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Irontrax Industry Update Electric, Self-Driving Trucks – The Way of the Future


The overall medium- and heavy-duty truck market is projected to continue its reliance on conventional diesel powertrain for the next decade. However, Navigant Research, a research and consulting team that provides in-depth analysis of global clean technology markets, predicts that hybrid and electric powertrains will increase, with the number of these vehicles expected to grow from about 125,500 in 2017 to 1.66 million in 2027. This is up from their 2016 prediction of 332,000 by 2026.

With the potential to provide lower operational costs, noise reduction, and environmental benefits, electric trucks are attractive to fleets. Although high up-front costs are still prohibitive, manufacturers continue to work toward commercially viable electric trucks due in large part to mounting pressure from governments to reduce pollutants from diesel fuel combustion and tackle greenhouse gas emissions. As heavy- and light-duty diesel engines get phased out for government work, and emissions regulations become stricter, both plug-in and pure electric trucking solutions will become more prevalent. Over the next few years, trials and small-scale deployments by major fleets and manufacturers will help clarify potential cost benefits and could set in motion a significant increase in orders for electrified trucks. Based on recent developments, such as those summarized below, this effort appears to be well underway.

Tesla Unveils Electronic Rival to Semi Trucks: Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive officer, is on a quest to remake the multibillion-dollar trucking industry. On November 16, 2017, he unveiled a prototype for a battery-powered, nearly self-driving semi truck that the company believes will be more efficient and less costly to operate than the diesel trucks, while emitting no exhaust. The electric truck would be less expensive to operate, in part because it has fewer components that require regular maintenance (i.e., no engine, transmission or drive shaft). Instead, the truck, called the Tesla Semi, is powered by a giant battery beneath the cab. It has two rear axles, each outfitted with two electric motors, one for each wheel. The truck can go from zero to 60 miles per hour in five seconds without a trailer, and in 20 seconds when carrying a maximum load of 80,000 pounds, less than a third of the time required for a diesel truck.

Mr. Musk said Tesla expects to begin producing the truck by the end of 2019, but at a hefty price. Recent indications are that the new semi will start at $150,000 for a model with a 300-mile range and $180,000 for a 500-mile version with a larger battery pack. Tesla also envisions building a network of solar powered superchargers throughout the U.S. and Canada. In December, PepsiCo Inc reserved 100 trucks adding to orders placed by more than a dozen companies, including Walmart, J.B. Hunt, Anheuser-Busch, and Sysco Corp. According to Reuters, this brings the number of reservations for Tesla trucks placed to date to 267. While Tesla continues to make progress with its electric trucks it will face formidable competition from those such as Daimler who have experience in the truck market and have already begun testing electric trucks and self-driving technology.

Daimler Steps Up Plans in Electric Truck Rollout to Compete with Tesla: Shortly before Tesla unveiled its prototype, Daimler AG, the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial vehicles, announced it is stepping up its plans to roll out electric powered trucks. It has started initial production runs of an urban delivery truck and expects such models to compete with traditional diesel versions in the near future as the cost of batteries decreases. The company is seeking to stay competitive as cities step up measures to improve air quality. Jorge Rosa, head of Daimler’s Tramagal plant in Portugal, believes it will be possible to produce an electric vehicle at the same price as a diesel vehicle within two years. The main driver is the cost of batteries, which is dropping sharply.

In September 2017, Daimler also introduced a light-duty hauler known as the eCanter in Manhattan and supplied a fleet to several New York City non-profits. It also signed the United Parcel Service Inc. as its first commercial customer in the U.S. The truck, with a range of 60 to 80 miles between charges, is coming to market as customers demand products better-suited to rising delivery demand in cities. Rosa indicated that after assembly trials, Daimler will start mass production of the eCanter at the end of 2018 or start of 2019. “The speed at which electric mobility will introduce itself will be quite a lot faster than what was foreseen two or three years ago,” Rosa said. “There are many cities that have already announced dates from which they will stop carbon fuel vehicles from entering downtown areas”.

Nikola and Bosch Team Up to Design Hydrogen-Electric Trucks: Nikola, the other automotive company that pays homage to famed inventor Nikola Tesla, just announced plans to team with automotive supplier Bosch to develop next-generation powertrains for two hydrogen-electric semi trucks. The partnership aims to produce a line of semis that would blow current trucks off the highway, with double the horsepower of anything currently on the road, while cutting emissions entirely. Unlike Tesla, rather than depending on batteries alone Nikola’s design will harness hydrogen fuel cells for an estimated range of up to 1,200 miles. The class 8 semi trucks, dubbed the Nikola One and Two, are slated to hit the market by 2021. Nikola credits Bosch’s work on its modular eAxle drive system, which was designed to make electrification easier for automakers in smaller vehicles, as a major reason the collaboration will be able to shoot for wide scale production in just four years. The two companies will work together to make a dual-motor eAxle design for the long-haul trucks, which will place the motor, power electronics, and transmission all onto one unit. Extra power will come via a new fuel cell system, which is also being developed as part of the partnership, which will depend on hydrogen to push the range of the trucks to that massive 1,200-mile range. Bosch will also contribute to the development of the trucks’ control software and hardware systems. All-electric cabs all have limited range estimates of a few hundred miles per charge and pale in comparison to Nikola’s range. It may be that hybrids, not full-on electric vehicles, might be better solutions for the long-haul rigs of the future.

Self-driving Trucks, a Step Beyond Hybrid and Electric Powertrains: There seems to be little disagreement that trucks will someday drive themselves out of warehouses and cruise down freeways without the aid of humans or even a driver’s cab. The question is how soon that day will come. Billions of dollars and a growing parade of companies, from tiny start-ups to the country’s biggest trucking operations, are betting it will be here sooner than most people think. This year, companies and investors are on pace to invest just over $1 billion into self-driving and other trucking technologies, 10 times the level of three years ago, according to CB Insights, which tracks the venture capital industry. The recently unveiled Tesla-semi already has some self-driving capabilities, Daimler recently demonstrated an electric tractor-trailer and Embark, a Silicon Valley start-up, has been testing its self-driving technology as part of a three-way partnership with the truck-leasing company Ryder and the appliance giant Electrolux. “We are trying to get self-driving technology out on the road as fast as possible,” said Alex Rodrigues, Embark’s chief executive. Unlike autonomous cars, which face questions about navigating chaotic urban streets, trucks spend a lot of time heading straight on desolate highways. Additionally, while the advent of the self-driving car rests on the decisions of individual consumers, logistics companies are unemotional operators that will upgrade their fleets the moment it makes financial sense. The trucking industry is a fat target for automation. Autonomous technology will help trucking companies reduce labor costs in the long run, first by extending the number of hours trucks are in operation, and later, by reducing the number of drivers. The industry spends billions of dollars a year on accidents that are largely caused by human error, and billions more on insurance premiums that should go down if and when self-driving technology is proven to be safer than human drivers. The result is a furious race not just to develop self-driving trucks, but to get them on the road and making money.

While the concept of autonomous trucks appears to have many advantages for the trucking industry, companies have a lot to get through before they can start legally operating trucks without drivers. Beyond technical and regulatory hurdles, the industry is sure to be challenged by wild cards like how human drivers react to seeing an unmanned truck gliding down the highway and how regulators respond when the first deadly autonomous-trucking accident occurs. But whenever self-driving trucks arrive, there will be economic ripples, affecting insurance premiums, truck stops, vocational schools and the roads themselves. “This is the most powerful thing to hit us since the building of the superhighways in the 1950s,” said Noël Perry, an economist at FTR Research, which tracks the logistics industry.

Putting Things in Perspective: There is no doubt that the concept of electric, self-driving trucks is growing in popularity, continues to progress and is very likely the way of the future. The long-term advantages these trucks provide make a lot of sense. From an ecological standpoint they emit no exhaust and are less noisy. Additionally, these battery-powered, nearly self-driving vehicles are more efficient, less costly to maintain (they have no engine, transmission or drive shaft), and have better responsiveness, handling and acceleration than their diesel counterparts.

However, as promising as the future of electric trucks would appear to be, it may be some time before they overtake the conventional diesel powertrain due to several key factors. They are currently priced from $150,000 to $200,000 or more, significantly higher than the $120,000 price tag for a comparable diesel rig. In addition, depending on the particular model, the distance they can travel on a single charge is limited to a range of 300 to 500 miles. Until the network of charging stations is expanded, this range limitation can present a major challenge for those drivers with strict delivery deadlines, who find themselves searching for the next charging station. There is currently no highway charging network suitable for heavy-duty vehicles, and with diesel fuel as cheap as it is, there’s little incentive for operators to switch from conventional trucks. Also, although the battery life for electric trucks is significant, replacement battery packs can be costly. Finally, there is the question of consumer acceptance. People need to be convinced that change is a good thing. Nonetheless, manufacturers continue to work toward commercially viable electric trucks due to mounting pressure from governments to reduce pollutants from diesel fuel combustion and tackle greenhouse emissions. In that regard, and in what is a very competitive industry, no manufacturer wants to be left behind.

Courtesy of Irontrax LLC