At a time when California is proposing a ban on gas cars by 2040 and over 50% of new car registrations in Norway are PHEVs of some sort, it seems we can say for sure that the electric car era is here to stay. But what’s happening in the electric transportation sector beyond cars?

Transportation of goods, which includes freight, trains, ships, barges, and airplanes, accounts for around thirty percent of all heat-trapping gas emissions. The medium and heavy duty vehicle (MHDV) segment represents only a small percentage of the world’s total vehicle population, yet it comprise a large portion of the total fuel and energy consumed in the road transportation sector. Heavy-duty on-road vehicles amount to 70% of all freight transport and 20% of transportation-sector greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the US. “In Europe, less than 5% of vehicles are commercial vehicles or heavy duty trucks, but they contribute to almost 20% of greenhouse gas emissions,” says Ananth Srinivasan, mobility expert with research consultancy Frost & Sullivan.

electric transportation

Because of the relatively low average fuel economy and high annual mileage typical of MHDVs, fleet operators are beginning to consider investments in alternative directions. Electric short- and long-haul trucks have lots of financial appeal for professional managers: they are forecast to cost less in the long term than conventional fleets.

As battery costs fall and more options enter the market, global sales of all-electric trucks are expected to grow exponentially, from 4,100 in 2016 to 70,600 in 2026. “New and established suppliers are starting to offer alternative powertrains as well as complete electric vehicles for niche applications,” says David Alexander, senior research analyst with Navigant Research. “Limited daily range and a drive cycle featuring a lot of stopping and starting are applications that benefit most from electric drive capabilities, and delivery and refuse collection vehicles are expected to be the primary targets in the short term.”

Delivery companies, mail services, and utilities will be among the biggest purchasers, and most of the growth will come from Europe, China, and the US. The majority of electric trucks on the road will be medium-duty vehicles. They’re quiet and emission-free, and they can be plugged in and charged at the end of a shift. They’re ideal for predictable urban routes of 100 miles or less; a longer range requires more batteries, which are heavy and expensive, at least right now until more R&D is completed.

What does electric trucking look like in actual practice?

electric transportationUnited Parcel Service has 300 electric trucks in its global fleet of 100,000 vehicles, mostly in the U.S. and Europe, said Scott Phillippi, UPS’s Senior Director of Maintenance and Engineering for international operations. With help from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), UPS is planning to convert many of its diesel-powered delivery vans (UPS calls them “package cars”) into battery electric trucks beginning as soon as next spring

UPS made the news recently when it ordered 125 Tesla Semis, which was the single largest order Tesla has received to date for the anticipated $200,000 per unit vehicle.

As we in the frigid northeast US know all too keenly this week, Arctic temperatures can make road surfaces treacherous. Someday, a Tesla Semi may find itself on an icy road incline and be able to take advantage of traction control and torque vectoring in a way that no current truck can do. Perhaps UPS sees its winter deliveries made a bit less tricky with a Tesla Semi branded with the company logo. That’s a significant perk to the electric transportation industry and part of a larger and very appealing electric transportation picture.

Delivery & Freight Vehicles Part of the Larger Electric Transportation Revolution In China

electric transportationIn China, a large shift in medium- and short-range logistics vehicles is  happening. The Action Plan for Promoting the Healthy and Stable Development of Road Freight Transport Industry (2017–2020) has been designed to help companies gain easy access to “new energy” delivery vehicles, organize pilot projects, and promote electrification of urban freight vehicles. Vice Minister of the Ministry of Industry and Trade Xin Guobin said, “China has started the stopping of sale of fossil fuelled trucks.” This action plan ensures that the industry takes the mandate to develop the next generation of new energy vehicles seriously.

So the production of electric freight vehicles is underway in China. Local governments have started to reduce restrictions on rights to city access for new energy vehicles, which is one mechanism that encourages freight companies to shift to electric freight vehicles.

Many electric transportation updates are flowing out of China these days. The first batch of 438 pure electric vehicles will be launched in Huangpu District and Guangzhou Development Zone, with the area’s new intelligent bus shelter to be unveiled at the same time. 272 electric city buses made by CRRC were added to the existing fleet in Shaoyang, which now numbers over 400. Statistics show that each CRRC electric city bus helps the company cut its fuel costs by 68% and maintenance costs by 50%. A cooperation between the National Intelligent Transport Systems Center of Engineering and Technology and Shenzhen Bus Group has produced 4 self-driving buses, which began trial operations in south China’s Shenzhen, a city known for its high concentration of hi-tech companies.

The 2018 First China New Energy Vehicle Industry Forum will take place in late January, 2018 in Chengdu, if you can make it. Topics will include the technical threshold for subsidies beginning in 2018, promulgating a  double point system, formulating a new exit policy for fuel trucks, bus cost reduction, charging stations and charging facilities construction, and operation of the technology, among others.

Electric Transportation of Goods Will Come, But All Good Things Take Time

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Graphic courtesy Science Direct

Of course, the evolution from current fossil fuel-powered commercial truck transportation will be incremental. In a recent study, 7 trucks were measured on-road including diesel, hybrid diesel, and natural gas for their carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions. Mack diesel electric truck via Trucks.comN2O was ten times higher for diesel trucks with selective catalytic reduction. CO2 equivalent (CO2-eq), which considers relative warming potentials of all three gases, was lower for selected routes only for natural gas and hybrid diesel vehicles. Real-time emissions were a decreasing function of vehicle speed and increased sharply for road grades above 5%. Trip-average emissions also decreased at increased average speeds.

“I see it being relevant but not ready for prime time,” Chanje CEO Bryan Hansel said of long-haul electric trucks. He thinks it will be five years or more before the battery technology and infrastructure can support cross-country electric trucking. “It’s a big prize, but the physics haven’t caught up yet,” he said.

A Shared Economy within the Electric Transportation Trucking Industry?

A future is within our grasp in which a clean disruption of energy and transportation will invert the dominance of fossil fuels and create an architecture where cheap, participatory energy is abundant. As we consider the effects of transitioning heavy- and light-duty truck transportation to EVs, we may be overlooking a series of possibilities. The shared economy may be able to significantly contribute to lessened transportation GHG emissions.

What would happen if regional carriers leveraged assets and coordinated with other electric carriers outside their normal range with technology-enabled capabilities? Redefining marketplaces for all-electric long-haul trucking with logistics management software could be used to leverage additional truck capacity. If carriers could negotiate handoffs between carriers at intermediate way points, such as warehouses, a network using a point-to-point delivery model could emerge.  And the time is coming where crowdsourcing the last-mile phase of the supply chain will become that norm rather than the exception (thanks, Amazon).

Conversion to electric trucking makes sense as part of the sharing economy and for so many other reasons. Soon, electric trucking propulsion systems will provide more miles per battery charge, reduced charging times, and up to 20% greater efficiency. And that moment in time will contribute crucially to fewer GHG emissions.

Photo by marcoverch on / CC BY

Photo by trioptikmal on / CC BY