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Mobility Truck drivers don’t think EVs are up to heavy hauling

Ory Parks of Odessa, Sask., has put 1.6 million kilometres on his heavy duty 2006 Kenworth W900. He has not intention of replacing it with an EV.

Doug Firby/The Globe and Mail

Ory Parks has travelled the continent, driving heavy trucks for 47 years. The resident of Odessa, Sask., has put 1.7 million kilometres on his latest truck – a diesel-powered 2006 Kenworth W900 – hauling loads of up to 18,000 kilograms mostly across the Prairie provinces of Canada. And there is one thing he knows for certain.

He will never buy an EV truck.

“I can’t see it being any good,” he said, wagging his head under a black Lipsett Cartage ball cap. “I don’t see how they can haul the load. Forty thousand pounds – that takes a lot of power.”

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Other truckers taking a break at the Flying J truck stop in Calgary echoed Parks’s skepticism.

“Not a chance,” said an Ontario driver who doesn’t want to give his name. Gesturing to a dozen trucks lined in the parking lot, he added, “As long as there’s fossil fuels, you’re not going to get rid of these trucks.”

Drivers say they don’t believe electric vehicles (EVs) can produce the sustained power needed to haul big loads long distances. And worse, Parks says, when you need to refill the batteries, “It would take you half a day to recharge it.”

These skeptical commercial drivers represent the yawning gap between the ambitious promises of the EV-truck industry and consumer perceptions.

Manufacturers are rushing head-long into the production of ZEV (zero-emission vehicle) trucks. Ford has invested US$500-million in startup Rivian, which plans to produce an EV pickup by the end of 2021. General Motors said in a statement, “We intend to create an all-electric future that includes a complete range of EVs, including full-size pickups.”

And Roger Nielsen, leader of Daimler Trucks North America, told the Advance Clean Transportation Expo in April that the future of commercial vehicles is battery-electric. Daimler is converting its Portland, Ore., plant to produce electric Freightliner truck-tractors and has committed to putting 50 battery-electric test trucks on the road by the end of this year.

Havelaar Bison, of Toronto, and Tesla have also announced plans to produce EV trucks in the near future. Workhorse, of Loveland, Ohio, is ready to launch a plug-in hybrid. And upstarts Bollinger Motors and Via Motors are also proposing EV trucks.

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Yet, consumers remain wary about the cost and practicality of electric-only vehicles.

Chief among them is so-called range anxiety and the still-slim infrastructure across Canada. There are 11,948 retail gas stations in Canada, according to the Canadian Fuels Association, yet just 5,851 charging stations – and many of those are “clustered” in large urban centres. Remote areas, where drivers can find their trucks out of charge, are underequipped.

Charging infrastructure is “one of the largest unknowns and sources of anxiety for fleets considering near-term adoption of this technology,” according to a May, 2019, report the North American Council on Freight Efficiency.

Battery technology, too, still has a way to go before long-distance heavy hauling is reliable, affordable but – perhaps most importantly – light enough. A 2017 study by Carnegie Mellon University found that a battery powerful enough to drive a Class 8 semi-truck (i.e. a truck capable of hauling 18,000 kilograms, or 40 tons) over a distance of 1,000 kilometres would require a battery that weighs more than the cargo. That puts these vehicles at a distinct disadvantage compared with internal combustion engines (ICE), and it will likely remain that way for years, auto analyst Dennis DesRosiers said.

The weight problem is one of the key factors that persuaded Toyota to develop hydrogen fuel-cell technology, rather than batteries, when it partnered with Kenworth and Shell for a pilot heavy-hauling truck project in the Port of Los Angeles, said Craig Scott, national manager of Toyota’s Advanced Technologies Group.

“There’s no way to accommodate the customers’ needs with the mass of batteries that’s required" for heavy loads, Scott said. “The laws of physics are still the laws of physics.”

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Asked about Tesla and other promised heavy-hauling EV trucks, Scott said, “I’m super-excited to see it. … I don’t see how batteries can work when you’re hauling 40 tons.”

DesRosiers agrees that even EV trucks, including pickups, are limited by the battery weight problem.

“Commercial-use pickups need pulling power and torque,” he said. “And the current batteries don’t cut it.

“Simply put, ICE vehicles [internal combustion] are a far superior product than most BEV [battery electric] vehicles and will be for quite some time.”

Any EV requires consumers to compromise – on passenger or cargo capacity, driving range and to pay higher prices up front, he said.

“Most batteries [in EVs] are the size of a small mattress,” DesRosiers said. That leaves less space for people and cargo.

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The challenges EV trucks must overcome are numerous:

Range: A Class 8 heavy-hauling truck typically holds up to 700 litres of diesel fuel, which gives it a range of 1,400 kilometres at a typical mileage of 56 l/100 km. EVs are expected to be capable of only a fraction of that range.

Electrical infrastructure and taxation: Will government or private enterprise build a complete network of charging stations? And what happens to the road tax levied on fuel, but not on electricity?

Charging time: So-called quick charging stations require three-phase 550V power, which is not widely available. Some manufacturers are considering battery “swapping” to speed up the process.

Delays at public charging stations: With lengthy charging times, lineups at stations may be inevitable.

Capital cost: EV trucks are expected to cost more initially, and the cost of repair and maintenance is not well understood.

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DesRosiers notes that while EVs face these challenges, internal combustion vehicles are steadily improving in fuel economy and emissions reductions. “Why take the risk of buying a hybrid and/or an electric vehicle when your standard everyday ICE vehicle has improved in fuel efficiency so much?” he said.

He noted that sales of hybrid vehicles have “flat-lined,” and 96 per cent of vehicles on Canadian roads still have traditional gasoline powered engines. The 40,000 zero emission EVs in Canada represent just 0.1 per cent of the total vehicles on the road.

DesRosiers said there are more effective ways to reduce emissions than EVs. As vehicles have become more efficient, 10 million more cars have been added to Canada’s roads. Ironically, however, buyers have opted for bigger vehicles, cancelling out any efficiency gains.

Will EV trucks ever make sense in the Prairies – or for that matter in places such as Thunder Bay and Sudbury? Toyota, for one, is betting hydrogen-cell vehicles provide a more cost-effective and reliable way to zero emissions.

“The issues that remain to be solved [in hydrogen-electric] are just normal engineering challenges,” Toyota’s Scott said. “We don’t have to figure out the basic chemistry.

“If you’re hauling around anything with a lot of weight, then batteries are pretty limited.”

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