Autonomous and electric vehicles face some of the same challenges, but with plenty of differences

Moves toward greater adaptation of both autonomous and electric vehicles faces similar challenges, even though they are essentially two different developments and are often linked in trucking industry discussions.

Those issues were the focus of a webinar earlier this week sponsored by Frost & Sullivan, highlighting that firm’s views from someone who has studied the autonomous and electric market, and the experience of the president of a company who has led a movement into the battery-fueled sector.

Bharani Lakshminarasimhan, a program manager at Frost & Sullivan, said commercial trucking is facing eight top “transformational shifts”: digital transformation, autonomous trucking, rise of value trucks, electrification, urban trucking, something he referred to as “Beyond BRIC” (a reference to the Brazil/Russia/India/China growth stories), the rise of Asian OEMs, and dealership evolution.

He then identified four secular trends: technological, demographic/social, environmental and geopolitical. He applied each of those trends to the eight trucking shifts, with all of the shifts getting at least two of the trends and a few getting three. His point is that all of the big shifts in trucking are also facing broad trends that cut across borders and populations.

When all of these come together, what does Lakshminarasimhan see as the timeline for greater adoption of autonomous vehicles? He showed a slide that had full autonomous driving in place by 2025, though in his comments on the webinar, he foresaw a longer timeline that stretches past 2030.

The timeline slide shows the building blocks of an autonomous truck. In the early years–like 2018–there are features such as pedestrian detection, forward collison warnings and cross traffic alert.

Then it moves to a phase Frost & Sullivan calls Active Safety, with “active lane keeping” as a feature. The Semi-automated phase includes such things as autonomous emergency braking and traffic jam assist. That is followed by the highly automated phase, which includes emergency steering assist and lane change assist. Finally, there’s only one item in the final phase, called fully autonomous, and that’s autonomous driving.

To get to that level, Lakshminarasimhan said what needs to happen is that “these technologies become more of a mainstream application rather than just being more testing, and where the initiators alone are paying large fees” for development.

He noted that the ecosystem for autonomous trucking had a wide variety of participants moving the process along with everyone from traditional OEMS like Daimler and Paccar, but also with technology companies ranging from SmartDrive (video safety) to Peloton (platooning) to TomTom (mapping). The examples of those companies, he said, shows the opportunity for other new players to capitalize on shifts toward autonomous trucking.

It will also take a long push toward acceptance that goes beyond technology. “The business case for autonomous driving is still under development and testing,” Lakshminarasimhan said. “OEMs and suppliers will need to convince fleet managers to invest significantly in this technology and still pay wages for a driver in all their vehicles in operation.”

If the forward movement on autonomous vehicles and electrification is going to be fueled in part by OEMs who aren’t traditional, Chanje certainly fits into that category. Its president, Ian Gardner, participated on the call, just a few weeks after his company got a boost through a purchase of Chanje electric vehicles from UPS and Ryder.

Two of the factors pushing the adoption of the V8100 so far, according to Gartner, are the “macro trend of urbanization” and the emphasis on last mile delivery. Last mile is the product’s primary market. Gardner noted that Chanje’s product is a van targeted at last mile delivery and that his experiences are not directly transferrable to the development of electric vehicles for class 8 trucks or passenger cars. Chanje’s production, the v8100, describes itself as having a 150-mile range, a 6,000 pound payload, makes zero noise and can climb grades up to 30%.

Access for last mile in city centers is getting a boost from increasing regulations on CO2 emissions and corporate sustainability commitments. Gartner said companies seeking to increase their sustainability bona fides “have not had an option of an OEM solution that is scalable before. They want to buy 3,000 to 5,000 trucks like this per year.”

Gardner said the falling price of batteries is particularly significant for a van like Chanje’s product because of its relatively short duty cycle–70 to 90 miles a day–and the length of the van. Battery-powered cars are optimized for range, power, density and price; class 8 trucks need to optimize just for range and price. But vans working in an urban environment do not have all those challenges, Gardner said: “You have slightly different chemistries (than for big trucks or cars) and it enables you to make more aggressive assumptions on your cost curve for a competitive basis.” He showed a chart comparing the all-in cost of such a van powered by diesel vs. batteries, and the Total Cost of Operation, in his calculations, began to favor batteries a few years ago.

Gardner listed challenges to electrification: mineral pricing (the price of cobalt has been much in the news lately); development of charging infrastructure; disruption of the existing ecosystem, and the broad area of “go-to-market challenges,” which constitutes the many less-defined hurdles that need to be overcome.

But with challenges come opportunities for the companies that can develop efficient charging infrastructure. Gardner also envisions a robust rental and leasing market for OEMs “to get these trucks on the road and have customers get miles behind the wheel and try to understand the working conditions for the truck.”

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John Kingston

John has an almost 40-year career covering commodities, most of the time at S&P Global Platts. He created the Dated Brent benchmark, now the world’s most important crude oil marker. He was Director of Oil, Director of News, the editor in chief of Platts Oilgram News and the “talking head” for Platts on numerous media outlets, including CNBC, Fox Business and Canada’s BNN. He covered metals before joining Platts and then spent a year running Platts’ metals business as well. He was awarded the International Association of Energy Economics Award for Excellence in Written Journalism in 2015. In 2010, he won two Corporate Achievement Awards from McGraw-Hill, an extremely rare accomplishment, one for steering coverage of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and the other for the launch of a public affairs television show, Platts Energy Week.