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Taking electric vehicles from science project to reality

Truck electrification is ramping up quickly, but a number of challenges that must be solved remain before they see widespread adoption.

INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana. Medium-duty truck applications seem primed to accept a rapid deployment of truck electrification projects, but several factors continue to slow progress, including infrastructure. Weight considerations, range limitations and more are limiting opportunities right now for electrification, but that is changing as manufacturers work to solve these challenges.

“It’s a large market, but a very diverse market with a lot of unique challenges,” explained Jim Castelaz, founder and chief technology officer of Motiv Power Systems, during a presentation on Tuesday on truck electrification at the NTEA’s Green Truck Summit.

Founded 10 years ago, Motiv has developed two unique chassis as part of its EPIC chassis program and has seen its electric powertrain installed in a variety of vehicles, from delivery vans and buses, to shuttles and refuse trucks. Castelaz said that the driver of adoption is the lower prices for battery packs, which he said now cost about $200 per kilowatt hour.

“In medium-duty trucks, if you are under $200 per kilowatt an hour, you are really in the money,” he said. “Two hundred dollars per kilowatt hour battery packs are game-changing.”

For the foreseeable future, Castelaz sees medium-duty applications as the place to be for electric.

“The two biggest hurdles for electric is range anxiety and charging infrastructure, but you really don’t have those issues in medium-duty [trucks],” he said, noting that most medium-duty applications involve fixed routes with many stops and starts (which can take advantage of regenerative braking technology to recoup wasted braking energy). The trucks are then domiciled at night at a depot.

Bill Combs, director of Connected Fleet for Penske Truck Leasing, echoed some of Castelaz’s thoughts, mentioning that Penske is working with Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) to deploy the Freightliner eM2 medium-duty electric Class 6-7 truck and the eCascadia, DTNA’s Class 8 electric model.

“The goal is to place these vehicles with our customers,” he said, and learn over the next two years what works and what doesn’t. This includes working closely with DTNA to adjust battery placement and adjust other specifications to maximize the vehicle’s productivity.

“We want to make sure this is not a science project, but that we are [putting trucks in fleet’s hands so they can succeed],” he said.

Combs began his presentation by pointing out what we “know” about electric trucks – they reduce air pollution, fuel costs, maintenance costs and noise. “But how will we [really] know?” he asked. The vehicles need to be deployed in real-world applications with real fleets hauling real freight, Combs said, and that is what Penske is trying to accomplish.

Jasmin Kluge, project manager of alternative fuels for Mitsubishi Fuso Truck of America, a Daimler Trucks business, pointed out that Fuso has been working on electric trucks for years and has its eCanter Class 6 truck in operation around the world, including with customers in North America. Series production on that vehicle is slated for 2020.

“The electrification of trucks, which are a backbone of our society, is critical to our [future],” she said.

Kluge said Fuso has trucks operating in Houston, Los Angeles, New York, North Carolina and Pittsburgh, and the company is seeing ranges of 60 to 80 miles. The weight of the electric system reduces payload from about 1,000 pounds to around 9,000 pounds. She called on more cooperation between stakeholders to improve infrastructure and speed deployment.

“The electrification of trucks will be an important driver for cleaner cities,” Kluge said.

All the speakers reiterated the need for groups to work together. “It takes a village is a saying, but we really think it takes an industry,” Combs said.

Motiv’s Castelaz related some of the experiences of its early customers, including AmeriPride. The uniform delivery company has expanded its use of Motiv’s system on Ford F-59 chassis vans to include 30 vehicles, up from an original order of 10. Those vehicles have run more than 100,000 miles to date with an operational savings of 85 percent. The biggest issue, Castelaz said, was building the infrastructure.

“The challenge in low-income communities is that the infrastructure is not as strong, so it takes longer to deploy,” he said.

Castelaz also pointed to a project with Mountain View/Google, which is running electric Ford E-450 chassis with the Motiv EPIC system. Those vehicles run 13-mile loops, making about 30 stops each, and have been getting an effective range of 60 to 80 miles.

“I think we are at an interesting inflection point and it’s because of the battery pack costs and it’s leading us into the future,” Castelaz said.

Combs summed up all the Green Truck speakers on the day across various panels when he said that application fit is most important.

“It’s very important to understand that these trucks are not going to solve every use case,” he said.

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Brian Straight

Brian Straight covers general transportation news and leads the editorial team as Managing Editor. A journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has covered everything from a presidential election, to professional sports and Little League baseball, and for more than 10 years has covered trucking and logistics. Before joining FreightWaves, he was previously responsible for the editorial quality and production of Fleet Owner magazine and fleetowner.com. Brian lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids and spends his time coaching his son’s baseball team, golfing with his daughter, and pursuing his never-ending quest to become a professional bowler.

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