by Roger Bedell, Founder, Opbrid
Are we looking at vehicle electrification upside down? Why are we focusing on electrifying smaller vehicles like cars and delivery trucks when electrifying really big trucks makes the most economic sense?
Electricity is about ½ the cost of diesel or gasoline. This means the more fuel you burn, the more money you save. Heavy long-haul trucks are the kings of fuel consumption, so therefore they are the best target for electrification from an economic standpoint. A 40-ton long-haul truck driving at 60 mph (about 100 km/h) uses between 8 to 13 gallons of diesel per hour according to a detailed Swedish survey. This is 20 to 30USD per hour, or in the UK, 40 to 60 USD per hour! This makes fuel costs much higher than a driver’s salary on a per hour basis, and is the largest percentage cost item for trucking companies. If fuel costs can be cut in half by switching to electricity, electrification can be very interesting indeed for a truck operator.
For the past 8 years I’ve been heavily involved in the electrification of urban buses as founder of Opbrid, maker of the Bůsbaar fast charging stations. [Earlier post.] Originally, I thought that political pressure from the public concerned about global warming would drive politicians to choose electric buses even if the cost was higher. However, I’ve been wrong, with electric buses so far making very slow inroads into bus fleets.
During that time I’ve seen a host of presentations that purport to show that electric buses are “almost” equal to diesel buses considering Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). Even though the upfront cost of the bus is high, enough savings in fuel costs offset this by the end of the life of the bus, about 10 years.
So, I started thinking, if buses save money on fuel, what if you use even more fuel—like long haul trucks do? Then the savings should be even higher, potentially high enough to be economically attractive. If the economic benefits are high enough, then “the invisible hand of the market” should step in to cause electrification of trucks without any governmental or political intervention, and the environmental benefits simply come along for the ride.
So, the key is to look for situations where fuel usage is the highest—one of which is heavy trucks running at highway speeds for long distances.
Sure, they aren’t the easiest things to electrify, but they have the most potential profit possibilities for electrification. Several possibilities have been proposed for long-haul trucks, including the Siemens eHighway that has recently been in the news. [Earlier post.] These solutions generally involve huge infrastructure projects and the corresponding investment, which will take many years.
Fortunately, I recently found another possibility in an old business model: the Pony Express mail service from the 1860s’ Wild West. The riders of the Pony Express would ride their horse until it was exhausted, then switch to a fresh horse and continue on. This made it possible to take a letter from coast to coast in only 10 days—a miracle in those days. Applying this principle to electric long-haul trucks, the idea is to run an electric tractor trailer until the battery is exhausted (about 120 miles or 2 hours), then swap the tractor for a fresh, fully charged tractor and continue on. [Earlier post.]
|Coming and Going of the Pony Express, by Frederic Remington. Click to enlarge.|
Fortunately, the technology for this already exists. Battery trucks with 120-mile range exist—although are not yet very common. Automated charging stations like the Opbrid Trůkbaar are already proven. [Earlier post.] And a fast swap system for tractor trailers already exists, the Jost KKS system which allows the driver to connect and disconnect a trailer by simply pushing a button inside the cab. So, if electrifying long haul trucks is profitable, technologically easy to do, and environmentally beneficial, what’s the hold-up?
[Furrer + Frey, a provider of rail electrification and rapid charging systems for transport, and a long-time partner of Opbrid, has acquired Opbrid, and folded it into its operations. Furrer + Frey is now proposing such Pony Express-like tractor swapping for long-haul electrification.]