Clean air moves boost interest in electric trucks

Advances in battery technologies contribute to the growth of commercial electrical vehicles

The electrification of commercial vans and trucks is being driven by a combination of technological advances in passenger electric vehicles and moves by governments and cities around the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by banning older diesel vehicles regarded as sources of pollution.

Daimler FUSO eCanter all-electric light-duty truck
Daimler FUSO eCanter all-electric light-duty truck addresses noise and pollution problems in urban environments (Photo: Daimler AG)

More than 300 million electric vehicles (EVs) will be in use around the world soon after 2040, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Improved battery technologies have reduced the cost and extended the operational range of passenger EVs.

These advances, along with official moves to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by creating ‘no-go’ zones for older diesel vehicles in cities in Europe, the US and China, are promoting the electrification of commercial vehicles, from light delivery vans to buses and heavy‑duty freight trucks.

The greater use of electric trucks would help reduce the estimated 40% of road transport emissions produced by freight, a sector that is still expanding in many markets, according to the New Scientist. However, the lack of widespread recharging infrastructure and concerns over battery life, especially for long-distance trucks, could hold back growth in the next decade.

Several IEC technical committees (TCs) and subcommittees (SCs) draw up International Standards for a wide range of components used in electric trucks, including batteries and motors as well as electronic navigation, vehicle safety and driver assistance systems, such as collision mitigation technology and lane departure warning systems.

IEC TC 69: Electric road vehicles and electric industrial trucks, prepares Standards for motors and motor controllers, on‑board electrical energy storage systems, power supplies and chargers.

China drives commercial EV growth

As more electrically‑powered buses, vans and light delivery vehicles take to the world’s roads, established vehicle manufacturers as well as new start‑ups are gearing up to produce medium‑ and heavy‑duty electric trucks too. Growth in the electric bus sector is likely to reduce the cost of key components for electric trucks.

China, which is forecast to become the largest market for all types of electrified trucks, is driving growth in the global commercial EV sector. Most buses in China are now electric, and there are plans for the country to have 4.5 million EV fast‑charging stations in operation by 2020. The Chinese company BYD, the world’s leading manufacturer of electric buses, is increasing production of electric trucks both for export and domestic sale.

In 2017 Daimler, the world’s biggest commercial vehicle manufacturer, began delivering what it described as “the first series‑produced all‑electric light‑duty truck” to customers in the US and Japan. The vehicle, known as the eCanter, has a permanent synchronous electric motor with an output of 185 kW and torque of 380 Nm. It is powered by lithium‑ion battery packs and can travel up to 120 km before recharging, depending on the body, load and usage, according to Daimler.

Although Daimler is also developing “an all‑electric heavy‑duty truck concept” with a range of up to 350 km on a single charge and capable of carrying a payload of 11 tons, the company noted in October 2017 that “the electrification of long-haul trucks will still need considerable time”.

Major European manufacturers including Scania and MAN (both part of Volkswagen’s truck division) and Volvo Group (owner of the Renault and Mack truck businesses) all aim to have heavy‑duty electric trucks on sale within the next two years. They face competing against smaller companies in Europe, the US and China, which have launched light electric trucks in local markets, as well as new entrants including US electric car specialist Tesla. Other players, among them Toyota and the US‑based Nikola Motor Company, are focusing on hydrogen/electric heavy trucks.

Smaller plug‑in electric vans used for shorter urban journeys and local deliveries have proved particularly popular in the European market. In this category, manufacturers including Citroen, Peugeot, Renault and Nissan offer models powered by lithium‑ion battery packs in the 20‑50 kWh range, which can be recharged at central depots. But when it comes to smaller inner‑city deliveries, light electric vans face competition from electric scooters, three‑wheelers and small autonomous vehicles. 

Battery, fuel cell or catenary wire

Electric motors can be mounted either in a drivetrain before the transmission to provide energy to the driveshaft and then to the axles, or installed directly in the wheels of a truck or trailer. According to the IEA 2017 report on
The Future of Trucks, electric trucks can reach powertrain-to-wheel efficiencies of as high as 85%, about three times greater than trucks powered by internal combustion engines. Electric drivetrains are also lighter and cheaper than conventional drivetrains.

Currently the three main types of all‑electric propulsion options for long‑range trucks are batteries, hydrogen fuel cells and overhead catenary systems.

IEC TC 21: Secondary cells and batteries, and its SCs prepare Standards for all secondary cells and batteries. This covers the performance, dimensions, safety installation principles and labelling of batteries used for the propulsion of electric road vehicles.

The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) commented in a November 2017 report that “for long‑haul applications specifically, one of our key conclusions was that there is no clear winner among the three options; each has both barriers and benefits.”

Battery prices fall

Costs of lithium‑ion battery packs have dropped in recent years and are projected to fall further as a result of economies of scale, improvements to battery design and production methods and competition among suppliers.

Research firm Frost & Sullivan reported in December 2017 that battery prices had decreased by about 50% since 2010 and were expected to halve again in the next four to six years. A key driver for cost‑effectiveness would be battery pack costs dropping below USD 150 per kWh, the ICCT believes. However, disruptions to the supplies of the raw materials needed to increase production of lithium‑ion batteries could overturn these forecasts.

Hydrogen fuel cells are another option, particularly for long‑haul electric trucks, although the hydrogen fuel cell market is still in its infancy. Fuel cell electric vehicles are powered by pressurizing hydrogen with oxygen, creating a chemical reaction that generates electricity to power the vehicle. They offer longer ranges with shorter refuelling times, compared to battery‑EV recharging.

IEC TC 105: Fuel cell technologies, prepares International Standards for fuel cell technologies which are increasingly deployed in the industrial and commercial EV sector.

A third solution is for trucks to pick up power from overhead wires using pantographs, similar to those used by trolley buses. These distribution systems are being tested in Europe and California to power electric trucks.

IEC TC 69: Electric road vehicles and electric industrial trucks, has developed the IEC 61851 series of International Standards to ensure that conductive charging systems are safe and reliable.

Wireless power transfer

Wireless power transfer (WPT) systems are an alternative way of charging EVs, either while they are stationary or in motion. WPT is based on high‑power inductive energy transfer. The transfer takes place between sending components that are buried beneath the road surface and receiving equipment that is installed beneath the vehicle. Although the technology is still evolving, it has been used for some years to power electric city buses in countries including Germany, Belgium, Sweden and South Korea. 

IEC TC 69 has a Working Group (WG), IEC TC 69/WG 7, which deals specifically with “Electric vehicle wireless power transfer (WPT) systems”.

IEC TC 69/WG 7 is working on IEC 61980, a three‑part series of International Standards that applies to equipment used in WPT “from the supply network to electric road vehicles”. This series also applies to WPT equipment supplied from on‑site storage systems (such as buffer batteries and so on).

ISO is also involved in the development of WPT through one of its TCs, which liaises with the corresponding IEC TC.

Lower running costs to boost sales

Analysts of the hybrid‑electric and all‑electric truck sectors differ significantly in their assessments of how the market will grow. Navigant Research forecast in 2017 that sales would grow by almost 25% annually, from 1% of the market in 2017 to 7% in 2027.  A report by McKinsey Energy Insights is more optimistic, predicting that by 2030 electric trucks could account for 15% of all global truck sales. Frost & Sullivan estimate that annual global sales of all types of hybrid and full electric trucks could total more than 2,5 million units by 2025, with China accounting for 60% of global sales.

Although the upfront costs of electric trucks are currently high, future advances in battery technology, fast‑charging options and charging infrastructure will reduce operational costs. With major van and truck manufacturers testing and launching an increasing range of new models powered by electric technology, this should promote their wider adoption.