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Commercial vehicles - road to zero emissions: part 1

4 min to readSustainability
Commercial vehicles are a vital part of the American economy. They transport goods and supplies to and from businesses and consumers, making it possible to live our lives the way we do.
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However, these trucks have a significant drawback - they rely on gasoline and diesel engines, which produce large amounts of carbon emissions. Not only that, but these engines are also noisy, which can be disruptive in neighborhoods and other areas where semi-trucks frequently travel.

The idea of an electric motor being able to power and haul an 80,000-pound Class 8 truck may seem far-fetched, but that's precisely what's being developed by companies like Tesla and Nikola Motors. In addition, many industry leaders (Freightliner, Peterbilt, Volvo, etc.) are working on their versions of electric trucks that make sense for the trucking and transportation industries. These technologies promise a more environmentally friendly, quieter, and cost option than traditional semi-trucks.

Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV)

A BEV truck, or battery electric vehicle, is a commercial truck that runs on electricity alone. Most of these trucks use massive battery banks that get charged by connecting to the electricity grid. BEV trucks have several advantages over traditional ICE trucks. First, they produce zero emissions – meaning they don't contribute to air pollution. Second, they're much quieter than ICE trucks, which can be a significant advantage in areas where noise pollution is a concern. Finally, compared to ICE trucks, the total cost of ownership has reached a tipping point thanks to technology, incentives, and hopes for future infrastructure improvements.

The main disadvantage of BEV trucks is their range, which can be a deal-breaker when looking at long-haul operations. Battery technology has come a long way in recent years, but it's still unable to match an ICE truck's range. Charging time is also a concern, as it can take several hours to charge a BEV truck's battery bank. However, when you look at last-mile delivery operations and other shorter routes, BEV trucks are a very viable option.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle (FCEV)

An electric motor powers a hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle, but unlike a BEV, it gets its power from a fuel cell rather than a battery. A fuel cell converts hydrogen gas into electricity, and the only by-product is water vapor. FCEVs have a few advantages over BEVs. First, they can be refueled much faster than BEVs – about the same as it takes to fill a typical gas tank. Second, they have a higher range than BEVs, making them more suitable for long-haul operations.

The main disadvantage of FCEVs is they lack the efficiency of BEVs. In other words, FCEVs use more power to travel the same distance as BEVs. This is due to the inefficiencies of converting hydrogen gas into electricity. Another concern is that there's currently a lack of infrastructure for hydrogen fuel cells. This limited infrastructure is a significant barrier to the widespread adoption of FCEV trucks, and tea leaves point to BEVs being the technology of choice in commercial applications.

In the end, it's up to each company to decide which technology is best for their operation. But with the advantages that both BEVs and FCEVs offer, it's only a matter of time before we see a major shift away from ICE trucks in the commercial trucking industry. And that shift is already happening, with major players like UPS and DHL investing in electric trucks. The road to zero emissions is well underway.

Truck classes

Trucks are classified according to their Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR), the vehicle's maximum operating weight/weight, and everything it's carrying. Most commercial vehicles are found in classes four through eight.

When you talk about passenger vehicles compared to vehicles designed for commercial use, the size of the battery stands out. Commercial vehicles haul heavier loads over greater distances, needing a bigger battery to power the electric motor. This has been a significant roadblock to viable electric trucks in the past, but with advances in battery technology, it's becoming less and less of an issue.

Size matters when it comes to the adoption of electric trucks. The speed of adoption has just as much to do with the battery size and capabilities as it does the use case for the different classes of trucks. We can expect to see the adoption roadmap start with smaller class trucks and work up to larger class vehicles.

Attributes
Class 4
Class 5
Class 6
Class 7
Class 8
GVWR
14,001 - 16,000 lbs.
16,001 - 19,500 lbs.
19,501 - 26,000 lbs.
26,000 - 33,000 lbs.
+33,000 lbs.
Axles
Dual
Dual
Dual
Three
Five
Typical use
Local and walk-in deliveries
Bucket trucks & commercial deliveries
Box trucks, dock height, local deliveries
Compact semis, deliveries
Long-haul deliveries
CDL requirement
No
No
Possibly
Yes
Yes

Conclusion

The race to electrify the commercial trucking industry has an element of JFK's 61 "man to the moon" speech. Triumphs will be scored, but the primary goal is to wean the US off its dependence on oil. This is a multi-decade undertaking that will have many challenges along the way. The first hurdle is evolving the trucking industry to take a chance on new technologies. But with the right policies in place and the continued support of prominent industry leaders, we are well on our way to a cleaner, quieter, and more sustainable future for commercial trucking.

Published at August 16, 2022
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August 16, 2022
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