Traditional truck makers focus on short-haul for electric vehicles

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Kenworth is working toward testing two zero-emission T680 daycabs in port operations in Southern California with hydrogen fuel cell power designed by Ballard Power Systems of British Columbia.Kenworth is working toward testing two zero-emission T680 daycabs in port operations in Southern California with hydrogen fuel cell power designed by Ballard Power Systems of British Columbia.

As battery and fuel cell technologies advance, so too do the prospects for electric rigs in the industry, says Mike Roeth, director of the North American Council on Freight Efficiency. “The cost of batteries is coming down, the weights are coming down, and the performance is going up,” he says. “It’s better than a lot of us thought just a few years ago.”

Roeth says the technology may be more suitable to regional and short-haul segments, given the lack of fueling infrastructure. Even with strategically placed fueling and charging stations, trucking’s lack of predictable routes, even in the contract freight market, challenges alternative fuel newcomers, he says. Substantive change “is decades away, not years,” he says.

“Whether it’s natural gas, electric or hydrogen fuel cells, sleeper trucks run so many disparate routes, new fueling technologies seem to fit better for dedicated daycab operations,” Roeth says.

Major truck and engine makers themselves have invested in the development of electric- and more conventional hybrid-electric-drive vehicles, but they see the most short-term promise in shorter-run applications, such as the port drayage hauls where Toyota is testing its prototype.

Cummins announced last month it will introduce a fully electrified powertrain for the urban transportation market by 2019 and a range-extended electrified powertrain by 2020.

“Longer term, electrification will come to all of our markets,” said Julie Furber, executive director of Cummins’ Electrification Business Development. “We are looking into mild hybridization to gain efficiency, but fully electrified powertrains for long-haul vehicles is a ways out into the future.”

Kenworth has been working on a prototype hydrogen fuel cell/battery-powered T680 for drayage hauls in Southern California, thanks in part to a $9 million government grant award late last year.

With fuel cells provided by Ballard Power Systems of Burnaby, British Columbia, the T680 will be designed to provide true zero-emissions operation. The daycab uses lithium-ion batteries to power a dual-rotor electric motor, driving the rear tandem axle through a 4-speed automated transmission. The batteries are recharged by the fuel cell.

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Kenworth expects its hydrogen truck to be ready for testing late this year.

“Peterbilt sees considerable market interest in zero-emissions vehicles in California, as well as in the rest of the country,” says Bill Kahn, Peterbilt principal engineer. “Peterbilt and strategic partners are investigating all-electric powertrains for … port drayage and urban refuse.”

Given the continuing advancements in diesel emissions, Kahn sees long-haul customers benefiting most likely not from a zero-emissions unit but from a “parallel-hybrid configuration, which uses a smaller motor generator and battery pack” to power the vehicle up to 5 percent of the time “with traffic stop-start and silent last-mile delivery” when there’s potentially no need for the diesel engine.

Mack Trucks is “evaluating electrified solutions” in powertrain technology, says Roy Horton, company product strategy director. Those include “our work with Wrightspeed on an extended-range electric refuse-collection truck, as well as a plug-in hybrid-electric drayage truck that is operating at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.”

The Wrightspeed Powertrains’ Route powertrain outfits a refuse or other truck with regenerative braking and a fuel-agnostic generator to charge onboard batteries that power the vehicle. The company’s patented Geared Traction Drive digitally drives each rear wheel. Mack has showcased the technology in cabover garbage trucks.

Daimler Trucks North America conducts “research on electric powertrains and technology monitoring of hydrogen fuel cells at development centers in Europe and Asia,” says Derek Rotz, director of advanced engineering. Rotz says the greatest market opportunity exists in “short-range stop-and-go with access to charging infrastructure” for battery-powered systems, similar to what Tesla seems to be planning.

“We are well positioned with our technologies because we are testing in a number of markets across light-duty applications,” he says.

Volvo and Navistar representatives did not respond in time for this story. –Max Heine and Jeff Crissey contributed reporting to this story.