Industry looks to ‘trucks of tomorrow’ to achieve emissions reductions, improve air quality

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 337 views 

Tesla recently announced it will start production of an electric big rig in 2019, but electricity isn’t the only fuel available in the trucking industry. Natural gas is available, and diesel remains the top fuel of choice with 97% of Class 8 trucks, or the big rigs that haul the trailers, running on it.

Tim Proctor, executive director of product management and market innovation for the engine business at Cummins, said the company develops products that are used in business and has to be a leader in innovation and deliver value. When one talks about being green, or environmentally-friendly, it has to have an economic benefit. Proctor was one of a few industry leaders who spoke in a recent Transport Topics webinar on “Powering the Trucks of Tomorrow.”

Businesses must not only meet greenhouse gas limits but also improve air quality. Proctor pointed to the natural gas products the company makes that are used in ports, which are struggling with air quality. Also, Cummins recently introduced an electric Class 7 big rig.

“We’ve been working with electric powertrains for over a decade,” Proctor said. “It’s more about having the right product for every customer.”

Mike Roeth, executive director for North American Council for Freight Efficiency, discussed the Run on Less program hosted in mid-September about drivers operating trucks more fuel efficiently. The drivers achieved 10.1 mpg, and Roeth said it was “most impressive” because they achieved the result during the hurricanes. Drivers were dropping off trailers and picking up less efficient ones. One driver drove into Hurricane Harvey, and a week later, was being pushed by Hurricane Irma. Drivers put in 99 driving days, and Roeth said the organization plans to look at the data by the hour.

“It all comes down to good, hard diligent work,” he said.

The focus is on total cost of ownership, and “engineers are always working.” The organization supports accelerating technology advancements.

In regard to autonomous technology and electrification, the common thread is the industry now believes they are possible, he said. The costs have fallen, and performance has risen. The myth has been busted an electric motor couldn’t haul an 80,000 pound truck.

Electric vehicles have taken center stage, where natural gas vehicles previously were. Dan Gage, president of NGVAmerica, said electric vehicles are an option for the industry, but they aren’t yet available.

“Natural gas provides a very real solution today.”

Gage explained the Volkswagen (VW) settlement provides $2.9 billion to states to reduce emissions, and “natural gas provides the biggest benefit.” The states will determine how to distribute the money, and they could allow for public private partnerships or a private company to apply for the money. States should focus the money on the biggest investment and the area that needs the most emissions reductions, Gage said.

Mike O’Connell, senior director of supply chain for Frito-Lay North America, said the company has a large-scale natural gas fleet in its Frito-Lay division.

“We can get the efficiencies in natural gas,” he said. But reducing greenhouse gas emissions isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. “We have a 60,000 vehicle fleet in North America,” O’Connell said.

The fleet consists of all weight classes with clean diesel trucks, alternate fuel trucks and electric vehicles. The company operates for-hire carriers for its inbound materials freight and its private fleet for outbound shipments.

“We started out in Class 6 full-electric trucks,” he said. “We are not weight constrained” with snack delivery. “We’ll continue to partner with all solutions.” The company started to invest into advanced technologies between 2007 and 2009, and 25% to 35% of its fleet used the technology. After establishing a natural gas facility, it allowed the company to adapt to more technologies. “Our people are highly engaged.”

The company’s drivers can impact efficiency between 15% and 25%, and it was important that its drivers drive efficiently, when it adapted to natural gas technology.

Lowell-based carrier J.B. Hunt Transport Services and Bentonville-based retailer Wal-Mart Stores have reserved the battery-powered Tesla Semi big rigs. Wal-Mart reserved 15 for use in Canada and the United States, while J.B. Hunt reserved multiple for its intermodal and dedicated segments on the West Coast.

Michael Baudendistel, analyst for Stifel, said the carrier “is risking very little by putting down a $5,000 deposit per unit to reserve a few trucks.” The initial reaction from large fleets “is more reflective of prudent due diligence (and PR efforts) than anything else.”

On Nov. 16, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced the Tesla Semi, with a 500 mile range, a two-year payback period and “thermonuclear explosion-proof glass.” The announcement led the stock of several truck equipment manufacturers to fall, but “the presentation raised more questions than it answered,” Baudendistel said. “While the truck was impressive in many ways, we’re not yet sure of the economic case for truckers.”

Tesla unveiled two Class 8 day cabs at the event, targeting local and regional freight hauling but not line haul; however, the company might introduce a sleeper model in the future. The truck could recharge at Megacharger stations, adding 400 miles in 30 minutes. It claims a cost of $1.26 per mile, compared to $1.51 per mile for a diesel truck, showing diesel is 20% more expensive to operate.

Some of the questions Baudendistel had about the truck included its price, weight, how total cost of ownership was determined, the buildout timeline for Megacharger stations and who will service the truck. According to equity analysts for Jefferies, the truck is estimated to cost at least $135,000 or 35% more than a diesel truck. The weight of the battery in the truck could be 10,000 pounds, according to Baudendistel.

“While there are significant weight offsets from removing a diesel engine (about 2,500 pounds), 240 gallons of fuel (about 1,700 pounds) and a transmission (about 900 pounds), especially, a battery pack of that size would almost certainly cut into the payload capacity of the truck.”

Tesla offers little information to support its claim that the truck would cost 20% less to operate than a diesel truck.

“Outside of vehicle price, our key questions here are around the assumptions for miles driven and the use case for the vehicle,” Baudendistel said. And, the buildout of the Megacharger stations might not be a significant issue with the use of daycab trucks, “as many of the buyers will want to charge the trucks overnight at their own facilities. But that will likely come at a higher cost than the $0.07 (per kilowatt-hour) the company assumes in its (total cost of ownership) calculation and is guaranteeing at Megacharger stations.”

Service on a truck can be one of the most expensive costs for equipment, and buyers for equipment manufacturers such as Freightliner, Volvo and International have in-house technicians who know how to work on diesel engines but not electric trucks. The manufacturers also have “robust dealer and service networks,” he said. “Tesla, of course, does not have a network built out for that purpose.”

Yet, if Musk’s claim holds true that the truck will last 1 million miles “guaranteed,” service wouldn’t be much of an issue. With the guarantee, “does that mean they are providing a warranty for 1 million miles? That really would be mind-blowing, if the answer is yes,” Baudendistel noted.