Electrification and automation will transform the future of trucking

By the mid-2030s, tech changes could bring greater change to trucking than the light duty vehicle sector, writes Sam Abuelsamid

Over the past century, trucking has become an integral part of the global economy. Everywhere you go, trucks of all sizes are transporting materials and products between sources, factories, warehouses, retailers and end customers. That trend has only accelerated in the past two decades with the seemingly inexorable growth of e-commerce bringing deliveries of everything from furniture to ear buds directly to customers’ doorsteps. As we prepare to enter the next decade, the technology behind those trucks is on the verge of a major upheaval with the growth of electrification and automation.

Trucks run the gamut in size from small vans like the Ford Transit Connect and Fiat Doblo to long-haul tractor trailers that cross continents. They also come in a range of form factors like those aforementioned boxes on wheels to pickup trucks and cutaway chassis cabs. There are also specialised variants for applications like refuse pickup, utility work and other jobs.

Most of these have gone through various forms of incremental change over the decades but remain conceptually similar to what we started with. That part is likely to stay fairly consistent because they are primarily designed for utility rather than aesthetics.

The combination of electrification and automation is expected to substantially transform all aspects of the commercial vehicle fleet and its operations by the mid-2030s—to perhaps an even greater extent than light duty vehicles

What will probably change is the mechanisms by which these machines move. Today’s trucks are almost exclusively powered by internal combustion engines driving two or more wheels through a transmission. They are fuelled predominantly by gasoline or diesel with the latter dominating in the larger vehicles and those that run long distances. Compressed natural gas is also an increasingly popular option for many of the larger vehicles that run in geographically limited applications.

Moving towards the plug

However, as major urban areas around the world continue to grapple with the challenges of air quality and climate change, there is increasing pressure on manufacturers to move away from internal combustion. While a number of manufacturers tried to break into the market with battery electric vehicles in the last decade, few moved beyond pilot programs with rarely more than a few hundred examples deployed and often far fewer.

The batteries required to move big, heavy vehicles were themselves bulky and expensive and offered limited range. The mass of batteries also posed a problem by eating into the available payload capacity, thus reducing operational efficiency.

Annual sales of electric medium and heavy duty vehicles by scenario 2018-2030

As battery costs have declined in recent years and energy density has crept up, the appeal of electric trucks is increasing. Besides efficiency, one of the reasons that diesel has been appealing in large vehicles is the strong low-end torque. If anything, electric motors exceed the torque characteristics of diesel and do it without the noise and emissions issues inherent to compression ignition engines.

The number of companies offering electrified trucking options is growing rapidly, especially among larger vehicles. While Tesla enjoyed enormous media coverage for the late-2017 introduction of its Semi, to date it’s not clear that anything more than the original two examples really exist. Those trucks do pop up on the road from time to time doing tests or demonstrations, but it seems unlikely they will meet their 2020 production timeline.

While Tesla gets the news, traditional players in the truck market have not been sitting on their hands. Daimler Trucks, Volvo Group, Navistar and Volkswagen’s Traton SE have all announced and in some cases even delivered electric trucks ranging up to Class 8 tractor trailers. Diesel engine manufacturer Cummins has also developed an electric powertrain. Navigant Research projects that by 2030, annual sales of electric medium and heavy-duty trucks and buses will grow by over 9% annually to about 514,000.

As major urban areas around the world continue to grapple with the challenges of air quality and climate change, there is increasing pressure on manufacturers to move away from internal combustion

While progress has been made, range and charging time still pose challenges for battery powered trucks. At the Tesla Semi announcement, Chief Executive Elon Musk promised a Megacharger system that would provide an 80% charge in 30 minutes. For the 1 MWh battery that is estimated to be needed to achieve 500-mile range, that would work out to 1.6 MW charging rate, something no one has yet managed.

Instead, battery electric vehicles seem more likely to be utilised for more local applications for Class 4-8 trucks (14,000 lbs and up) where the trucks return to base on a daily basis. These vehicles typically operate less than 200 miles per day and could get by with considerably smaller batteries and lower charging rates. Depots could be equipped with both conductive and wireless charging systems.

Wireless charging holds great potential for trucking applications with manufacturers now demonstrating up to 200 kW charge rates. This could be especially useful for applications such as transit buses that run on the same routes every day, enabling charging pads to be deployed at busy stops where the bus is stationary for several minutes at a time. This would allow the use of smaller, lighter, less costly batteries that are charged repeatedly throughout the day.

Annual sales of commercial vehicles with L4+ automation

Batteries are not the only route to electrification. Fuel cells also hold tremendous promise. Toyota has been testing a fuel cell powered Class 8 tractor at the port of Long Beach since 2017. In April of this year, Toyota and Kenworth announced the development of a second-generation tractor with ten units to be deployed from the port of Los Angeles. These local operation trucks reduce emissions from ports which are among the worst polluters in the region thanks to the container ships berthed there. Since they return to base daily, fuelling infrastructure needs are more limited than they are for general purpose consumer vehicles.

However, potential applications extend beyond local operations. Nikola Motors is developing long-haul trucks powered by hydrogen fuel cells in partnership with Bosch. Nikola is also partnering with Norway’s NEL ASA to build out a network of hydrogen fuelling stations along major trucking routes and near the facilities of major customers.

As the world’s largest market for cars and trucks, China obviously has a huge influence on technology adoption, and it has recently made a major pivot from batteries to fuel cells. Subsidies for battery electric vehicles have been cut in favour of fuel cells and a broad network of fuelling infrastructure is being built.

More than propulsion

Aside from fuel, one of the biggest costs in the trucking business is drivers—another area that faces substantial change in the coming decade. With a projected shortage of more than 200,000 drivers over the coming decade and restrictions on the number of daily driving hours, trucking is a major focus of automated driving developers. Most of the major truck makers are actively involved in developing automation.

Aside from fuel, one of the biggest costs in the trucking business is drivers—another area that faces substantial change in the coming decade

Daimler Trucks recently added Torc Robotics to its portfolio while Volvo Group is working with chipmaker Nvidia. Alphabet unit Waymo—widely considered to be the leader in automated driving systems—is working on heavy trucks as well as light duty vehicles for ride hailing. Start-up TuSimple, which recently secured investment from UPS, ran a pilot test for the US Postal Service and is currently delivering cargo for UPS between Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona.

Light duty trucks are also expected to get a major infusion of automation as well as blending with small robots and drones to aid in last mile and last 100 ft deliveries. Amazon is expected to be a major player in this space thanks to its investments in companies like Aurora Innovation and Rivian. Navigant Research forecasts that sales of commercial vehicles with highly automated driving capability could grow at 78% CAGR to more than 1.9 million globally by 2035.

The combination of electrification and automation is expected to substantially transform all aspects of the commercial vehicle fleet and its operations by the mid-2030s—to perhaps an even greater extent than light duty vehicles.


About the author: Sam Abuelsamid is Principal Analyst at Navigant Research

This article is part of Automotive World’s special report, ‘What is the future of trucking?’ which is available now to download

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