The electric truck market is on the verge of becoming one of the fastest-growing EV markets. Much of the research and development being done for electric vehicles is happening in the commercial sector because, of all the automotive markets, the commercial market is the most likely to be willing to absorb high up-front costs in return for very low long-term costs.
For our purposes, we will split the electric truck market into three segments: light-duty, medium-duty, and heavy-duty. We’ll ignore the non-road commercial industry (mining and the like), though that sector is also at the forefront of EV adoption.
As it is, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) says that about half of the emissions from the transportation sector come from trucks, with light-duty trucks being just over half of that portion:
|Medium- & Heavy-duty trucks:||20%|
Pickup Trucks and Small Delivery Vans
Light-duty pickup trucks are the most popular automotive segment in the United States for both commercial and consumer purchase. The Ford F-150, for example, is the highest-selling vehicle in North America and pickups like it (Chevrolet Silverado, Ram 1500, etc.) are considered staples for the American car consumer.
In commercial use, pickup trucks are the go-to vehicle for a myriad of needs. Light-duty trucks are used to haul materials, tow small/light trailers, and are often customized for many other purposes as well. Many delivery vans and small box trucks are based on light-duty pickup truck chassis.
The greatest roadblock to the adoption of electrified powertrains for a light-duty pickup truck are two-fold: buyers in the consumer market are not generally accepting of new technologies, and; buyers in the commercial market often need more capability that affordably-priced electrics can offer.
Yet the nut may be cracking on the latter front. Past tests of consumer-ready hybrid-electric pickups have met with mournful results as prices and fuel economy payoffs were just not compatible. In commercial, however, a different story is beginning to emerge.
Commercial buyers often have known parameters such as range needs, power expectations (towing, hauling), and more ready access to infrastructure both at their home base and on the road. This makes a commercial buyer much less likely to consider a short operating range as a serious issue. On the flip side, electric trucks and vans have far fewer maintenance and much lower fuel costs, making up for their higher up-front cost.
Currently, in light-duty electric trucks and vans, there are a handful of players in the commercial sector. Most notable of those are Workhorse, which has a contract to produce 180,000 extended-range electric vans for the U.S. Postal Service. These are basically plug-in gasoline-electric vans based on a half-ton pickup truck chassis. The engine is tiny, a small two-cylinder unit that Workhorse is buying from BMW. The vans for the USPS are based on the Workhorse W-15 light-duty pickup, promised to come in 2018.
Another well-advertised player in the electrified commercial pickup sector is VIA Motors. This company’s primary draw is its outspoken and camera-loving leader, Bob Lutz. The Utah-based company converts Chevrolet Silverado pickups into range-extended electric plug-in trucks for commercial use. They have yet to secure any strong, long-term contracts for their trucks.
Taking a different approach, XL Hybrids has created and is offering a fleet-ready plug-in hybrid (PHEV) pickup truck kit. This module can be added to any major manufacturer’s half-ton pickup as a retrofit.
One more player in electric light-duty pickups could be Tesla Motors, which has floated the idea of a truck for some time. The company is not likely to have one on the road in the near future, however, as they have other planned products coming in the meantime.
Commercial delivery vans in the light-duty market are a ripe area for global electrified vehicle sales. Automakers are beginning to catch on to this, but some companies are not willing to wait for them to get around to it. Global delivery giant DHL couldn’t find what it wanted on the turn-key commercial sector, so it designed and is building its own electric delivery van using off-the-shelf parts from various suppliers.
Well-established sellers in the EV market took notice. Nissan, the current global leader in electric car sales with its LEAF, has a variant of the LEAF based on the company’s commercial van offering. The e-NV200 is a city van capable of hauling reasonable amounts of goods and packages. It sells globally.
Voltia is another electric van maker, based in Slovakia, offering a similar-sized Maxi van. Others in this market have come and gone, including the Ford Transit Connect which went kaput when its battery-electric conversion partner went bankrupt.
We are beginning to see more and more electrification ideas in the light-duty commercial pickup tuck and van markets, however, as vehicle manufacturers see demand increasing. Brands like Mercedes-Benz are floating concepts for the sector.
Medium-duty Electric Pickup Trucks and Vans
Players in this sector have come and gone with fully-electric and hybrid-electric options for commercial fleets. Notable among those who’ve come and departed are Boulder Electric Truck, which had a medium-duty electric van with a forward-looking aluminum space-frame and smartly customizable interior design. Another is Smith Electric, which built many EV delivery vans for various well-known companies such as UPS, FedEx, Lay’s, and others. Both of those companies eventually went bankrupt when government incentives for test purchase didn’t become incentives for fleet buying at scale.
New to the segment is a company called Wrightspeed, founded by one of the original guys behind Tesla Motors. This company builds electric medium-duty truck sleds (cabs, chassis, but no working body) with a plug-in hybrid-electric powertrain that utilizes a two-stage gas turbine as a range-extender. This truck has caught the attention of some buyers in the commercial sector and a partnership with Mack Trucks. The Wrightspeed design can be used in everything from delivery vans to garbage trucks to city buses. Wrightpseed has also signed deals with international companies like NZ Bus to convert diesel-powered vehicles to hybrid-electric using their technology.
Heavy-duty Electric Freight Trucks and Vans
Another sector with many players is the heavy-duty on-road truck and van market. Players in this segment have come and gone as they have in others. Once-promising Balqon, a battery-maker and electric HD truck and van builder, closed their doors quietly after several years of hopeful development. Smith Electric, mentioned before, was also in this segment, as was hydrogen fuel-cell truck maker Tyrano.
Meanwhile, new entries from energetic startups like Nikola have emerged. The company’s prototype was originally announced as a range-extended battery-electric heavy-duty truck and was later redesigned to be a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle instead. Nikola said that this was due to the costs involved and the growing HFCV infrastructure in places where the truck was most likely to be used. A working prototype of the Nikola big rig unveiled recently and a new partnership with Thompson Machinery was subsequently announced.
Other players already in the trucking game, like Walmart, Peterbilt, Freightliner, and others have announced and fielded hybrid-electric big rigs and trucks. Even Tesla Motors, always ready to rhetorically put its hat in the ring, has mentioned plans to build an electric big rig.
For the heavy-duty sector, though, on-road demands for trucks and vans in this market are very rigorous and the vehicles themselves, even as conventional diesel-powered units, are expensive. Fleet managers and buyers are slow to consider new, unproven technologies over other tried-and-true options.
rounding up the current state of commercial electrified vehicles, we can see that things are hopping in the light-duty market, growing slowly in the medium-duty segment, and slow but promising in the heavy-duty arena. We expect that it will be another decade before electrified commercial vehicles are measurably common in the U.S. But once they become accepted by the market at large, fleet buyers will be quick to adopt and the segment will grow very quickly.
Aaron is an automotive journalist living in Wyoming, USA. His background includes technology, mechanics, commercial vehicles, and new vehicle evaluations. Aaron is a member of several automotive media groups and writes for many well-known publications.