How trucks are changing for the long haul

Two Steps Forward

How trucks are changing for the long haul

Truck image CC-licensed by Dylan Luder/Flickr

Forget the Volt, the Leaf, the Prius, even the Tesla. An entirely different transportation revolution is happening when it comes to big rigs.

In recent years, commercial truck fleets have begun changing course, steering toward next-gen technologies that embrace electric, hybrid-electric, and other fuels instead of petro-based diesel, and innovative drive-train technologies. It’s a development that’s born partly of concerns about carbon emissions and other pollutants, but increasingly about mitigating the risk that comes from volatile and unpredictable fuel prices.

Compared to the slick ad campaigns being run by Nissan, Toyota, Chevy, and other auto makers, the greening of trucks is decidedly non-sexy -- unless you're fleet manager. But commerical trucks are a key part of the energy mix: while they represent only about 5 percent of on-road vehicles in the United States, they account for about 20 percent of fuel consumption.

A major driver is the search for alternatives to diesel. “It used to be that diesel was the only option for a fleet manager,” says John Boesel, president and CEO of Calstart, a membership group dedicated to the growth of a clean transportation technologies. “As a result, fleet managers did not have a lot of motivation to understand how all of their vehicles were actually being used. Now there are different alternative fuels and different drive trains emerging.”

Boesel stopped by the GreenBiz office last week to talk about vehicles, VERGE, and his group’s upcoming conference on high-efficiency trucks. One of the interesting things about the September 18-20 event, the 12th annual HTUF Conference and Expo, isn’t just the display of big, shiny vehicles in the parking lot. It’s a user forum, focusing not just on who’s buying the trucks, but who’s driving them, and how.

Here’s a brief video of my conversation with Boesel, part of GreenBiz’s “Counter Culture” series.

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Today’s next-gen medium- and heavy-duty commercial vehicles fall into several categories, including hybrid-electrics, all-electrics, plug-in hybrids, and hydraulic hybrids. They range from delivery vans to utility “bucket trucks” commonly used by utility companies. The latest versions can travel to a work site on conventional fuel, then operate on battery power for several hours to operate lifts and tools, thereby eliminating idling emissions in local neighborhoods.

But it’s not just the vehicles themselves that’s changing. Today, says Boesel, truck fleet managers, aided by telematics and other technologies, are taking a deeper dive into how their vehicles are used — their routes, drivers' habits, traffic patterns, and so on — to maximize efficiency of both driver time and vehicle energy. Combine these practices with the growing offerings of advance-technology vehicles from both major manufacturers and start-ups, and you have the makings of a sharp left turn in transportation energy use.

“People are trying to figure out how can we use all of this IT information, but I think we’re still in an exploratory phase,” says Boesel. “We’re definitely seeing all of these commercial vehicles be much more connected. And it’s giving fleet managers tools that that they’re just starting to understand and appreciate.”

As I said, the shift to greener truck fleets is partially about driving down risk.

For large fleet owners, volatile fuel costs can roil the bottom line. UPS, for example, has for several years tried to manage its commodity price risk of fuels. The company buys complex derivatives to hedge future fuel price rises. It’s a tricky business, but it can provide some price assurance that allows UPS to make longer-term financial projections. (Airlines, even bigger fuel consumers than most truck fleets, have been doing this for years.)

Compare that strategy to one in which a company buys a fleet of electric trucks, then puts solar panels on its warehouses or distribution centers, storing solar energy during the day (perhaps in an array of repurposed used truck batteries), then using that stored power to recharge trucks at night. That scenario — using renewable energy to fuel electric vehicles — could allow a company to have complete control over a vehicle and its fuel.

“From a business perspective, that vision is starting to become very compelling to a lot of fleets,” says Boesel.

Just this month, Frito-Lay announced that it would have 105 all-electric delivery trucks operating in California by the end of the year, the largest such deployment in any state. By the end of 2012, the company said it will have more than 275 electric trucks on the road nationwide, making Frito-Lay the largest U.S. commercial fleet of all-electric trucks. Other companies rolling out fleets of electric or hybrid-electric delivery vans include AT&T, Coca-Cola, Duane Reade, Fedex, Staples, and UPS.

The Frito-Lay announcement points up one of the speed bumps on the road to alt-fueled commercial vehicles: To be affordable, they require government subsidies. An electric truck can cost upwards of $150,000, or about three times the typical $50,000 purchase price of its conventional equivalent, according to a recent study by MIT’s Center for Transportation and Logistics. Government subsidies can bring the price down to about $120,000. The payback for that $70,000 premium is about five years, MIT found, given electric vehicles’ lower per-mile operating costs.

California’s subsidies are the principal reason commercial fleet owners are going electric in that state. Other states, like New York, aren’t far behind. And last week, the U.K. government announced its own demonstration project to help fleet owners shift to low-carbon trucks. “I think we’re still at a point where public incentives are important,” says Boesel. “The business case doesn’t completely pencil out without some kind of incentive. Until we get some of the volumes up, I think public funding is going to be important.”

Of course, the public benefits of non-diesel trucks don’t show up in such accounting. Diesel-powered vehicles and equipment account for nearly half of all nitrogen oxides and more than two-thirds of all particulate matter emissions from U.S. transportation sources, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Researchers estimate that, nationwide, tens of thousands of people die prematurely each year as a result of particulate pollution,” the group says. “Diesel engines contribute to the problem by releasing particulates directly into the air and by emitting nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides, which transform into ‘secondary’ particulates in the atmosphere.”

Says Boesel, “In the long run, society will save money because we’re going to reduce our healthcare expenditures. I think it’s an appropriate role now, say through the end of this decade, for government agencies to provide some funding until the volumes get up. And then once the volumes get up, then we’ll see the prices drop, and I don’t think we’ll see the need for subsidy beyond that.”