After 16 months of lockdown on business travel, I have been traveling a good part of the last six weeks. At both the ACT (Advanced Clean Transportation) Expo and ATA’s Technology & Maintenance Council (TMC) fall meeting, battery electric vehicles (BEV) and, to a lesser degree, hydrogen-powered vehicles, were the focus of a lot of presentations and panel discussions. At the ACT Expo, the entire focus was on the status and outlook of green technologies.
I went to my first ACT Expo about eight or 10 years ago and most of the discussions revolved around natural gas (CNG and LNG), with little mention of battery electric or hydrogen power. That has certainly changed at both the ACT Expo I went to three years ago and this year. Battery electric, hydrogen and hybrids now dominate the discussion. In addition to people discussing their vehicles that employ these technologies, there are a whole host of other companies involved with infrastructure, including power companies, charging station providers, truck stops and other related technology providers.
A lot of issues remain. The technologies are advancing, but there are still many of the same hurdles to make these technologies viable for a lot of applications. One constant hurdle is the price of alternative-powered vehicles compared to internal combustion vehicles. While more fleets are investigating these technologies, the long-term question remains: Will fleets buy if they do not get financial incentives to purchase?
More volume production should lower prices and, for some companies, a strict comparison of pricing (purchase price, operating cost, resale price, etc.) is not the only consideration. If the owner of a company truly believes this technology is the right decision for the environment, or if a company believes it is going to help keep or attract new customers by using green technology, the math can be adjusted.
There are a lot of bold goals by vehicle manufacturers, fleets and governments on the percent of green vehicles they are going to sell, buy and mandate in the not-too-distant future. While pricing and technology are potential roadblocks to these goals, I think infrastructure may be the biggest challenge (which is easy for me to say as this was repeated by many more knowledgeable people than me at these meetings). It was also the biggest challenge discussed years ago about LNG.
Looking at just BEV, there is the chicken and egg discussion on what comes first — enough vehicles to justify charging stations or charging stations to justify fleets buying the vehicles.
The ACT Expo is held in California. While there, I saw TV commercials on how to moderate my use of electricity to help save stress on the power grid, which would seem to conflict with adding large numbers of BEV vehicles. Maybe nuclear power should be reconsidered — just a thought.
There is also the hurdle of state, county and local governments’ inexperience in allowing, permitting, directing and specifying what can and can’t be done in building charging stations. This will change over time and there are markets that are leading in this area.
There are certainly a lot of challenges and some different opinions on how to address the challenges. What has impressed me the most to date are the large financial commitments by companies to these technologies, and similar commitments of private equity and investment banks to this sector. This large number of smart people involved doesn’t guarantee a positive outcome but should improve the odds of success.
John Blodgett is vice president of sales and marketing at MacKay & Company, a marketing research and management consulting firm for the commercial trucking, construction and agricultural equipment industries.