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Trucking faces ‘messy middle’ on road to electrification

NACFE study sees technologies that will speed and slow green trucking future.

The electrification of commercial trucks is edging closer but the industry first must go through a “messy middle." (Image: NACFE)

The electrification of commercial trucks is edging closer but the industry first must go through a “messy middle” that sorts out the future of diesel and other alternative fuels, according to a new study by the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE).

Even as battery and hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric get most of the attention as the future of powertrains, improved diesel, natural gas, hybrid and other alternatives have roles to play as they mature amid the transition to an electric future.

“We have high confidence that in a couple of decades moving freight with electric and hydrogen fuel cell trucks is very possible and probable,” Mike Roeth, NACFE executive director, said on a conference call Dec. 10. “I’m not so sure we would have said that two years ago.” 

One “aha” moment for NACFE came when it saw how rapidly battery technology was advancing even as it awaits a breakthrough that could make long-haul electric trucking viable. Roeth said he also was impressed by how quickly trucking companies embraced the construction of trucks around the batteries.

“As we dug into this, we were caught up in the elegant simplicity of the electric truck,” he said.  “Diesel improvements are not done but they are getting harder and harder to find.”

The attitude of traditional truck makers has changed toward addressing trucking’s impact on the environment, partly by the entry of several electric truck startups. Truck emissions accounted for 23% of all transportation-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2017, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In its fourth and final report on electric trucks, NACFE focused on the near- and long-term future of Class 7-8 commercial vehicles. The study includes six major findings:

  • North American freight movement is becoming more predictable because e-commerce and other technologies are enabling dedicated routes ideal for alternative powertrains.
  • Each alternative fuel powertrain offers short-term benefits compared to current diesel. Some of the alternatives may survive over the long term because they offer enough duty-cycle scale to reduce emissions and total cost-of-ownership savings.
  • Commercial battery electric vehicles and fuel cell trucks could lower the total cost of ownership in the 2030 time frame.
  • First owners may keep trucks longer because their specifications will be aligned with for the duty cycle and technology.  
  • Sorting out powertrain winners and losers will create a “messy middle” until CBEVs and fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) emerge as the dominant source of truck powertrains.
  • A future zero-emission freight world will have only electric-based vehicles powered by renewable energy such as hydro, solar and wind. 

“The fact is there are very few of these vehicles on the ground in the hands of fleets,” said Rick Mihelic, a study author and director of future technologies studies for Mihelic Vehicle Consulting LLC. “And while everybody may want to jump to the end of the book and see which technology wins, the reality is we’re going to go through a transition period.”

In the near term, Mihelic said, a host of small changes aimed at paring costs and materials will play out “unseen by the outside world.” That could include greater use of additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, to combine multiple underhood parts into a single component or the use of solid-state batteries on which several companies are working.

Some technologies in the “messy middle” could enable a quicker electric future and some could delay it, Roeth said. Diesel-electric hybrids, for example, might speed adoption of electric-powered brakes and air conditioning. But an installed infrastructure for natural gas-powered trucks could be “a bridge to nowhere” without significant fleet adoption.

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.