Electric Vehicles

The State of All-Electric Trucks in the U.S. Medium-Duty Market

January 2014, Green Fleet Magazine - Feature

by Sean Lyden - Also by this author

Staples currently utilizes 53 Smith Newton battery-power
electric trucks in or near eight cities across the U.S. on routes that include frequent stops and limited miles.
Staples currently utilizes 53 Smith Newton battery-powerelectric trucks in or near eight cities across the U.S. on routes that include frequent stops and limited miles.

The promise of all-electric medium-duty (Class 3-7) trucks is compelling. Fleets can eliminate fossil fuel use (and cost), achieve zero direct emissions, and reap the PR benefits that come with touting their commitment to sustainability. But, can medium-duty electric vehicles (EVs) or E-Trucks become a practical reality any time soon?

High profile fleets, such as Frito-Lay, Staples, and Coca-Cola, have all made big investments in E-Trucks that can haul as much as 16,000 pounds, with a range up to 100 miles on a single charge.

According to Lisa Jerram, senior research analyst with Navigant Research, there are roughly 1,000 all-electric medium-duty trucks on U.S. roads today, with sales in this segment projected to reach 2,500 to 3,500 units per year by 2020, comprising 1 to 3 percent of the overall U.S. medium-duty truck market.

The ZeroTruck is an all-electric zero emissions medium-duty truck based on the Isuzu N series chassis, featuring a low cab-forward design and range up to 100 miles.
The ZeroTruck is an all-electric zero emissions medium-duty truck based on the Isuzu N series chassis, featuring a low cab-forward design and range up to 100 miles.

While that’s only a tiny sliver of the total medium-duty market, these numbers still represent a steep growth curve through 2020. And, among medium-duty trucks used for under 100-mile daily applications, E-Trucks are expected to comprise 25 percent of that market in five years, predicted Tedd Abramson, founder and chief marketing officer for ZeroTruck, a manufacturer of all-electric medium-duty trucks from 12,000- to 19,500-pounds GVWR.

Working in the E-Truck Sweet Spot

What characteristics mark the ideal application for today’s medium-duty E-Trucks?

Jerram said that duty cycles that present the greatest opportunity for E-Truck growth are urban delivery or other uses that fit these parameters:

  • Return-to-base operation, where the vehicle returns at end of shift for overnight charging.
  • Fixed route, within 40 to 80 miles round trip.
  • A lot of stop-and-start driving to allow for regenerative braking.
  • Diminishing load, where the truck gets lighter after each delivery, helping extend vehicle range.
  • Lower-speed operation (usually below 60 mph) to preserve battery power.

Under these conditions, an EV actually offers a lower total cost of ownership (TCO) than a comparably equipped diesel truck, according to a recent study by the Georgia Institute of Technology. The study entitled “Electric Urban Delivery Trucks: Energy Use, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, and Cost Effectiveness” found that, in urban delivery routes with a lot of stop-and-start driving, EVs are roughly 50-percent more efficient to operate than diesel trucks overall, making them at least 20-percent less expensive in TCO. (Editor’s Note: See the November/December issue of Green Fleet for an in-depth overview of the study’s results.)

“For urban routes with lots of stop-and-go driving, electric trucks can be cheaper overall than diesel trucks,” said Marilyn Brown, a co-author of the study and a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy. “Generally, the environmental and cost benefits work together. In urban driving, electric vehicles are markedly more efficient than diesel; this results in less energy use, less greenhouse gas emissions and lower costs on urban routes.”

Making the Business Case

How can E-Trucks offer lower TCO than conventional vehicles, considering the initial investment can be as high as $80,000-$100,000 or more?

And, while there are federal and state government incentives that help narrow the price gap — New York State, for example, is offering vouchers on eligible Class 3-8 E-Trucks covering up to 80 percent of the incremental cost or a maximum of $60,000 per vehicle — there’s still a long way to go to achieve payback.

According to the August 2013 report, “Battery Electric Parcel Delivery Truck Testing and Demonstration” by the California Hybrid, Efficient and Advanced Truck Research Center (CalHEAT), the business case hinges on minimum daily miles.

Three different scenarios were analyzed: a Class 4-5 parcel delivery E-Truck driving 25, 50, and 75 miles per day, five days a week, and 50 weeks a year, replacing an equivalent conventional diesel truck.

The report said that the 75-miles-per-day application offered the most compelling business case, with the higher up-front cost repaid in about five years from fuel and maintenance cost savings. But, as the vehicle is driven fewer miles per day, the business case worsens. At an average of 25 miles driven per day, for example, the payback would take longer than the 10-year vehicle lifetime.

The quantity of stops is also essential for E-Trucks to be viable because fewer stops means shorter available range due to insufficient opportunities for regenerative braking, the report said.

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