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Truckers take cautious approach to all-electric vehicles

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Truckers take cautious approach to all-electric vehicles

All-electric trucks have the potential to save money for fleet operators, particularly if maintenance costs prove to be lower than diesel, but there are still some significant barriers to their adoption, according to trucking industry veterans.

Tesla's Elon Musk unveiled an all-electric Class 8 vehicle, the heaviest weight classification for trucks, on Thursday. The Tesla Semi has a range of about 800 kilometres at maximum weight at highway speed, Musk said.

He promises to build a system of solar-powered megachargers that will recharge a truck in 30 minutes to give an additional 640 kilometres of range. The trucks would thus be low-emission. 

Canadian grocer Loblaw, retailer Walmart and trucking giant J.B. Hunt have already bought into the idea, ordering vehicles (which will be ready by 2019) to test in their fleets.

In Canada, the trucking industry is cautious about electric vehicles — not just Tesla's entry but also its potential competitors — but it may be ready for change, if the price is right.

"Technology is coming new and new every day," says independent driver Muhammad Abbas. "We need to co-ordinate with the new things — we can't say no to that."

But he thinks it will be a few years before this technology is widely adopted — an electric truck's range is not what can be achieved with diesel, which can go 1,600 kilometres on a full tank. Also, drivers are monitored with electronic logs, so they cannot afford to take a long time recharging, he said.

Charlie Harrison, a driver with a Mississauga, Ont., company, says electric trucks might be better for work that involves  shorter distances.

"I can see it for cities, but I don't see it for highway because our highway drivers — you can go from here to California, and I don't know how that would work for them. You would have to recharge on the way down, and I am not sure how fast you can recharge," he told CBC News.

Harrison said his own route in Toronto and Mississauga is about 160 kilometres a day.

Range will be a key question for long-haul trucking, as will availability of recharging stations that can power up in a short time.

'Range anxiety'

"There's always that question of range anxiety: Are they going to be able to travel far enough? Are they going to be light enough and be able to carry an efficient amount of cargo and, ultimately, the cost too?" says John Smith, editor of Today's Trucking Magazine, who watched the launch in California.

Smith said it "bodes well" that Musk says his trucks will be about 20 per cent cheaper than their diesel counterparts, when all costs are considered. 

Tesla has not released the sticker price of the Semi but says it will be cheaper to operate because of:

- Lower fuel costs.

- Cheaper maintenance and longer truck life.

- A transmission with no shifting and regenerative braking, which means lower brake costs.

Smith believes trucking companies that deliver within cities will be the earliest adopters of electric trucks, especially short-haul delivery trucks.

"You're going to have different cities around the world that have said they're looking for zero-emission vehicles," he said. 

"But diesel still offers plenty of advantages and it's a very effective technology. It's enhanced an awful lot. I think we are going to see diesel as a predominant power source for many, many years to come, but we are going to see more electrified trucks too."

In Canada, the truck fleet is made up of 700,000 light- and heavy-duty vehicles, according to Statistics Canada figures from 2015, and it will take time for that fleet to turn over.

Lots of competition in electric trucks

A Class 8 truck like Tesla's Semi typically has five axles and 18 wheels, but electric technology is also being developed for lighter classes of trucks.

Tesla was grabbing attention this week, but it is a relative newcomer to the electric truck market. Fuel cell startup company Nikola is working with Bosch to develop both electric power and hydrogen fuel cell semi trucks. Germany's Daimler is a partner in Mitsubishi FUSO Truck and Bus Corp., which plans to create smaller trucks and delivery vehicles. Volkswagen has a project to create next-gen trucking technologies like electric vehicle drivetrains, and Cummins, known for its big-rig diesel rigs, is developing a plug-in hybrid powertrain, working with Quebec's TM4 Inc.

In addition to cost, the trucking industry will be looking at how much the trucks can carry and how heavy their battery load is, considering the huge batteries required to power the vehicle.

The battery technology for heavy-duty vehicles has been well tested, says Josipa Petrunic, CEO of the Canadian Urban Transit Research & Innovation Consortium.

"We are well into a few years of electric transit buses, which are also heavy-duty vehicles, which under the hood use a lot of the same technologies that Tesla will probably be using on its trucks," Petrunic said.

Reliability will also be an issue. It will be some years before electric trucks prove themselves.

Reliability and battery life

"Ultimately the durability is a big question, and finally the life of the battery. That's one thing a lot of companies aren't looking at, so when you talk about a six- to seven-year battery life, that is still far short of the typical life of a tractor-trailer," she said.

A long-haul truck operator will have an eye on the potential resale value of the vehicle, "but what's that truck worth once the battery itself is dead and needs to be replaced?" she said.

Part of the attraction of electric buses is comfort for the driver — the vehicle is quiet and less strenuous to operate.

Tesla has designed its cab for comfort, with a centre seat flanked by two touch screens and good visibility.

"Certainly in the transit world one of the pushes is the better drive for drivers. It's a cleaner, nicer drive, less arduous," Petrunic said.

"But if you are in the trucking world, it's all about dollars and cents, so what's going to push you there is that it's cheap.

"Who is going to be the early adopter? It's going to be a fleet that has the money and is led by a champion that wants to be out in front even if the return on investment is not obvious."