Mandatory electric truck and van law invites plenty of challenges

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Updated Sep 1, 2020
Mark Reuss, GM president, announces Detroit-Hamtramck will be GM
Mark Reuss, GM president, announces Detroit-Hamtramck will be GM’s first fully-dedicated, electric vehicle assembly plant, producing electric trucks, SUVs and the Cruise Origin.

A tried and true axiom comes to mind when considering California’s now-codified plan to phase out tried and true powertrains: don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.

In this case, the Golden State is banking on zero emission vehicles to seriously reduce air pollution.

In what the California Air Resources Board is calling the first rule of its kind in the world, starting in 2024, OEMs must begin transitioning to zero emission truck and van sales in the Golden State. That’s it. Four years.

By 2045, all new trucks and vans sold there will have to be zero emission. Currently, the only two technologies that can rise to that occasion in Class 8 are prototypes. Seen any on I-10, delivering 80,000-lb. loads recently? Neither have I.

“California is an innovation juggernaut that is going electric,” said Jared Blumenfeld, California’s Secretary for Environmental Protection. “We are showing the world that we can move goods, grow our economy and finally dump dirty diesel.”

Dump dirty diesel? Blumenfeld’s zealous shout-out for electric powertrain technology excludes important advancements in the critical field of internal combustion. The state is going electric, Blumenfeld said.

Right under his nose, companies have been hard at work reducing emissions in diesel, gasoline and gaseous-fueled engines. Near-zero emissions for internal combustion engines have arrived. And who knows? Perhaps engineers are capable of dialing that back further to zero. I certainly wouldn’t count them out, but Blumenfeld and so many other transportation leaders in California are appearing to do just that.

What we’re not hearing much about are the serious blemishes of current zero-emission technologies. Once these toxic batteries hit 80% degradation and are further zapped in a repurposed mode, i.e., living out their last days as a stationary or mobile power source, far too much of their poisonous ingredients will become environmental hot potatoes that have to be carefully stored to avoid contamination and calamitous headlines.

“Right now, they’re smelting these batteries and they’re getting out anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of the cobalt and the rest results in slag—a highly toxic output that is not very usable,” George Miller, electric truck senior sales manager for national fleets at BYD, said at the 2018 Advanced Clean Transportation Expo in Long Beach, Calif.

It’s not only the highly toxic slag that’s a concern, it’s the power sources used to power EVs. Even California, clean as it strives to be—at least in terms of emissions—does not have absolute clean energy going to all of its chargers. You mean dirty coal?! Gasp! For that matter, clean coal and natural gas power plants have greatly reduced power plant emissions. Zero emission power sources stem from solar, wind, hydro and nuclear. So, the logic here is that emissions are okay so long as they’re being used to charge EVs.

On that note, I can’t help but shake my head at the irony and hypocrisy of EV owners scrambling in the wake of power outages to buy and eagerly fire-up petro-fueled generators to breathe back life in their dead batteries. That’s just on the consumer front. What about commercial vehicles?

When the lights go out, whether owed to natural disaster, accidents, wildfire mitigation efforts, devious hacker, etc., where does that leave that load of milk headed to the grocery store? Reefer trucks use energy not only to propel the truck, but also to keep its load vitally cooled. You can’t just hustle up a generator from Home Depot to fast-charge an electric truck.

I suppose reefer trucks and others will have to be rerouted to account for such challenges. But if the power’s down day after day, as is often the case here in Florida following major storms, commerce will literally have a tough time rolling on if it’s depending largely on EVs to get the job done.

The other issue is the current nature of power distribution. It’s not like you have plenty of choices when it comes to powering EVs. There’s usually one utility in town. That’s it. I’ve never been comfortable with singular sources of anything. Power concentrated in the hands of the few? I’d rather not, please. Still, most of us have accepted that as part of doing business when it comes to powering our homes and businesses. But now our personal vehicles? And eventually commercial trucks that supply us with vital foods, medicines and Bernie Sanders posters? Nooooooooo! If it takes dirty diesel to deliver Bernie, then by golly, exceptions must be made!

You can turn to on-site solutions to a certain degree. I’m thinking of repurposed EV batteries used in charging systems that are powered by solar or wind. However, these are not exactly fast-charging solutions. And any fleet of substantial size would have to have super-sized and super costly systems taking over tremendous amounts of space given the current limitations of these technologies.

So most fleets will be relying on a local utility to get charging done. One source. Again, if a power outage is experienced for any reason, I can’t say I’ll have much sympathy for the first fleet that’s left grounded much like the EV owners here following major storms. Plan B for charging isn’t very encouraging. Unlike relying on your mobile hotspot when your normal WiFi crashes, backup charging infrastructure for EVs need an awful lot of work and, at least as it stands now, requires an awful lot of capital. Wildfire mitigation power outages in California left a lot of EV owners waiting in long charging lines and scrambling to buy generators. Now, add scores of electric trucks and vans to that scene.

But rest easy. There’s been growing calls for government entities to own power plants, particularly in California. And if the government has more power and has its hand on the switch that powers fleets and personal EVs alike, that’ll be a good thing, right?

EVs offer impressive performance characteristics like monstrous torque and exceptionally low maintenance. They’ve made great strides in range too. But commercial segments are much more demanding and much more critical in keeping life up and running across the globe. To limit transportation solely to electric solutions is too risky and undercuts diverse technologies needed in response to diverse conditions that can quickly change whether we like it or not.