Beefing up electric powertrains slowly, but surely

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Updated Jun 29, 2017
Trevor Milton, founder of Nikola Motor Company, unveiled the Nikola One last December at company headquarters in Salt Lake City.Trevor Milton, founder of Nikola Motor Company, unveiled the Nikola One last December at company headquarters in Salt Lake City.

There’s been a lot of news lately about electric powertrains coming from some very big names in the commercial vehicle business.

Perhaps the biggest headline of all was Cummins’ recent announcement concerning its plans to produce an all-electric powertrain for a delivery vehicle by 2019.  When Cummins—the world’s largest manufacturer of diesel engines—gets on board for an all-electric powertrain, it certainly gets your attention.

Another auto industry giant, Ford, has paired up with DHL Group subsidiary Deutsche Post in Europe to build an all-electric delivery vehicle on the Transit chassis.

Keep in mind that Ford announced in March that it’s investing $4.5 billion in 13 new electrified vehicles in the next five years, including a fully electric small SUV, a high-volume autonomous vehicle, a hybrid F-150, a hybrid Mustang, a Transit Custom plug-in hybrid and two new pursuit-rated hybrid police vehicles.

Ford also announced its eQVM program with two electric powertrain developers, XL Hybrids and Motiv Power Systems. (Lightning Hybrids, which produces hydraulic hybrid upfits, was also named as a Ford eQVM partner).


Ryder and Workhorse announced a 10-year partnership.Ryder and Workhorse announced a 10-year partnership.

More industry muscle showed up to the table when Ryder announced last month that it would sell and service Workhorse’s medium and light-duty electric vehicles, including its new W15 electric pickup. This follows the company’s commitment in December to distribute and service the Nikola One hydrogen fuel cell electric tractor-trailer.

On the light-duty front, Torque Trends out of Surprise, Az. and Canada-based Ecotuned both offer an electric powertrain for Ford’s F-150.

More recently, Motiv announced that the nation’s second all-electric refuse truck will be heading to Sacramento, California. The country’s first electric trash truck, built by Motiv and Loadmaster, went to Chicago in 2014.

Another all-electric refuse truck was unveiled by Peterbilt and TransPower last month at Waste Expo. Transpower reported that three model 520s will be in service at the end of 2017.

“Peterbilt is working closely with its partners to explore the capabilities and performance of battery-electric drive systems,” Scott Newhouse, Peterbilt Chief Engineer, said in a TransPower press release. “Customers in urban environments and applications such as drayage and refuse collection stand to benefit from the zero-emissions performance of these advanced vehicles.”

TransPower slide from ACT Expo last month in Long Beach, Calif.TransPower slide from ACT Expo last month in Long Beach, Calif.

The Peterbilt Model 520 is equipped with the TransPower ElecTruckTM drive system, which has accumulated over 80,000 miles of Class 8 heavy duty use in a variety of commercial applications since 2013. The ElecTruck system uses high-power electric motors, inverters and batteries to power commercial trucks weighing as much as 80,000 lbs.

At ACT Expo last month in Long Beach, Calif., Dean Taylor, senior scientist at Southern California Edison, explained during the State of Battery Technology session that battery costs for electric vehicles are continuing to drop.

“This is hugely encouraging. This is much lower, much faster…every single study out there was not predicting that batteries would come down this fast,” he said.

Though Taylor said to exercise caution when examining studies that predict future costs for electrical vehicle cost operation, he was still very optimistic.

“Some are saying that by 2020 that you’re going to get down to $200 per kilowatt hour. By 2030 it’s $120 per kilowatt hour,” he said.

But cost is still a factor. Motiv CEO and founder Jim Castelaz told Hard Working Trucks that an all-electric refuse truck costs about two to two-and-half-times more than its diesel counterpart.

The nation’s first refuse truck, shown above, was put into service in Chicago in 2014.The nation’s first refuse truck, shown above, was put into service in Chicago in 2014.

However, maintenance and energy costs are much lower with an electric vehicle, Castelaz pointed out. The electric trash truck in Chicago can get by on roughly $7 worth of electricity per day versus $70 a day with diesel. Plus, there are large savings in maintenance costs—no need for oil changes or servicing emissions components.

So, the ROI eventually arrives—or at least it can, depending on the application. Electric trucks are still limited by range and load capacity. HWT talked with Athens Services fleet director Marty Mitchell at ACT Expo who explained that while he supports electric powertrains, his company’s refuse trucks are up against longer and more demanding routes that would leave electric trucks far, far behind.

“Every one of our trucks, except for roll-off, has a fairly large hydraulic horsepower demand. And you couple that with the weight that it has to carry and the operating hours that it needs to function, it can be really problematic,” said Mitchell, a panelist at ACT’s Game Changer Summit.

“We might run 240, 250 miles (a day) in 12 hours. So an electric vehicle, if it can’t get there, it’s just not viable.”

While Mitchell said that Athens has smaller operations that may prove more compatible with all-electric vehicles, the bulk of its business cannot depend on the technology.

“It just doesn’t pencil out. The transit guys…if they could do it, we can do it. If they adopt it and that technology is there and they can run the hours and miles that they’re running and they can do it with a 100-bus fleet, I don’t see anything that could keep us from looking that way. But they’re not doing that yet. They’re sort of the first, then the refuse guys come along later, then trucking comes well along after that.”

When it comes to all electric powertrains for larger class vehicles, Tesla may hold the key. Perhaps they’ve landed on some breakthrough battery tech that will solve the problems of weight and range. But they’re not saying much—at least not until they reveal their electric semi in September.

“I just really recommend showing up for the semi truck’s unveiling,” Musk said at a Tesla shareholders meeting this month. “Maybe there’s a little more than what we’re saying here.”

I sure hope so. Electric powertrain companies really need a super truck right about now to give them some serious capability and credibility. And maybe they’ve found it in the Nikola One. Don’t forget, as Commercial Carrier Journal reported in December, this 1,000-hp, zero-emission hydrogen hybrid has a range of 1,200 miles. For anyone’s that’s ever driven on I-10 across Texas, that kind of range will get you across the Lone Star State and then some all the while leaving nothing but water vapor behind. How amazing is that?

Unless Tesla’s sitting on an ace or two, as the current technology stands, a trip across Texas would mean making several stops for battery swaps along the way.

With that in mind, shorter hauls, such as drayage runs, make much more sense for an all-electric tractor-trailer.

Still, what an exciting time for electric powertrain development. In time, the technology will undoubtedly earn its way into a hard working, hyper competitive market where every nut and bolt and every mile counts.