DOE commits $100M in grants to put electric trucks on the road

The SuperTruck program funds research and development, and road tests are planned for this fall. But more real-world proof — and much more charging infrastructure — is needed.

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In addition to cutting carbon and pollution emissions, electric trucks are cheaper over their lifetimes than their diesel-fueled counterparts — on paper, at least.

But that’s not much comfort to fleet operators or independent truckers worried about the performance of battery-powered trucks and how much it will cost to maintain them.

And then, of course, there’s the problem of finding the charging stations to power them back up on their routes.

These challenges are now on the to-do list of the U.S. Department of Energy and its SuperTruck program. On Thursday, DOE Secretary Jennifer Granholm unveiled a $100 million funding opportunity, dubbed SuperTruck 3, to enlist truck makers, battery and drivetrain manufacturers, and a supporting cast of technology developers in putting electric and fuel-cell-powered vehicles to real-world tests over the next four years.

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Since 2009, DOE’s SuperTruck 1 and 2 programs have directed hundreds of millions of dollars to technologies to improve the efficiency of heavy-duty trucks. This research and development investment has led to real-world advances in tractor-trailer design, from the aerodynamic skirts and flaps now visible on trucks on the highway to under-the-hood and in-the-cab technologies that improve engine and driver efficiency.

SuperTruck 3 will push the envelope even further, through the electrification of the vehicle, and hydrogen and fuel cells — and not just for semis,” Granholm said at a virtual event. We want the garbage trucks in your cities, we want the delivery trucks being used to drop packages to your home, we want the tow trucks that we call in an emergency [to be electrified].”

The funding opportunity announcement is open to all-electric, hydrogen and fuel cell technologies, and plug-in hybrid systems using renewable biofuels. But according to Mike Roeth, executive director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency, battery-powered trucks are absolutely” the most promising technology path forward.

Electric trucks are an elegantly simple” engineering solution to reducing emissions compared to the complexity of doing the same with diesel fueled or hybrid systems, he said. And the rapidly falling cost and improved efficiency of battery technology is putting their cost and utility closer and closer to diesel trucks, he said.

However far that battery will take that truck — literally in range and figuratively in total cost of ownership — will determine the other technologies we might need,” he said.

From early electric truck models to widespread adoption

Medium-duty trucks that run predictable routes with established ranges will be the first candidates for electrification. Manufacturers including Kenworth, Navistar, Daimler and Cummins/​Peterbilt have delivered models for pilot testing. In November, startup Motiv Power Systems, which makes electric drivetrains and battery-integrated chassis for medium-duty vans and trucks, announced a deal to deploy 123 trucks for Bimbo Bakeries in California, New York and Pennsylvania.

Heavy-duty trucks have more hurdles to overcome, given their range challenges and the lack of heavy-duty charging networks to support them. But several major truck manufacturers are road-testing them today and have plans to bring them to market in the coming years. In the past week, Daimler Trucks North America began taking orders for its Freightliner eCascadia semitrucks for 2022 delivery, and Volvo North America landed an order for 14 of its electric Class 8 trucks, its first double-digit delivery. 

But roadworthy trucks are only the first step for fleet owners or independent operators looking to make the switch to electric, Roeth said in a Wednesday interview.

The North American Council for Freight Efficiency has been the testing and validation partner for previous SuperTruck programs, in partnership with the nonprofit research group RMI. In 2017 and 2019, NACFE put on Run on Less” demonstrations of trucks using the technologies developed through those programs, tracking their performance on more than 100,000 miles of driving.

Its next road test scheduled for September, called Run on Less – Electric, will feature 13 vehicle models ranging from delivery vans to terminal tractors. Beyond testing performance and range under different loading, weather and traffic conditions, the upcoming road tests will also feature the new variable of charging time.

Different types of trucks have very different charging needs, Roeth pointed out. Delivery vans and trucks can return to depots for overnight charging that can be modulated to avoid overtaxing power grid interconnections. Terminal tractors and big rigs, by contrast, will need high-voltage, direct-current charging at megawatt scales, capable of recharging massive batteries quickly enough to meet tight schedules.

An international consortium dubbed CharIN is working on charging systems capable of injecting 500 kilowatts into a semitruck battery in just 30 minutes, but much testing remains to ensure this can be done safely by truckers driving a variety of models on the road, Roeth said.

Truckers await more proof — and more chargers

But, Roeth added, charging speed won’t be as big an issue, as we scale, as getting enough chargers in place and having a resilient utility grid,” he said. We’ve got good enough batteries, good enough trucks, to build trucks with a reasonable cost of ownership right now.” But calculations that leave out the uncertainties of maintaining and refueling electric trucks won’t capture the full ownership costs facing truck owners.

Joel Morrow, a test driver during previous Run on Less events, spoke at Thursday’s DOE event about the concerns of a typical midsized trucking company like his employer, Ohio-based Ploger Transportation.

We’re bringing these high-risk, high-reward technologies into the marketplace,” he said in a Zoom call from the cab of his truck parked in eastern Iowa. Extensive testing is critical so that we’ve got some confidence that they’re ready for the real world.”

And until charging networks are built out, our hands are basically tied due to the lack of infrastructure to support heavy-duty electric vehicles.”

The North American Council for Freight Efficiency’s regional analysis indicates that California, the nationwide leader in EV infrastructure investment, is leading in medium-duty electric truck deployment as well. Other regions with high truck electrification potential include Texas, New York and Pennsylvania, as well as Oregon and Washington state.

Kelly Speakes-Backman, DOE principal deputy assistant secretary, agreed at Thursday’s event that we need to make sure we’re deploying the needed infrastructure all over the country.” As part of its plan to direct $174 billion toward electric vehicles, the Biden administration has set a goal to deploy 500,000 EV chargers nationwide by 2030, she said.

A new study from UC Berkeley, Energy Innovations and GridLab indicates the country may need nearly three times that amount to support widespread vehicle electrification, however, including 400,000 charging points for heavy-duty electric trucks.

Part of DOE’s electric trucks strategy includes analyzing how shorter-range vehicles could pick up a larger share of last-mile deliveries to take advantage of their easier path to electrification. Roeth said. But an industry that moves more than $10 trillion in freight every year, as Granholm noted at Thursday’s event, will not make the switch to an unproven technology lightly.

These fleets have to get us our food; they have to get us our clothing,” Roeth said. That’s where the rubber hits the road.”

(Article image courtesy of Daimler Trucks North America) 

Jeff St. John is the editor-in-chief of Canary Media. He covers the technology, economic and regulatory issues influencing the global transition to low-carbon energy. He served as managing editor and senior grid edge editor of Greentech Media.