Is Electrification Viable for Large Commercial Vehicles?

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daimler electric commercial vehicle bev
Whether BEV technology can prove truly viable for larger trucks hinges on a number of factors. PHOTO Daimler

Research shows that BEV technology can be applied to larger commercial vehicles, but significant challenges remain.

While there’s been a huge amount of buzz over the last few years regarding the electrification of light-duty vehicles, when it comes to larger and heavier commercial vehicles, such as delivery and long-haul trucks, the stakes are different.

A report by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in June, looked at the potential for battery electric vehicle applications in heavier-duty trucks.

The issue of reducing both emissions and fuel costs is an important one for many commercial fleets, especially since, according to NREL around 15% of total transportation energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. is attributed to trucks with a gross vehicle weight (GVW) of more than 26,000 lbs.

Size, weight, energy

The problem is that the size and weight, particularly of large tractor-trailers, makes it very difficult at present to utilize battery-electric technology for propulsion, due to the energy required to move these vehicles and the operating range typical of long-distance trucks.

According to NREL, there is one area of the commercial delivery vehicle segment where BEV technology might just be feasible—short-haul deliveries.

According to data gathered by the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 80% of large trucks operate within a radius of 200 miles (~322 km).

Under this type of scenario, battery range ceases to be a significant barrier to the adoption of battery-electric technology, though other concerns including the size and weight of the battery system still present some challenges.

A big motivator for many fleets involved in the delivery business is the need to reduce operating costs.

A report from BloombergNEF stated that fuel costs currently account for around half of the total cost of ownership when it comes to larger trucks. Therefore, any reduction in fuel expenditure will likely be very welcome.

Logical step

The question then becomes, does BEV technology present a truly viable solution?

In theory, zero on-road emissions, combined with reduced maintenance (due to the absence of an internal combustion engine and conventional transmission) would seem a logical step, but there are other factors to consider.

Currently, governments generate a sizeable amount of revenue via levies paid on fuel at the pump, therefore it is likely that at some juncture, electricity usage will be taxed—the question is by how much and when such measures are likely to be implemented.

There’s also the question of charging infrastructure. NREL’s Fleet DNA clearinghouse has looked to leverage real-world operating data, by simulating fleet charging at different depots.

To present a realistic scenario, NREL’s research looked at different charging scenarios, including so-called “smart” charging where electric trucks are parked at the depot to take advantage of slower charging times and thereby reducing energy demand on the grid.

Working with two utilities—Southern Company and Texas-based Oncor Electric Delivery Company—NREL conducted a study covering 36 different substations. This research was able to summarize both costs and timelines needed for grid upgrades.

Without upgrades

Based on the study findings, it was revealed that 80% of substations studied could supply the time-varying loads of 100 trucks charged at 100 kW/vehicle without any need for upgrades, and an additional 10% of substations could avoid upgrades if fleets used “smart” charging principles.

Nevertheless, if commercial fleets that operate medium and heavy-duty trucks do see a ramp-up in battery-electric powertrains, ensuring there is adequate infrastructure support when it comes to EV charging, will become increasingly critical in the next few years, especially if the industry is to avoid disruptions and overtaxing the electrical grid.

To help provide a broader understanding of what’s required and how it will work, Autosphere.ca will be bringing you an exclusive interview on the subject, so stay tuned for more developments.

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