The coming year could be a big one for electric vehicles, what with more than a dozen new battery-powered sedans, sports cars, SUVs and pickups coming to market. Add to the list a growing number of delivery vans, semis and even garbage trucks.
In Brooklyn, the New York Department of Sanitation has been testing all-electric garbage trucks produced by Mack Trucks, and startup Nikola Motors has received an order for 2,500 electric garbage trucks from Republic Services, one of the nation’s largest sanitation services. Amazon, meanwhile, recently received the first running prototype for what will be 100,000 all-electric delivery vans it plans to put into service.
The electrification of “the medium- and heavy-duty truck market is growing rapidly” and, if anything, could outpace the growth of the retail side during the rest of the decade, according to Rachel Moses, director of commercial services for charging company Electrify America. “I think we’re at the precipice,” she said during an interview with TheDetroitBureau.com.
Originally envisioned as an operator of public charging stations across the U.S., Electrify America late last month announced it is entering the commercial sector and will help fleet operators set up charging facilities for their own EV fleets.
Until recently, that market seemed unlikely to amount to much, commercial operators reluctant to embrace electrification unless there was some sort of public relations value to fielding a test vehicle or two. But experts say things have turned upside down.
Amazon’s big order for electric delivery vans from Detroit-based Rivian clearly drew a lot of attention, but it’s far from the only company making major purchases or laying out big plans for the near future. And that has sent a message to truck manufacturers, both new entries like Rivian and Nikola, as well as established companies such as Mack, Volvo and Freightliner.
It’s difficult to find any commercial vehicle manufacturer not working up some sort of zero-emissions technology, whether using hybrid, all-electric or hydrogen power. In fact, Tesla, Hyundai and Toyota have all announced plans to enter the semi-truck market. But while Tesla’s Semi will use a massive lithium-ion battery pack, Nikola, as well as the two Asian companies are opting for fuel-cell technology, instead.
A pilot version of Toyota’s own semi helped mark the opening of a new bridge simplifying truck access to the busy Port of Long Beach last month, part of a procession of 30 alternative-power vehicles. Toyota also announced last month that it will partner with established truckmaker Paccar to develop a production fuel-cell truck.
Why the sudden shift? Several factors have come into play. That includes tough new emissions and energy efficiency mandates both in the U.S. and abroad. Earlier this year, California announced first-of-a-kind guidelines covering a broad range of truck segments. Phasing in from 2024 through 2035, fully 100% of government fleets and last-mile delivery trucks would have to use zero-emissions powertrain technology, along with 75% of other delivery trucks and vans.
Officials in 15 states, as well as the District of Columbia, have since agreed to adopt the California plan. “Now is the time to act,” said Ned Lamont, the governor of Connecticut, one of the states signing on to the agreement. A group statement noted the trucking industry is reaching “an important transition point” as more and more clean alternatives come to market.
Where such rules might have received significant pushback in years past, the trucking industry has been far more receptive than many observers had expected. And that, according to Alf Poor, the CEO of EV consulting firm Ideanonmics, reflects the most significant driving factor favoring the shift to zero-emissions power. “It just makes sense because there’s almost an immediate return on investment.”
What matters most to fleet operators is a vehicle’s day-to-day operating costs, said Poor, and they’ve discovered that, on a per-mile basis, EVs have a significant advantage, especially as the cost of batteries keeps tumbling. Energy costs are a significant advantage, especially for fleets operating depots where they can charge up at off-peak hours and negotiate lower rates with local utilities, said Electrify America’s Moses.
There are still plenty of challenges, especially for long-haul truckers. Batteries still can’t deliver the range of a diesel drivetrain and there’s the challenge of finding charging stations. Tesla hopes to address that by setting up separate fast chargers for trucks at its Supercharger facilities. Some experts believe battery swapping could solve that issue even more effectively.
Proponents contend hydrogen power will better serve long-range trucks since it can nearly match the range of a diesel. But there are even fewer places to tank up today – something Nikola says it aims to address by setting up its own hydrogen distribution network.
“Fleet operators see the writing on the wall,” and whether due to tough new regulations or lower operating costs, said Electrify America’s Moses, they know they are going to need to switch from gas and diesel to battery and hydrogen alternatives.