VERGE

Electric buses and trucks play a leading role at GCAS

Katie Fehrenbacher
A BYD electric bus parked outside of the CALSTART zero emissions fleet event in downtown San Francisco at GCAS this week.

Cities, state organizations, retailers, non-profits and philanthropists used the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco this week to pledge to buy, or to support the buying of, electric vehicles that will replace fleets of buses and trucks that run on diesel fuel. 

Commercial and industrial vehicle fleets burn large volumes of diesel and are responsible for emitting considerable greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Replacing diesel engines with those powered by batteries can reduce emissions and air pollution and for certain use cases — such as package delivery and city transit — save money on fuel and operating costs.

Some use cases for electric vehicle fleets are already pretty well established. For example, 300,000 electric transit buses already are operating in China. But other markets, such as technologies for transforming long-haul trucking, are nascent and just emerging.

The non-profit CALSTART announced a new program Tuesday that will focus on helping eight types of medium and heavy-duty electric vehicles become commercially successful by 2025. The longer-term goal is to have zero-emission technology dominate new sales in the eight fleet areas by 2040.

The eight sectors include transit buses, shuttle buses, package and delivery trucks, urban "box" trucks, yard tractors, port handling equipment and regional Class 7/8 drayage (cargo) trucks. CALSTART Executive Vice President Bill Van Amburg described the strategy as "the beachhead" approach, and California's Air Resouces Board said it supports the framework.

CALSTART wasn't the only group focused on the opportunity to reduce emissions from city and commercial vehicle fleets. Another non-profit group, The Electrification Coalition, worked with a group of mayors to create the Climate Mayors Electric Vehicle Purchasing Collaborative, which will help cities get access to competitively bid EVs and charging infrastructure.

Nineteen cities and two counties used the new collaborative to commit to buying 376 electric vehicles, representing more than $11 million in total electric vehicle purchasing. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti made that announcement Tuesday in Los Angeles.

A UPS electric package deliver van
A UPS electric package deliver van

And on Thursday, the Climate Group and C40 Cities launched "The ZEV Challenge," which is bringing together 26 states, cities, regions and businesses to commitment to reach 100 percent zero emission vehicle targets. States, cities and companies that signed onto the ZEV Challenge include: California; New York City; Paris; Los Angeles; London; Milan; Rome; Copenhagen; Pittsburgh; Mexico City; EDF Energy; LeasePlan; and Unilever.

During the official GCAS program on Thursday, IKEA's CEO and President Jesper Brodin announced that IKEA plans to have 100% electric vehicles for last mile delivery in five mega-cities — Paris, Los Angeles, Shanghai, Amsterdam, and New York by 2020.

Transportation is, unfortunately, a growing area of GHG emissions even among environmentally minded states, countries and cities. Passenger vehicles are so far electrifying pretty slowly, but because large groups of commercial and municipal fleets can be replaced at once, fleets could electrify much more quickly than personal vehicles. 

At CALSTART's zero-emissions fleet workshop Tuesday, Anand Gopal, program officer for transport from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, said: "Transport hasn’t been an exciting success story, even here in California." (The foundation funds CALSTART'S work). 

The foundation is evaluating how it can prioritize grants meant to help commercial and city fleets electrify over grants for passenger vehicles, Gopal said. Heavy duty over the road transportation is already responsible for more than 25 percent of emissions in the United States and Europe, he said. 

Despite the excitement around commercial and city EV fleets, there are still some major challenges for the companies buying and manufacturing the electric fleets. 

"We’re going a fast as we can," said Dawn Fenton, director of sustainability and public affairs at Volvo Group. "We want to get there as much as anybody. We want to be leaders in this market. There are other forces out there limiting this."

Those forces include technology development, cost concerns and policy and infrastructure issues, Fenton said.

Fleet managers at big retailers are facing similar concerns. Mike O'Connell, vice president of supply chain, fleet and sustainability at PepsiCo, said that "it's easy to test out and pilot zero emission fleets but large purchase orders are difficult." The company has 125,000 vehicles, representing all types of drive cycles and classes, in its fleet, he said.

Other fleet managers were willing to express more aggressive sentiments on electrifying their fleets. "We know we have to do it, and we're committed," said Angela Hultberg, head of sustainable mobility, services business at IKEA. The retailer has a goal of having 100 percent electric vehicles for last-mile deliveries by 2025.

We're organizing an invite-only Fleet Electrification Summit at our VERGE event in Oakland in October, and if you think you should be part of that conversation, send us a note. We're also putting together a webcast drilling into fleet electrification Sept. 25 with UPS, BSR and the North American Council for Freight Efficiency. Join us.