purchase 16 VNR Electrics for regional deliveries across Southern California. Performance is getting financial help from a South Coast Air Quality Management District grant to replace diesel trucks with zero-tailpipe-emission trucks and install charging infrastructure.

The El Segundo, California-based company operates a North America warehousing and distribution network of 45 locations and a fleet of 215 trucks.

Then there was an announcement that VNR Electric trucks used by Dependable Highway Express would run warehouse distribution routes for SunPower Corp. from its facility in Ontario, California, where they are recharged daily by 100% renewable electricity generated by on-site solar panels.

But perhaps the biggest news was closest to home in Dublin, Virginia, where Volvo builds all of its Class 8 trucks for North America, including the VNR Electric.

Three VNR Electrics will be deployed on local logistics routes servicing the company’s New River Valley assembly plant, covering 16 round trips a day.

By the numbers, the three electric trucks will:

  • Reduce carbon emissions by approximately 154 tons.
  • Reduce diesel use by around 18,000 gallons per year.
  • Offer a gross combined weight rating of up to 82,000 pounds.

The message to Volvo’s inbound parts and components suppliers is direct.

“We want you to drive for us. We want you to do it in a zero-emission way,” VTNA President Peter Voorhoeve told FreightWaves. “And by the way, the product is over there.”

Volvo’s inbound parts and components suppliers delivering to the company’s plant in Virginia are expected to use the Volvo VNR Electric to do the job. (Photo: Volvo Trucks North America)

ACT Expo: NFI installing super-fast chargers for Southern California drayage fleet

ACT Expo: California subsidies make battery-electric trucks a sweet fleet deal

Volvo gets first double-digit order for electric trucks

Click for more FreightWaves articles by Alan Adler.

Alan Adler

Alan Adler is an award-winning journalist who worked for The Associated Press and the Detroit Free Press. He also spent two decades in domestic and international media relations and executive communications with General Motors.